If you’re going to talk about the biology of potential rapists and molesters, please mention the biology of their victims, too

Senator Saxby Chambliss

Addressing sexual assault in the military, Senator Saxby Chambliss recently offered this to a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing as an explanation, “”The young folks who are coming into each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or 23. Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur. So we’ve got to be very careful how we address it on our side.”

While I do think the senator was making an honest attempt to understand and address the problem, and by no means do I think he condones rape and sexual assault (at least intentionally), he needs to realize that the argument “from biology” can easily sway people into believing that these assaults are nobodies’ responsibility. This has been shown in court numerous times. If you can explain to the jury that the defendant’s brain is somehow different from the brains of normal law-abiding individuals, the jury is likely to downgrade the seriousness of the crime – although, there have been some exceptions to this.

As a way to address this issue, I would like to mandate that the biology of the victims is also mentioned. There have been a growing number of studies showing that abuse can seriously alter a person’s brain – the most devastatingly when the victim is a child and still undergoing neuronal development, but also very seriously in adults. Extreme stress in adults can inhibit neurogenesis (the growth of neurons) in adult hippocampi (Nibuya, 1995; Duman, 1997). Two important things that the hippocampus does is facilitate learning and memory and help to regulate aggression – things that become compromised in the victims of abuse. Rape can also lead the victims to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that can result in a reduced medial prefrontal cortex, a hyperresponsive amygdala (could lead to experiencing fear on a frequent basis), and a reduced hippocampus (Shin et al., 2006).

By discussing the biology of the victim, therefore, we can see that rape and abuse can profoundly change their brain – in other words, the brain of the victim after the rape and abuse will NEVER be the same again.

But don’t stop with talking about the biology of the victim. Bring back the individual who experienced the abuse, and listen to the lamentations of the victims and the accounts of the clinical psychologists who have tirelessly worked to help victims of rape and abuse live and function with their experiences. If at this point a politician can’t see how useless, redundant, and offensive the de-personalized ‘hormone’ argument is, they do not deserve to represent anybody.


Huffington Post: Saxby Chambliss Attributes Sexual Assault to ‘The Hormone Level Created By Nature’

Duman RS, Heninger GR, Nestler EJ (1997). A molecular and cellular theory of depression. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 54, 597–606

Nibuya M, Morinobu S, Duman RS (1995) Regulation of BDNF and trkB mRNA in rat brain by chronic electroconvulsive seizure and antidepressant drug treatments. J Neurosci, 15, 7539–7547

Shin, L. M., Rauch, S. L., & PITMAN, R. K. (2006). Amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex, and hippocampal function in PTSD. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1071(1), 67-79.

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