Judith L. Herman M.D.

Decoding Trauma

Responses to Campus Sexual Assault

Excerpts from a comment letter to the Department of Education.

Posted Mar 13, 2019

Incidents of sexual assault and harassment are extremely common. National epidemiological studies conducted by the Department of Justice[1] and the CDC[2] have repeatedly documented the fact that roughly 20-25 percent of women have been sexually assaulted, most commonly by men they know. Young women ages 18-25, that is, women of college age, are at the highest risk.[3] 

Acts of sexual assault and harassment are assertions of raw power, intended to demonstrate total dominance over victims and to remind them to know their place. These acts degrade victims in the eyes of others so that they will be publicly stigmatized and scorned should they dare to complain. People who have been subjected to these assaults experience terror, helplessness, and profound humiliation. Sexual assaults, because of their gratuitous cruelty, are among the most harmful of traumatic experiences.[4]

The response of the survivor’s community — family, peers, and especially authority figures — is of immense importance in determining the course of recovery. Survivors who are met with compassion and support usually recover well; such support repairs the survivor’s trust in other people.[5] On the other hand, survivors who are met with indifference or blame from authority figures will predictably suffer increased symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression, as they will feel abandoned and betrayed by their community.[6]

Authority figures in schools are therefore in a position of great social responsibility. Given the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment and the vulnerability of teenage and college-age women, it is incumbent on school authorities to develop proactive measures of intervention based on an understanding of the social realities of sexual assault and the psychology of people who have been traumatized.  

Based on our experience in treating survivors of sexual assault and harassment, it is our opinion that many of the new rules proposed by the Department of Education will cause increased harm to students who report sexual assault to their schools, and will discourage students who have been victimized from coming forward.

For example, the proposed rules prejudice fact-finding against victims, by requiring schools to follow procedures of criminal law. One proposed rule requires schools to presume at the outset that the accused perpetrator is not responsible. This means in effect the school is required to presume that the complaining victim is lying, reinforcing sexist rape myths, and prejudging the institutional response in favor of the accused perpetrator. In reality, false complaints of sexual assault are rare, while false denials and indignant protestations of innocence are commonplace.   

The presumption of innocence is appropriate in criminal proceedings, where the liberty of the accused is at stake, in order to protect the accused individual against the overweening power of the state. It is not appropriate, however, in matters of educational discipline, where what is at stake is the privilege of the accused to be part of an educational community. It is certainly not appropriate as applied to gender-based violence, where perpetrators currently enjoy what amounts to impunity.[7] This rule would continue to foster impunity for perpetrators.

Another proposed rule requires students who file complaints to submit to live cross-examination, as if in a court of law. For survivors of sexual assault and harassment, this means being subjected to hostile attacks on their credibility and public shaming at a time, following a traumatic event, when they may feel most vulnerable. It also means being forced to relive their traumatic experiences in excruciating detail, a situation almost guaranteed to aggravate their symptoms of post-traumatic stress.   

By implementing these rules, schools would humiliate and re-traumatize survivors of sexual assault.  The net effect of the new proposed rules will be to reinforce the shaming and silencing of victims, which has long prevailed in our society, and to worsen the problem of sex discrimination in education.

Respectfully submitted,

Judith L. Herman, M.D., and 902 co-signers in the mental health professions


[1] P. Tjaden & N. Thoennes: Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey.  Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, 1998.

[2] MJ Breiding, SG Smith, KCBasile et al: “Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Violence, Stalking, and Intimate Partner Violence Victimization---National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey—United States 2011.”  Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, September 5, 2014.

[3] S Sinozich & L Langton, Special Report: Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization among College-Age Females, 1995-2013. Washington DC:  US Department of Justice, 2014.

[4] RC Kessler, A Sonnega, E Bromet et al: “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the National Comorbidity Survey.”  Archives of General Psychiatry 1995; 52:1048-1060.

[5] AW Burgess & LL Holmstrom, “Adaptive Strategies and Recovery from Rape.”  American Journal of Psychiatry 1979; 136:1278-1282.

[6] CP Smith & JJ Freyd: “Institutional Betrayal.”  American Psychologist 2014; 69: 575-587.

[7] K Daly & B Bonhours: “Rape and Attrition in the Legal Process: A Comparative Analysis of Five Countries.” Crime and Justice 2010; 39: 485-565.