Sexual Assault Affects the Female Brain

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), abuse against women, both emotional and physical, creates a huge public health problem that negatively affects a woman’s physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health. Data states that one in every three women (30%) of women between 15-49 has suffered from sexual or physical violence in their lifetime, an alarmingly high percentage. Teenage girls are at a higher risk of suffering this type of violence. In fact, it it calculated that one in four college aged girls will suffer some kind of abuse during their time at university. These attacks cause increased suicide, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, depression, post-traumatic stress (PTSD), insomnia, eating problems, pain, gastrointestinal problems, and other issues. However, even with all of the psychological and physical problems that these women face, we still don’t know if sexual assault affects the female brain, what it does, and to what extent.

How Sexual Aggression Affects The Female Brain
How Sexual Aggression Affects The Female Brain

A new study done by the Rutgers University sheds a little bit of light on the situation. The study consisted of using rats to simulate how a female’s brain reacts to intense physical stress, like being sexually or physically abused. To do this, the researchers put a prepubescent female rat and a sexually mature male rat together. This mix caused the release of stress hormones in the female rat, which caused learning problems and reduced maternal instincts and behaviors that would help keep their blood line alive. Researchers also saw the cells in the hippocampus of the female rats get smaller after experiencing sexual aggression.

Even though we don’t know for sure if these effects mirror how sexual assault affects the female brain, it does show the first evidence that sexual and/or physical abuse causes physical changes to brain structure, and pre-adolescent girls who suffer from this kind of violence may see their brain development affected. What the study did prove is that violence and sexual abuse is one of the most common causes of PTSD in women. PTSD is associated with a decrease of brain functions linked to memory and learning. The loss of these neurons in the hippocampus, which we saw in the rats, may explain these human dysfunctions.

According to the researchers, their work is relevant and necessary, because learning about the brain mechanisms that increase depression and mood disorders in women may help understand how the brain responds to this type of violence, and find ways to recover following a sexual assault.