(In)Credible Survivors

By Amber M. Webb, M.S.

A stock image of a teenage girl looking out a window.

Jennifer was 12 years old, rarely attended school, and often ran away from home. One evening, her mother reported her missing. When Jennifer came home and approached the house, officers were leaving. Her mother began yelling, and Jennifer told the officers she had been abducted and raped. They did not see any injuries, and her account of events did not make sense. The officers accused Jennifer of lying to avoid punishment for coming home late.

A sexual assault nurse completed an examination and collected evidence, but it was not submitted to the lab for testing — until 23 years later. A DNA profile was developed, and a Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) hit came back to an individual whose DNA was associated with the rapes of 11 other vulnerable teenagers during the same period.

This example illustrates the misjudgments that can occur in these cases. Recognizing the complexity of trauma response is the first step in deconstructing myths, mitigating potential biases, understanding how people respond to trauma, and helping sexual assault survivors thrive.

Truth and Myth

Although uncommon, false reporting of rape does occur, just as with any other crime. Reliable studies consistently measure the rate of false reports as 2% to 10%.1 The resulting myths can damage sexual assault survivors who find themselves subject to stereotypes and disbelief.

Major Amber Webb

Major Webb serves with the Memphis, Tennessee, Police Department and is a graduate of FBI National Academy Session 286.

For instance, people may believe that “real” victims fight back and have visible injuries. However, individuals shift into survival mode during attacks and react to crisis differently. No one asks a robbery victim why they did not fight back or responds in disbelief due to the lack of wounds. Sexual assault survivors may have felt that fighting or resisting would make their attacker angry, resulting in more severe injury. The threat of violence alone is often sufficient cause for a victim to submit to the rapist, thereby protecting themselves from additional physical harm.

Biases and judgments (e.g., “She isn’t acting like she was raped”) further traumatize survivors. One expert explains the underlying neurobiology of traumatic events by comparing a survivor’s post-trauma brain to “the world’s messiest desk,” which has portions of the victim’s statement on different scattered notes.2 Later, an investigator asks the traumatized survivor to find each of these unorganized notes and provide the information in logical order.

Trained investigators determine the survivor’s level of truthfulness by changing the subject and asking the same questions in different ways. However, the victim’s brain cannot put the pieces together in a way that makes sense due to the fresh trauma. Hormones released during trauma trigger parts of the brain to turn on and off, causing memory to encode improperly. The unusual and unstable consequences can include numbness, laughing, irritability, and even loving feelings.3

Rape survivors will not all behave the same after a sexual assault, and they do not come from identical backgrounds. To this end, another stigma originates from the idea that those leading risky lifestyles or abusing substances at the time of the assault cannot be true victims of rape. However, using drugs or alcohol does not cause sexual assault — predators taking advantage of a person in a vulnerable state does. Intoxicated victims are incapable of consenting to sex. These assaults often result in few physical injuries. Further, rapists may purposely seek out known prostitutes and other vulnerable persons like Jennifer because they know these survivors will not be believed if they report the crime.

Trauma Response

The different responses survivors have to rape are driven by four main stress chemicals that can be released in stressful or traumatic situations.

  1. Catecholamines, or natural adrenaline, helps the survivor fight or flee when experiencing trauma.
  2. Corticosteroids work with catecholamines to ascertain how much energy is available — this determines whether there is a fight, flight, or freeze response.
  3. Opioids released by the body function as natural morphine, causing survivors to feel drugged or appear emotionless and blocking physical pain.
  4. Oxytocin not only blocks pain but also supplies “good” feelings that cause some to laugh or smile at times others may find inappropriate.4

These chemicals naturally help protect the body during traumatic experiences but cause cellular damage to memory functions.5 Although the memory is correct, it is relayed in a confusing way.

Survivors have also described feelings of paralysis during an attack, where they could not move or scream even if given an opportunity. This involuntary freeze response is known as “tonic immobility,” which leaves survivors feeling ashamed for not responding.6 Tonic immobility has also been seen among soldiers in battle. A similar defense mechanism the brain may use to cope with trauma is “dissociation,” described by survivors as an out-of-body experience where they feel detached from reality.7

“Hormones released during trauma trigger parts of the brain to turn on and off, causing memory to encode improperly.”

Needed Actions

“Determining whether rapes are ‘real’ is intensely entangled in rape myths that blame victims, excuse rapists, and erroneously support that false rape claims are a common problem.”8 What can law enforcement officials do to prevent creating more victims instead of survivors?

Officers should not base the credibility of a survivor’s statements on myths or assumptions about who can be victimized or how they should respond to an attack. Rather, investigators should collect and test all relevant evidence and learn and use trauma-informed interviewing strategies to support the survivor. Investigators and advocates should always follow up to connect survivors with resources that promote healing.

Most perpetrators of sexual assault will not be held accountable because only 3% to 26% of reported cases result in a conviction.9 Agencies must work together to end gender bias, whether conscious or unconscious. Biases can compromise the investigator’s ability to find facts, result in victim interrogation, lead to sexual assault kits not being submitted for testing, and inhibit efforts to develop a case that supports prosecution of the perpetrator.10 Survivors are more likely to cooperate in the investigation and prosecution when treated with dignity and respect.


Jennifer went to a girl’s home and never received the proper resources to cope with her trauma. She used drugs to escape the pain of the assault and retraumatization caused by police. Twenty-three years later, investigators and advocates found Jennifer, informed her of the new developments in her case, offered her counseling resources, and asked if she would like to prosecute.

She cried tears of joy because someone finally believed she was abducted and sexually assaulted. No longer a victim, Jennifer is a survivor. By understanding the complexity of responses to trauma, law enforcement can deconstruct false myths, eliminate biased police judgment, understand trauma response, and help sexual assault survivors thrive.

“Officers should not base the credibility of a survivor’s statements on myths or assumptions about who can be victimized or how they should respond to an attack.”

Major Webb can be reached at amber.webb@memphistn.gov.


1 David Lisak et al., “False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases,” Violence Against Women 16, no 12 (2010): 1318-1334, https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801210387747.
2 Dr. Rebecca Campbell, “Post It Notes Analogy for Effects of Trauma on Memory,” The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault presentation, June 3, 2014, video of lecture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnRpoGSOkZs&list=PLER3tUtBYs3CG5Au8d-lckH6oODUoi7L8&index=7.
3 Dr. Rebecca Campbell, “The World’s Messiest Desk,” May 6, 2017, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdx2E5wArt8.
4 “Interview with Dr. Rebecca Campbell on the Neurobiology of Sexual Assault (1 of 3),” National Institute of Justice, January 31, 2013, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khUfN58RUo8&list=PLER3tUtBYs3CG5Au8d-lckH6oODUoi7L8.
5 Ibid.
6 For additional information, see Murray P. Abrams et al., “Human Tonic Immobility: Measurement and Correlates,” Depression and Anxiety 26, no. 6 (2009): 550-556, https://doi.org/10.1002/da.20462.
7 “Dissociation and Dissociative Disorders,” Mind, accessed June 24, 2024, https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/dissociation-and-dissociative-disorders/about-dissociation/#:~:text=Many%20people%20may%20experience%20dissociation,world%20around%20you%20is%20unreal.
8 Joanne Belknap, “Rape: Too Hard to Report and Too Easy to Discredit Victims,” Violence Against Women 16, no. 12 (2010): 1335-1344, https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801210387749.
9 Kimberly A. Lonsway and Joanne Archambault, “The ‘Justice Gap’ for Sexual Assault Cases: Future Directions for Research and Reform,” Violence Against Women 18, no. 2 (2012): 145-168, https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801212440017.
10 U.S. Department of Justice, Justice Department Announces Updated Guidance on Improving Law Enforcement Response to Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence by Identifying and Preventing Gender Bias, May 23, 2022, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-announces-updated-guidance-improving-law-enforcement-response-sexual.