science of us

The Lingering Psychological Scars of Teen Sexual Assault

Brett Kavanaugh. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Over the weekend, the Washington Post published an interview with Christine Blasey Ford, in which she describes seeing a therapist as an adult because she was suffering from the “long-term effects” of allegedly having been sexually assaulted in high school by Brett Kavanaugh. As she told the Post, she “came to understand the incident as a trauma with lasting impact on her life.”

Others aren’t convinced. In a now deleted Tweet, actor James Woods, who has been accused of sexual transgressions himself, called Ford’s claims a “#MeToo Lynching,” as if the suffering Ford has experienced from the alleged trauma pales in comparison to what Kavanaugh will suffer now that she has come forward. Likewise, in an article in the American Spectator, David Catron writes that “this event happened 36 years ago among adolescents. The victim and the villain were under the influence of alcohol and the former can’t remember half of the details — yet somehow recalls enough to ruin the latter’s career.”

But sexual assaults like this can indeed have powerful and lingering psychological effects on their teenage victims. According to a study published this month in Frontiers in Psychiatry, women who have been sexually assaulted experience their most stressful memories more powerfully than women who haven’t been sexually assaulted. They are also more likely to ruminate over negative experiences, to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and have symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“It does affect their lives — it affects the rest of their lives,” says Rutgers University neuroscientist and psychologist Tracey Shors, a co-author of the recent study, who has been studying stress and memory for 30 years.

Indeed, among women, sexual molestation and rape are the leading causes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental illness characterized by persistent trauma-related thoughts (in men, key causes are being in or witnessing combat). And even though Ford wasn’t raped, she told the Post that she felt her life was in danger, which is important: Research suggests that the perceived threat to one’s life is one of the strongest PTSD predictors. Being scared you might die is terribly traumatic even when you manage to survive.

Ford says the assault took place during high school, which may have made its effects especially strong on a neurological level. So many important brain changes take place during the teen years: The limbic system and the cortex, parts of the brain involved in emotional processing, memory, decision-making, and executive function, mature rapidly during adolescence, and studies have shown that stress can significantly shift their trajectory. (Many of these studies have, however, been conducted in rodents, whose brains are easier to study but are of course different from those of humans.) As researchers at Columbia and Rockefeller Universities summarized in a 2013 paper, “exposure to stress specifically during the adolescent stage of development could significantly affect both the structure and function of the brain during adolescence and create morbidities that could last well into adulthood,” possibly including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and drug use. This is not to say that problems arising from teen trauma can’t be mitigated or resolved, of course, but in some cases, they can be harmful.

As for the fact that Ford doesn’t remember everything about that night, like how she got home or whose house she was at — this, too, meshes with what science indicates about traumatic memories. The literature is complicated, but some research suggests that although rape victims usually have emotionally intense, sensory-rich memories about the trauma, certain details often remain unclear or incoherent. And of course, Shors says, what someone remembers also depends largely on the person and the experience.

The message from the scientific literature is clear for Ford’s skeptics: Teen sexual trauma leaves lasting psychological scars, and the details of Ford’s account align with what one would expect from a woman who has been grappling with such a experience for 35 years. Considering that an estimated 18 percent of middle- and high-school girls report having unwanted sexual experiences, perhaps we should stop talking about a few ruined careers and turn our attention and sympathy to the many traumatized lives.

The Lingering Psychological Scars of Teen Sexual Assault