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Sexualized violence survivors have more vivid memories than women differently traumatized: Study

Women who are survivors of sexualized violence experience more vivid memories than women who have endured other traumatic, life-altering events, according to a new study published in the academic journal Frontiers in Psychiatry. The research—which provides data indicating that there is long-lasting impact of sexualized violence on survivors—comes at a time in the #MeToo movement when men accused of assault are moving on with their lives, even as their victims are not.

“Each time you reflect on an old memory, you make a new one in your brain because it is retrieved in the present space and time,” said study co-author Tracey Shors, a professor of psychology Rutgers University, in an interview with Science Daily.“What this study shows is that this process can make it even more difficult to forget what happened.”

In order to conduct the study, the researchers interviewed 183 women between the ages of 18 and 39. Sixty-four of the participants reported they had experienced sexual violence in the past, while the remainder had not. Most of the women in the study did not have diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is significant since that diagnosis is generally associated with more intense mental and physical reactions to past experiences. The findings of the new study suggest that PTSD is not the only factor that impacts how vividly a difficult experience is remembered. 

Participants in the study who identified as survivors reported recalling more details than non-identifiers of the traumatic life event when they brought it to mind. They could more easily remember where the incident occurred and what happened. They were also more likely to describe the event as central to their life story. Survivors also said they were more likely to ruminate on their traumatic memories than the other women surveyed, and for respondents the strength of a given memory was correlated with more serious symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Survivors are more likely than their traumatized counterparts who were never sexually assaulted to experience depression, anxiety, and rumination. (Frontiers in Psychiatry)

Emma Millon, a Rutgers graduate student and co-author of the research, told Science Daily how revisiting old memories might impact a woman’s mental health. “One could imagine how rumination could exacerbate trauma symptoms and make recovery from the trauma more difficult,” she said. 

The study comes at a time when some perpetrators of sexualized violence who identified with the #MeToo movement appear to be trying to resurrect their reputations — even as their victims struggle to move on. On Sunday night, comedian Louis C.K. made his first appearance on stage since November 2017, when news surfaced that he had previously masturbated in front of at least five women. A number of other alleged perpetrators, including Charlie Rose and Al Franken, are also believed to be planning professional comebacks.   

In an opinion piece published in The New York Times after Louis C.K.’s performance, writer and activist Roxane Gay said she wanted the perpetrators of her assault to experience the material consequences for their crime, since she had been doing so for three decades. “This is what is so difficult about justice and sexual violence — the repercussions of the crime can last a lifetime.”   

Tracey Shors, another author of the research, explained to Science Daily why the findings of the study on trauma and sexualized violence are so significant: “This problem will not go away soon and we must keep our attention focused on prevention and justice for survivors — and their recovery.”

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