Get Help


If you need immediate information you can call one of these 24-hour toll-free hotlines.

  • Rape Abuse & Incest National Network
  • 800-656-4673
  • Childhelp USA
  • 800-422-4453
  • National Domestic Violence/Abuse Hotline
  • 800-799-7233

Available in English, Spanish and German, with other languages coming.

Why don’t many people fight or escape when they’re being raped?

Why are memories of sexual assault so often fragmentary and lacking a clear linear narrative?

Is the brain’s response to attack essentially the same – controlled by the defense circuitry, running on reflexes and habits – during sexual assault, physical assault, and military combat?

The answers have big implications for people who have been sexually assaulted, for those who investigate and prosecute such crimes, and for everyone else who knows or works with someone who’s been sexually assaulted.

The answers, it turns out, are the same in every culture. Around the world, the most common responses of people during sexual assaults are basically the same: The brain’s defense circuitry takes over, the rational prefrontal cortex is impaired, and behavior is mostly reflexive and habitual.

Evolution sculpted those basic responses into our brains long before we were sophisticated enough to create cultures, long before we began to misunderstand and misjudge sexual assault survivors with culture-based expectations of how women and men “should” respond during assaults and remember them later.

The impacts of stress and trauma on the brain’s “hardware” have always and everywhere been the same. That includes giving control of behavior mostly to the habit circuitry. But the “software” that runs on the habit circuitry has been created and shaped by experience and by culture. That software consists of habitual ways that assault victims have already been conditioned – including by power relations based on sex, class, age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. – into passive resistance and submission to those who possess more power than them.

This is why most sexual assault victims find themselves automatically engaging in – and stuck on – ineffective passive and submissive habit behaviors. The neurobiology of stress and trauma intersect with power dynamics and culturally conditioned habits. This also explains why most perpetrators select their victims based on those power differentials, and why they can generally depend on victims’ ineffective resistance and submission.

Critically, these are also reasons why using “fight, flight, freeze” – and adding more f-words (e.g., flop, fawn) as many are now doing – should be abandoned. No phrase starting with “fight, flight, freeze” will reflect the reality of most behaviors of most victims, especially habits of passive resistance and submission that clearly are not “fawning.”

No catchy collection of f-words will reflect what’s known about the neurobiology of trauma. Anything that starts with “fight, flight” and fails to point to habit behaviors (and their roots in culture and power) will be incomplete, even be harmful.

That’s why I’ve been advocating that we all – especially professionals working with people who’ve been sexually assaulted – understand victim’s responses during sexual assaults in terms of “survival mode” and “reflexes and habits.” I regularly teach these things as a consultant and trainer. Here on my website, I provide lots of free videos, writings, and handouts.

Sexual Assault and the Brain Blog

Animated & Training Videos

This page has two collections of videos: short animated videos and videos of me teaching. All explain how stress and trauma during sexual assaults can impact experience, thinking, behavior, and memory processes.

One-Page Handouts


These handouts help with learning and applying knowledge about sexual assault and the brain. To get the most from them, read my writings and watch my in-depth YouTube video. See also longer handouts for investigators and victim advocates at the bottom of this page.

Key Information for Investigators, Attorneys, Judges, and Others – Lots of key points packed into one page on (1) common brain-based effects during assaults and (2) “cautions, vulnerabilities, and needs.”

Common Sexual Assault Behaviors: Reflexes & Habits – High-level overview of common – but still commonly misunderstood – reflex and habit behaviors.

How Brain‐Based Behaviors Tend to Unfold Over Time – Useful for thinking about typical sequences. See also my brief video on this handout.

Potential Overlaps of Dissociation with Freezing, Habit Behaviors, and/or Extreme Survival Reflexes – This Venn diagram clarifies how dissociation may or may not overlap with reflex responses and habit behaviors.

All Four Handouts in one PDF

How Reliable Are the Memories of Sexual Assault Victims?


If I were permitted to provide my invited expert testimony for the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Dr. Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh, these would have been my remarks, which apply to memories of military combat and other traumas too. Also published on my blog (above).

Online Courses


Free courses with text, audio, video, and other interactive features. Currently, “Neurobiology of Sexual Assault Trauma,” with three modules: Introduction, When Attack Is Detected, and Reflexes and Habits. More ways to learn about why people react to and remember sexual assaults in the ways they do, including why “reflexes and habits” is a much better way (than “fight, flight, [whatever]”) to understand people’s responses, and how this knowledge can enhance our abilities to understand and support survivors.

Training Bulletins

PDF Files

I wrote these training bulletins in 2020 with the Director of Research and CEO of EVAWI, whose mission is to “inspire and educate those who respond to gender-based violence, equipping them with the knowledge and tools they need to support victims and hold perpetrators accountable.”

Important Things to Get Right About the “Neurobiology of Trauma”

Part 1: Benefits of Understanding the Science

Part 2: Victim Responses During Sexual Assault

Part 3: Memory Processes


Neurobiology of Sexual Assault: Two-part Webinar Series


In these two 90-minute webinars, I cover the same material as my longest YouTube video (above), but in greater depth on memory issues in part 2. These webinars are available for $49 from EVAWI’s webinar archive.

Part 1: Experience and Behavior

Part 2: Experience and Memory