Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Neuroscience evidence counters a rape myth

Victims frequently report immobility during rape and sexual assault, often using the term ‘freezing’. Neuroscientific evidence suggests fear and threat can block cortical neural circuits for action control, leading to involuntary immobility. Defence arguments that blame victims for freezing are thus inappropriate and unjust.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it

$39.95

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: A hypothesized neural circuit underlying the suspension of voluntary action control during IRSA.

References

  1. McDonald, E. Rape Myths as Barriers to Fair Trial Processes: Comparing Adult Rape Trials with those in the Aotearoa Sexual Violence Court Pilot (Canterbury Univ. Press, 2020).

  2. Möller, A., Söndergaard, H. P. & Helström, L. Acta Obstet. Gynecol. Scand. 96, 932–938 (2017).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  3. Kozlowska, K., Walker, P., McLean, L. & Carrive, P. Harv. Rev. Psychiatry 23, 263–287 (2015).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  4. Roelofs, K. & Dayan, P. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 23, 568–580 (2022).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  5. TeBockhorst, S. F., O’Halloran, M. S. & Nyline, B. N. Psychol. Trauma 7, 171–178 (2015).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. LeDoux, J. Biol. Psychiatry 44, 1229–1238 (1998).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  7. Tovote, P. et al. Nature 534, 206–212 (2016).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. Bouvier, J. et al. Cell 163, 1191–1203 (2015).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  9. Magoun, H. W. Science 100, 549–550 (1944).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  10. Hashemi, M. M. et al. Sci. Rep. 9, 4240 (2019).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  11. Fusé, T., Forsyth, J. P., Marx, B., Gallup, G. G. & Weaver, S. J. Anxiety Disord. 21, 265–283 (2007).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. Brownstone, R. M. & Chopek, J. W. Front. Neural Circuits 12, 30 (2018).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  13. Hart, H. L. A. The Concept of Law (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994).

  14. Bisby, J. A., Burgess, N. & Brewin, C. R. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 29, 267–272 (2020).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  15. Haggard, P. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 18, 196–207 (2017).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. Mourtgos, S. M., Adams, I. T. & Mastracci, S. H. J. Crim. Justice 74, 101818 (2021).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Gonzalez-Liencres, C. et al. Front. Pyschol. 11, 820 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. R v Dunrobin [2008] QCA 116 (2008).

  19. R v Lennox; ex parte Attorney-General (Qld) [2018] QCA 311 (2018).

  20. United States v. Townsend, 34 M.J. 882 (1992).

Download references

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to K. Roelofs, L. Claydon, P. Catley, S. Baker, J. Christensen, C. Gonzalez-Liencres and J.-D. Haynes for advice and comments. P.H. was additionally supported by a Reimar Lüst Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Fritz Thyssen Foundation. Preparatory work was supported by UKRI-AHRC Science in Culture grant to P.H. (award number: 162746). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Patrick Haggard.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Peer review

Peer review information

Nature Human Behaviour thanks Anna Möller, Philip Tovote and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Dhawan, E., Haggard, P. Neuroscience evidence counters a rape myth. Nat Hum Behav (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-023-01598-6

Download citation

  • Published:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-023-01598-6

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing