This information sends the message to young people that they are biologically programmed to become helpless during unwanted sexual encounters and to suffer mental impairment afterward. And it may inadvertently encourage them to view consensual late-night, alcohol-fueled encounters that might produce disjointed memories and some regret as something more sinister.
Justin Dillon, a Washington, D.C., attorney who defends students across the country accused of Title IX violations, told me that a couple of years ago he had barely heard of this condition, but that its terminology has swiftly made its way into campus adjudications: “I don’t think I’ve seen a complaint in the past year that didn’t use the word frozen somewhere.” Trauma, he says, is used to explain away all inconsistencies in some complainants’ accounts that would otherwise seem to contradict their having been assaulted. Schools do not make public the training materials of those who investigate and adjudicate sexual assault. But through lawsuits, Dillon has obtained some examples, and he says the assertions of the “neurobiology of trauma” that infuse these materials make it almost impossible for the accused to mount a defense. When such assumptions are held by those sitting in judgment, he says, “how do you prove your innocence?”
Various initiatives have spread ideas about this syndrome out into the collegiate world. In 2013, funding from the federal government established the National Center for Campus Public Safety, an educational resource for campus administrators that offers a “Trauma-Informed Sexual Assault Investigation and Adjudication” curriculum, and purveys the ideas popularized by Campbell and others. Last year, the University of Texas at Austin released a state-funded report, “The Blueprint for Campus Police: Responding to Sexual Assault,” with the hope of it becoming a national model. It codified “victim-centered and trauma-informed” investigations, asserting: “Trauma victims often omit, exaggerate, or make up information when trying to make sense of what happened to them or to fill gaps in memory.” And “due to the neurobiology of trauma, victims may suffer from a rape-induced paralysis called tonic immobility.” In 2015, Illinois passed the Preventing Sexual Violence in Higher Education Act, which demanded that campus personnel receive “training centered on the neurobiological impact of trauma”; other states are considering similar legislation.
I talked with Richard McNally, a psychology professor at Harvard and one of the country’s leading experts on the effects that trauma has on memory, about the assertions Campbell made in her presentation. He first said that because assaults do not occur within the laboratory, “there is no direct evidence” of any precise or particular cascade of physiological effects during one, “nor is there going to be.” But there is plenty of evidence about how highly stressful experiences affect memory, and much of it directly contradicts Campbell. In his 2003 book, Remembering Trauma, McNally writes, “Neuroscience research does not support [the] claim that high levels of stress hormones impair memory for traumatic experience.” In fact, it’s almost the opposite: “Extreme stress enhances memory for the central aspects of an overwhelming emotional experience.” There is likely an evolutionary reason for that, McNally said: “It makes sense for natural selection to favor the memory of trauma. If you remember life-threatening situations, you’re more likely to avoid them.” Notably, survivors of recent horrific events—the Aurora movie-theater massacre, the San Bernardino terror attack, the Orlando-nightclub mass murder—have at trial or in interviews given narrative accounts of their ordeals that are chronological, coherent, detailed, and lucid. (In the years since McNally’s book was published, some neuroscientific evaluations of military personnel have indicated that, in conditions of the most extreme stress, these hormones might prevent certain memories from being retained, causing gaps or errors in a person’s recollection. But these findings are different from the assertion that traumatic memories are stored in infallible yet “fragmented” condition.)