Applying Neuroscience to Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention

April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), a time to reflect on how we can come together to better prevent and respond to sexual violence. This month, we’d like to highlight some of the recent findings from neuroscience research that will help us better understand the factors contributing to sexual assault, particularly among adolescents and young adults. With this knowledge, we can work towards avoiding victim-blaming attitudes and instead focus on more constructive approaches to supporting survivors and preventing future incidents.

Common Questions

When sexual assault is discussed, either in casual conversation or during the high-stakes settings of a legal trial, two questions tend to arise about the actions of the person who was harmed:

  • Why did they put themselves into an obviously risky situation?
  • Why didn’t they resist?

Unfortunately, these problematic questions can lead to victim blaming. Research has shown that young people may not always “know better” when it comes to recognizing or avoiding risky situations. Also, there are often complex psychological, social, and situational factors that influence a person’s decision-making and vulnerability. Let’s take a deeper look at these harmful questions and learn how we can, instead, focus on the discussion on the actions and accountability of the person who perpetrated the abuse.

Why Do People Put Themselves in Risky Situations?

In the Safer Society webinar entitled “Applying a Neuroscience and Psychosocial Development Framework to Testifying in Juvenile Cases,”  Tom Leversee, LCSW, summarizes research explaining why adolescents are attracted to highly charged and sometimes risky situations. It comes down to what he calls the “maturational imbalance,” or the gap between the time when adolescent brains become particularly reactive to the rewards that come from risky situations, and the time when the brain is developed sufficiently to be able to exercise self-control, regulate impulses, think ahead, and evaluate the rewards and costs of risky behavior. Leversee refers to the first period as the time when the “socioemotional system” dominates the brain and the second period as the time when the “cognitive control” system is fully functional. The final period isn’t fully active until people are in their mid-20s.

What happens in the brain during this gap, and what can help us better understand why adolescents find it hard to refrain from risky behavior is two key processes called synaptic pruning and myelination.

  • Synaptic pruning: You are born with billions of neurons in your brain, and as you grow, these neurons connect to each other through synapses as you learn and grow. Then, during late adolescence, your brain decides which of these connections are worth keeping and which should be eliminated. This “pruning” is essential for the cognitive control system to mature, but it takes time. 
  • Myelination: Another essential process in the brain during this time is the growth of myelin around neurons. Myelin consists of mostly fats, and it wraps around the axon of the neuron to help it increase the speed of messages as they travel from one neuron to the next.  The increase of myelin around neurons allows for the growth of the brain’s ability to plan, create goals, and control impulses. Like synaptic pruning, this takes time.

Simply put, the adolescent brain isn’t developed sufficiently to think through the consequences of its actions or to resist temptations. Thus, it is easy for adults to imagine that they would never put themselves in risky situations, but this is not so easily done in adolescents. As Leversee puts it:

“…when we look at mid-adolescence moving into late adolescence, the changes that we see as far as the pruning and the myelination result in improved connectivity among cortical areas and between cortical and subcortical areas. So, the things we know about executive function—the ability to self-regulate, plan, and weigh risks and rewards—improves, and we have better coordination between affect and cognition.”

Why Didn’t They Resist? Flight, Fight, or Freeze

It seems like such obvious advice: “Just say no,” or “Just run away.” But often this doesn’t happen. Survey research by Anna Moller and her colleagues on a group of 298 women who had recently visited a clinic for sexual assault revealed that 70% of them reported what is referred to as “tonic immobility” (or “frozen fright”) during their assault. This reaction has been defined as “…a state of involuntary, temporary motor inhibition” (Möller et al., 2017). 

Why does this occur?

During a traumatic event, the brain releases the stress hormone cortisol, as well as adrenalin and other hormones. The result is that the body can enter not a “fight or flight” response but rather a “freeze” response.  The amygdala, often referred to as the “fear center,” is highly active, while areas of the brain responsible for movement and vocalization are inhibited.  This phenomenon is understood as an adaptive response (often seen in animals) to a highly threatening situation.

In her summary of the research on this topic, published in Neuroscience News, author Poppy Danby concludes:

“Many animals freeze briefly in response to mild threat, so they are poised to trigger a fight or flight reaction. But in response to immediate and severe threat, the behavior may change to a prolonged immobility where the body becomes either completely frozen or limp. Arguments for the defense in rape and sexual assault cases sometimes misinterpret the absence of struggle as an indication of consent. But if the victim is involuntarily immobile, this argument is incorrect.”

Clearly, there is a need for greater awareness and understanding of the “frozen right” response.

During this sexual assault awareness month (and afterward), it is vital that awareness of these findings regarding the impact of traumatic events on the brain and body be widely understood.  If you would like to learn more about this topic, we encourage you to view the webinar by Tom Leversee at the link below. During the webinar, Mr. Leversee addresses additional topics, such as the role of neuroplasticity and how the presence of friends leads to hyperactivation of the brain’s reward system among adolescents.

We invite you to watch this hour-long webinar with Tom Leversee, LCSW, on Applying a Neuroscience and Psychosocial Development Framework to Testifying in Juvenile Cases.


Dhawan, E., & Haggard, P. (2023). Neuroscience evidence counters a rape myth. Nature Human Behaviour, 7, 835–838.

Heller, H. T., Zomkowski, K., Seidler, G. H., Dieterich, M., & Louwen, F. (2017). Neurobiology of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder in women with fear of childbirth. Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, 96(11), 1268-1277.

Möller, A., Söndergaard, H. P., & Helström, L. (2017, June 7). Tonic immobility during sexual assault – a common reaction predicting post‐traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica.

Neuroscience News. (2024, January 30). Neuroscience vs victim blaming: Unraveling fear-induced immobility in court.

Schmidt, N. B., Richey, J. A., Zvolensky, M. J., & Maner, J. K. (2008). Exploring human freeze responses to a threat stressor. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 39(3), 292-304.

Volchan, E., Souza, G. G., Franklin, C. M., Norte, C. E., Rocha-Rego, V., Oliveira, J. M., David, I. A., Mendlowicz, M. V., Coutinho, E. S., Fiszman, A., Berger, W., Marques-Portella, C., & Figueira, I. (2011). Is there tonic immobility in humans? Biological evidence from victims of traumatic stress. Biological Psychology, 88(1), 13–19.