How Sexual Violence May Alter the Female Brain

According to the National Coalition against Domestic Violence (NCADV), one in five women in the United States will be raped at some point during their lifetime. One in three will experience some form of sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner. Women between 18 and 24 are most at risk.

Female victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence are left with painful emotional scars that affect their lives for years to come, often in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression. Sexual violence against women is also linked with a high rate of unintended pregnancies, nutritional deficiencies, chronic pain, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Drug and alcohol treatment and rehab are often required, as women who have experienced sexual violence are at increased risk of substance abuse and addiction to tobacco, alcohol and drugs.

Learning Problems and Maternal Difficulties

Although more in-depth studies are needed, research suggests that the actual damage may be even worse than originally believed, and that sexual violence against young women may alter the makeup of the brain in ways that affect not only the victim, but her offspring.

A recent study by researchers at Rutgers University involved placing female rats who hadn’t yet reached full sexual maturity in cages with older, sexually experienced male rats. In spite of their repeated attempts to escape, the young females would inevitably be mounted by the larger, older males.

Subsequently, the female rats showed a spike in the level of stress hormones and generated fewer new cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with learning and memory. They also displayed a marked lack of maternal behavior and had difficulties providing adequate care for their offspring.

Although studies with rats can’t be directly generalized to humans, real women who have experienced sexual violence during puberty or early adulthood display similar behaviors with stress and learning disabilities, and their children are at greater risk of trauma and developmental problems.

What it all Means

Although the results are worrisome, researchers stress that the studies don’t mean that victims of sexual violence can never be good mothers, or that they are unable to learn new things. However, understanding how sexual violence affects the victim’s brain can help clinicians improve treatment for girls and women who have been affected by sexual violence, thus increasing the possibility of full recovery.

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