Impact of Trauma on Adult Sexual Assault Victims: What the Criminal Justice System Needs to Know

42 Pages Posted: 11 Jul 2019

See all articles by Lori Haskell

Lori Haskell

University of Toronto - Department of Psychiatry

Melanie Randall

University of Western Ontario - Faculty of Law

Date Written: January 1, 2019


Sexual assault is a widespread and serious problem in our society. Yet instead of delivering justice to its victims the criminal justice system can too often be a source of further distress for victims. It is well known that sexual assault complainants have too often experienced the criminal justice system as a place that re-traumatizes and even harms them and that many victim-survivors choose not to report the crimes of sexual violence committed against them as a result.

Sexual assault is very often an experience of trauma. Trauma has a neurobiological impact – it affects our brains and our nervous-systems. For this reason, it is imperative that those working within the criminal justice system have a basic appreciation of the effects and impact of trauma in relation to victims of sexual assault in order to process sexual assault cases more effectively and receive evidence in these cases in a more fair and impartial manner.

Recently, an important and significant paradigm shift in our knowledge about victim reactions to traumatic events like sexual assault, including impact on memory, has deepened understanding and led to improved practices which assist with developing more effective criminal justice system responses to sexual assault cases. Insights from the neurobiology of trauma has assisted professionals working in a wide range of fields to better understand the psychological and physiological responses of crimes such as sexual assault, and how these affect victim response. This in turn, has facilitated more trauma-informed service delivery and more appropriate and effective interventions, from first responders like police through to advocates and legal personnel in court rooms.

The focus of this report is on outlining some of the key findings from the body of knowledge of neuroscience, and applying them to the issue of sexual assault and its impacts on victims. More specifically, we review and highlight some of the significant developments which have emerged from the field of the neurobiology of trauma as they relate to the unique crime of sexual assault and apply their relevance to the many challenges surrounding the criminal processing of sexual assault cases.

Victim reactions to sexual assaults are still not well understood in society at large. These misunderstandings unfortunately continue to persist in the legal system. In fact, they contribute to ongoing deficiencies in criminal justice system processing of sexual assault cases, leading to imperfect justice for victims and survivors. This has been described as the “justice gap” for sexual assault cases. We argue that this justice gap can, in part, be closed by moving towards a more trauma-informed criminal justice system. This will lead to more just outcomes for sexual assault complainants and also allow for the fuller realization of the impartiality and fairness that criminal trials are supposed to provide for all participants.

Keywords: sexual assault, trauma, neurobiology of trauma

Suggested Citation

Haskell, Lori and Randall, Melanie, Impact of Trauma on Adult Sexual Assault Victims: What the Criminal Justice System Needs to Know (January 1, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Lori Haskell

University of Toronto - Department of Psychiatry ( email )


Melanie Randall (Contact Author)

University of Western Ontario - Faculty of Law ( email )

London, Ontario N6A 3K7 N6A 3K7

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