On women, dissociation and the experience of trauma

Last week, the public were made aware that a woman accused a man of rape. We were informed that the woman sought help for her mental health before she died. The man told us he would be seeking help for his mental health in the wake of her accusation.

Victim or perpetrator, guilty or innocent, rape – it seems – requires psychological intervention. So, as a nation, how did we respond to these dual admissions of help-seeking?

Predictably, to be sure.

In the press, the man was praised as sensible, while the woman was derided as untrustworthy, even unhinged. The man, we were told, will be seeking support from his doctor for stress. The woman, it was alleged, sought help, which is controversial (it is not). The kind of help that can implant so-called recovered memories (it cannot). Indeed, the very concept of a recovered memory is theoretically confused (all memoires are recovered) and empirically unsound.

None of this mattered, though. The message was loud and clear. He is a hero modelling masculine self-care, she is mad and bewitched.

How did we come to this?

Australia has a women problem. As a nation, we are having trouble comprehending that the things women are saying happened, happened. Anyone who works in this area already knows the horrifying figures: two hundred thousand Australian women are sexually assaulted every twelve months. That is more than five hundred a day. But for everyone else, this week’s revelations must have seemed incredible, implausible even.

Thousands of schoolgirls raped by their peers, our beloved sons? Surely not.

The attorney general, the highest law officer in the land? Surely not.

Within the very walls of parliament? Surely not.

From the perspective of neuroscience, this reaction makes a good deal of sense. The statistics are unfathomable. When the conclusion feels unreal (it doesn’t to most women, by the way) it’s natural to hold fast to an illusion of control.

There are various names for this set of cognitive biases, but together, they work to help us make sense of the incomprehensible. We can avoid taking our daughters to shonky therapists who might implant false memories in their fragile minds, but we cannot avoid them having any contact with the boys and men in our communities. Not without veiling them and locking them up, anyway.

When the real problem is too big to control, our brains find smaller, more manageable problems instead.

If you believe that rape is a rare and serious crime, – a crime that is typically met with the full-force of the law, a crime that Australians abhor – and you are faced with revelations like these, then a good way to get your cognitive dissonance to dissipate is to imagine that this one woman was mistaken. The alternative – that she was raped, that thousands of your daughters, sisters, mothers, and friends were raped, and raped by your fathers, brothers, co-workers and friends – is confusing and terrifying.

Helping Australia out in this collective delusion last week, some media outlets latched onto a term that itself is confusing and terrifying: the word ‘dissociation’. The woman who told her friends, therapists, and the police that she was raped by our attorney general – we are told in the news – dissociates.

Dissociation, rhymes with hallucination. She must have dreamed it all up, right?


In the social media backlash that followed, I took to Twitter to offer up an analogy. An analogy I hoped would help set things straight. Since some of us are confused about the psychological concept of dissociation in relation to women’s experiences of trauma – conflating it with hallucination, psychosis, and far less common dissociative identity disorders – I decided to frame it in terms we are all more familiar with. An easy enough thing to do, thanks to the many films artfully portraying the trauma of men.

The analogy goes like this.

We see a wide opening shot of men in a battlefield. They are muddy, bloody, and exhausted. The camera zooms in on two soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat and as it does, things switch to slow-motion, and the soundtrack falls silent. The audience is drawn into a long moment, where time has decelerated and each bead of sweat, each battle cry, becomes a universe. Nothing else, nothing about the wider scene of busy mayhem, seems to exist. This is absorption, a key symptom of dissociation.

Then, suddenly, the film speeds up again and we see the victor plunge his bayonet into his victim’s abdomen, a fatal blow. The victor’s face distorts, as he realises the horror he has just performed, a horror he can never undo. The victim coughs up blood and falls back onto the frozen ground. Then, with his last breaths – and thanks to some special effects – we see him standing outside himself, watching himself die. The camera pulls out, and we are privy to the scene now from far away. We see the two men as they see themselves: small figures, helpless and powerless to change their fates. These are depersonalisation and derealisation, both core symptoms of dissociation.

Later, the victor returns to his celebrating battalion. He is outwardly calm, emotionless. He goes about his business, taking off his shoes, cleaning his gun. But the light has gone from his eyes. We see the shell of a man he has become, shocked, unable to engage meaningfully in the merriment around him, let alone wail at the injustice of it all. This is numbing, also a sign of dissociation.

War veterans dissociate. Car accident victims and those caught up in natural disasters dissociate. Being a common human experience, dissociation makes sense to us. There is nothing mysterious or mad about it.

In the short term, dissociation can be beneficial. Professional athletes, for example, endorse the experience of feeling that their bodies do not belong to them. They say that it provides them with a greater ability to ignore pain. Yet, in the longer term, neurobiological findings suggest that dissociative states are likely to disrupt information processing. Over time dissociation itself is stress-inducing. Because it disrupts normal neurocognitive functioning, it results in a frightening loss of control, mirroring the loss of control experienced in the original trauma. In this way, dissociation turns maladaptive. What at first protected us, now requires swift and serious intervention.

When it comes to sexual assault, Australia is dissociating.

All of us, men and women alike, like to think that we ourselves would never be caught up in injustice. We read about sexual assault, rape, murder, and family violence and think those people must be monsters. We smugly dehumanise the perpetrators, applying to them a concept we would never apply to ourselves. As though calling something ‘evil’ were explanatory. As though, by putting the perpetrators of crimes and those who help to conceal them at a distance from ourselves, we have made sense of it all. They are not like us. We would never do that. But this distancing is the most dangerous move of all. Dehumanisation is the real evil. What it does, is it makes us forget that evil is not unhuman. Atrocious acts, violent acts, are common human acts.

This is why it is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. You cannot bow out. There is no safe port, no Switzerland of sexual assault. As a bystander, you are forced to take a side. If you do nothing, if you choose the easier path of believing women are more likely to be muddled and mad than sane and sexually assaulted, then you are taking the side of the perpetrator, of all perpetrators, who rely on your silence for their continued secrecy.

In Australia, the most traumatic events of women and children’s lives have historically taken place beyond the domain of publicly-validated reality. Dissociative trauma makes us feel unreal, and our nation echoes back to us that detached unreality. There are no RSLs for women who have bravely carried this heavy burden. No place to gather and remember. No coins commemorating the heroes of rape. No monuments to the victims of child sexual abuse, thousands upon thousands of us.

And we are exhausted.


There are three stages to recovering from trauma, and they apply to rape victims just as they apply to combat veterans: establishing safety, reconstructing the trauma story, and restoring the connection between survivors and their communities.

Stage One, establishing safety, is the foundation. Yet in Australia, women are never safe. Not in a community where the majority of us will at some point experience harassment, violence, coercion, grooming or rape. In the home, at school, at afterschool sport, and in the workplace. Even if a woman establishes a personal safety of sorts, she is rarely afforded the opportunity to move on to Stage Two, to reconstruct her own trauma story, putting the pieces of herself back together again. If she tries, by accessing – for example – WHO-recognised, scientifically-researched trauma therapies such as those accessed by the woman at the centre of the Christian Porter allegations, she is opening herself up to that predictable accusation of insanity.

So long as Stages One and Two are out of reach, the connection between survivors and their communities cannot be restored. The demand that Australia hears our stories, pays witness to them, is thus essential. Sexual assault is routine. It is happening to women in our country right now, this second. Those women are no doubt leaving their bodies, feeling unreal, narrowing their focus, experiencing a strange slowing of time. None of this means it isn’t happening. In fact, from a neurobiological standpoint, dissociation is good evidence that it did happen, and of the deep and lasting harm it has caused.

I applaud Christian Porter for publicly admitting that he might not be okay. That he needs to seek some help. We must normalise men taking care of their own mental health. But not at the cost of women. How we respond to this endless conflict, this overrun battlefield, this exhausting fight, is up to us.


Image: Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column (1944), detail.

Sophie Vivian

Sophie Vivian grew up in Canberra, where she was a gymnast and internationally competitive climber, training at the Australian Institute of Sport. Since leaving the world of elite sport, she has completed a PhD in philosophy and an MSc in Neuroscience. She is a mother and an award-winning poet, and writes on social justice issues from her home, acreage in the Blue Mountains, Australia. Her website is sophivivian.com .

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