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Junk Science Behind Trauma-Informed Theories

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Trauma-informed behavioral theories of sexual assault originated with anecdotal reports of how victims of forcible rape responded to their experiences. The concept of “rape trauma syndrome” (RTS) stemmed from a 1974 survey of 92 forcible rape victims’ self-reported symptoms.[1] Authors of the survey classified the symptoms into two stages: “fear or terror,” followed by efforts to “reorganize” their lives.[2]

The 1974 survey has been the focus of sharp criticism, highlighting “definitional problems, biased research samples,” and unreliability because “the inherent complexity of the phenomenon vitiate all attempts to establish empirically the causal relationship implicit in the concept of a rape trauma syndrome.”[3] The survey’s credibility is also compromised by its “failure to distinguish between victims of rapes, attempted rapes, and molestation.”[4] One legal expert concluded rape trauma syndrome is not “generally accepted by experts.”[5] Another found it “troubling” that theories of traumatic memory “continue to thrive as tenacious cultural memes” despite “very minimal” scientific support.[6]

But these criticisms have not deterred the accretion of even more symptoms putatively encompassed by “rape trauma syndrome,” creating a veritable chicken soup of quasi-diagnoses like “tonic immobility,” “fragmentation of memories,”[7] and “factual inconsistencies.”[8] One author predicted, “[i]f virtually any victim behavior is described as consistent with RTS, the term soon will have little meaning.”[9]

Despite research concluding that extreme stress may actually enhance the subsequent recall of stressful incidents,[10] rape trauma theories have spawned an industry to teach investigators “trauma-informed” approaches. Rebecca Campbell, PhD, long-time victims’ advocate and psychology professor at Michigan State University, has popularized the “trauma-informed” approach through numerous publications[11] and presentations to professional audiences across the country.

Campus investigators stand at the epicenter of trauma-informed concepts. Guidance from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights directed Title IX training to include “the effects of trauma, including neurobiological change”[12] — a phrase pregnant with hidden meaning. Although this guidance has been rescinded, many college Title IX programs continue to follow its admonitions.

The illusory evidence for trauma-informed theory is found in various training regimes, including a program on trauma-informed sexual assault investigation offered by the National Center for Campus Public Safety (NCCPS).[13] NCCPS’s Why Campuses Should Conduct Trauma-Informed Sexual Assault Investigations webinar repeats the same unsupported “trauma-informed” theories on memory fragmentation, and suggests it is normal for “victims” to engage in counterintuitive victim behavior such as communicating and “consensual sexual or social activities” with the alleged perpetrator.[14]

Journalist Emily Yoffe has characterized trauma-informed approaches as emblematic of “junk science:”

The result is not only a system in which some men are wrongly accused and wrongly punished. It is a system vulnerable to substantial backlash. University professors and administrators should understand this. And they, of all people, should identify and call out junk science.[15]

Harvard law professor Janet Halley has ridiculed the trauma-informed training employed by her university, noting the materials provide a “sixth grade level summary of selected neurobiological research” and are “100% aimed to convince them to believe complainants, precisely when they seem unreliable and incoherent.”[16]

In sum, under the umbrella of “trauma-informed” theories, victims’ advocates not only recommend disregarding complainants’ inconsistencies or behavioral anomalies; they also insist such inconsistencies should be viewed as probative evidence of trauma. Illogically, this interpretation precludes consideration of a complainant’s incongruous statements or inconsistent behavior as evidence, resulting in an irrefutable argument that the victim’s fragmented or lost memories are certain evidence of trauma, with the implication that therefore the allegations are true.

[1] Ann Wolbert Burgess & Lynda Lytle Holmstrom, Rape Trauma Syndrome, 131 Am. J. Psychiatry 98 (1974).

[2] Julian D. Ford, Christine A. Courtois, Rape Trauma Syndrome, Prevention of PTSD, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (2015)

[3] Giannelli, Paul C., Rape Trauma Syndrome, Faculty Publications, Paper 346, p. 271 (1997).

[4] Robert R. Lawrence, Checking the Allure of Increased Conviction Rates: The Admissibility of Expert Testimony on Rape Trauma Syndrome in Criminal Proceedings, 70 Va. L. Rev. 1657, 1678-1680 (1984)

[5] William O’Donohue, Gwendolyn C. Carlson, Lorraine T. Benuto & Natalie M. Bennett, Examining the Scientific Validity of Rape Trauma Syndrome, University of Nevada, Reno, Psychiatry, 21 Psych. & Law, Issue 6, 858-876, 860 (2014).

[6] Robert A. Nash and James Ost, ed., Concluding Remarks; Malleable knowledge about malleable memories, False and Distorted Memories, p. 159, Psychology Press (2016).

[7] Stephen Porter and Angela R. Birt, Is Traumatic Memory Special? Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 15 S101-S117, S101 (2001).

[8] Joanne Archambault (Ret.), Understanding the Neurobiology of Trauma and Implications for Interviewing Victims, p. 25 (2016)

[9] Frazier and Borgida, Rape Trauma Syndrome: A Review of Case Law and Psychological Research, 16 Law & Hum. Behav. 293, 304-305 (1992).

[10] Richard McNally, Pres. and Fellows Harvard Col., Remembering Trauma, Harvard University Press, p. 180 (2005).

[11] See, for example, Campbell, R., Shaw, J., & Fehler-Cabral, G., Evaluation of a victim-centered, trauma-informed victim notification protocol for untested sexual assault kits (SAKs), Violence Against Women (April 24, 2017).

[12] Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence, p. 40 (2014), withdrawn by 2017 Dear Colleague Letter archived 2014 Questions and Answers

[13] National Center for Campus Public Safety, Not Alone Report

[14] Jeffrey J. Nolan, J.D., Why Campuses Should Conduct Trauma-Informed Sexual Assault Investigations (webinar) Trauma-Informed Sexual Assault Investigation and Adjudication Institute, Slides 23, 24 (2016).

[15] Emily Yoffe, The Bad Science Behind Campus Response to Sexual Assault, The Atlantic, (Sept. 8, 2017)

[16] Janet Halley, Trading the Megaphone for the Gavel in Title IX Enforcement, Harvard Law Review 128 Harv. L. Rev. F. 103 (Feb. 18, 2015)