Kathleen M. Pike, PhD


Hollywood mega-mogul Harvey Weinstein made headlines this week. Not for another great film. No, this time we are watching a documentary in the making. Weinstein’s decades-long story of sexually exploitative and violent behavior against women is spewing from every media platform available. Weinstein conducted no auditions because he needed no other actors for this story. He can shamefully claim the lead role in a colossal performance that deserves no Academy Award.

Amid the torrent of stories – beginning but not ending with Weinstein – I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I have to admit I was taken aback at dinner this week. Six women. All of us had private experiences of sexual assault to add to the deluge of public stories.

1. Come on, is it really such a big deal?  You decide, here are the data:

2. #MeToo Campaign.  Black activist Tarana Burke originally launched the #MeToo grassroots movement over 10 years ago. Her goal was to empower survivors of sexual abuse, assault, exploitation and harassment in underprivileged communities by building a collective voice. Prompted by this week’s news, actress Alyssa Milano reignited the campaign. In less than 24 hours, the campaign went viral on Facebook with more than 12 million posts, comments and reactions and 45% of US Facebook users having friends who posted #MeToo.

3. Aren’t there lots of false accusations of sexual assault?  Actually…no. Careful studies indicate that well over 90% of reports of sexual violence are true. Nonetheless, 2 out of 3 incidents go unreported. In large part, because victims don’t think they will get any satisfaction pressing charges. They are not wrong.

4. But sexual assault victims can never get their story straight. The issue is that sexual assault wreaks havoc with memory. Survivors of sexual assault are prone to report fragmented memories and gaps in memory related to their experience. This makes complete sense given what we know about how the brain works and neuroscience. Instances of sexual assault trigger an alarm response that activates the amygdala – an area of the brain involved in both fear processing and stress response. This alarm reaction triggers the release of certain opioid-boosting hormones to help individuals cope with the physical and emotional pain of the traumatic situation. A great biological chain reaction. It helps us live through traumatic events but also makes it difficult for the amygdala to work together with the hippocampus to encode and consolidate information. The result is a disruption in memory.

5. Mental health consequences. Sexual assault and sexual violence can have short and long-term effects. Flashbacks are common, and many individuals report feelings of shame, isolation, shock, confusion, and guilt. Survivors of sexual assault can experience anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and difficulty forming and/or maintaining intimate relationships. We have good treatments, but it is difficult for survivors to get the care they need – sometimes because they are too ashamed. Sometimes because the care is not available or affordable.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the mass shooting in Las Vegas that made headlines. This week it is the predatory behavior of Harvey Weinstein. Both incidents represent just the tip of their respective icebergs, linked underwater by the common denominator of unchecked violence.Their collective assault on mental health is gargantuan and should serve as a call to action. Remember, it was an iceberg that sank the Titanic.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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