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Reaction: neuroscience explains why involuntary paralysis can occur during rape

A commentary published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour discusses the scientific evidence for why rape victims are often involuntarily paralysed, unable to defend themselves or express themselves without consent, and the implications this has for the world's legal systems.

22/05/2023 - 17:00 CEST
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César San Juan - violación EN

César San Juan

Researcher in the Department of Social Psychology and lecturer in Criminal Psychology at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU)

Science Media Centre Spain

One of the most controversial situations that sometimes occurs in court proceedings in which a sexual assault is tried is when the defence of the accused or, in the worst case, the judge himself, reproaches the victim for not having offered sufficient resistance against her aggressor. If the victim does not struggle, does not fight, or does not try to get away from the attacker by all means, the suspicion falls on her that she was implicitly consenting.  

However, in addition to common sense, there is empirical evidence that insurmountable fear, in the context of a threatening experience, can lead to mental dulling and muscular paralysis. This is argued by Ebani Dhawan and Patrick Haggard, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, in an article published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour in which they detail the neurological evidence to support this.  

Indeed, intimidation, which, in our legal system referring to the crime of sexual assault, is defined as the threat or announcement of a serious, future and credible evil, if the victim does not agree to participate in a certain sexual action, can, according to the aforementioned evidence, lead to immobility and the impossibility, therefore, of defending oneself. A finding all too often overlooked in the courtroom. 

Be that as it may, if we analyse from a psychological point of view, the possible ways in which this threat can be presented are as follows: 

  1. That the aggressor proactively, consciously and voluntarily threatens his victim by means of an explicit verbal announcement of a serious evil. 
  2. That the aggressor is aware that he is threatening the victim without the need for a verbal threat announcing a serious harm.    
  3. That the aggressor is unintentionally and unconsciously threatening to his victim, without even considering whether the victim is aware that his imminent intention is, in any case, to perpetrate a sexual attack. 

The case law would only classify the first option as intimidation even if the court finds that a threatening situation has arisen. Contrary to, for example, the British legal system, under which the attacker may be convicted because he "should have been aware" that the victim did not consent despite not offering resistance. A legal translation, in short, of what is now popularly known as "only yes is yes". 

Be that as it may, in our country neither option (b) nor of course (c) will be considered as intimidating situations despite the fact that the end result is, in all cases, a victim intimidated and possibly paralysed by fear. The problem noted in the article is when it is assumed as evidence (since it is difficult to prove explicit verbal consent) that, since it was not defended, there really was consent.

The author has not responded to our request to declare conflicts of interest
Neuroscience evidence counters a rape myth
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Ebani Dhawan & Patrick Haggard.

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