The Brain and Sexual Assault?

Due to all the recent talk/civil discourse on sexual assault, I thought it would be really interesting to look at the neural pathways underlying the perpetrators actions.  Most of the articles I found, were about various actions of date rape drugs on the brain and the amount of victims who later suffered PTSD-like symptoms.  Finally after days of searching, I stumbled across a few case study articles that found a correlation between frontal and temporal lobe damage in sexual offenders.

In this paper, they explore the neurobiological basis for sexual deviance through neuropsychiatry, structural neuroimaging, neuropsychological assessments, and by comparing neuroimages of controls and sex offenders. The frontal and temporal cortices are important for modulation of sex drive, initiation, and sexual activation, which subcortical regions (including the hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, and septal cortex) play a significant role in the modulation of sexual behavior and the endocrine messengers to other parts of the body.  They found that damage to any of these areas often caused hypersexuality, paraphilia, fetishes, or other types of sexual deviance (note, sometimes brain damage may result in a lower sexual drive; however, this paper did not focus on these individuals).  While interesting, these statements seem slightly odd to me since there are so many brain areas involved.  Does disruption to any one of them really produce similar results in behavior?  We must also remember that brain injuries to these areas can result in other differences as well, such as being more impulsive and more violent.

They also found that more pedophiles had dysfunctions in higher cognitive abilities than sexual offenders who target adults.  However, the researchers claim that many of these brain abnormalities are clear in all types of criminals.

Another important fact to consider that was not brought up in this paper is the large number of sexual offenders that have experienced some form of sexual abuse in their life.  Obviously, having a neurobiological basis for committing a crime should not be a get-out-of-jail-free card.  Crimes are crimes, and victims of sexual assault are often left feeling helpless, guilty, and worthless for years and years after an attack.  I know that there are now defendants who claim to have suffered from dissociation or amnesia when committing acts of crime, and the neural pathways should not be used as a similar plea.  But understanding the neurobiology can give us the tools for change. The researchers tried not to make generalizations by breaking down groups into non-violent sexual offenders, violent non-sexual offenders, pedophiles, paraphilias, sadistic and nonsadistic sexual offenders.  This made the paper more complicated and also significantly decreased the sample size in each category.

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4 thoughts on “The Brain and Sexual Assault?

  1. Definitely an interesting topic to bring up in light of everything going on recently. I just wrote my final essay on pathological gambling, but this makes me curious about sexual addictions and what treatments exist if they are able to target specific areas of the brain involved.

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  2. Petey, this is really fascinating! It’s probably fair to assume that not all sex offenders have damage to the frontal and temporal cortices so I wonder what else can cause this behavior. I agree with you that it’s odd that regardless of which area is damaged, the same results can be seen.

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  3. Man, that makes me wish we could study sexual deviance with animal models! It’s impossible, of course, but it’s also hard to get good causal data with human case studies. Still, what they’ve found is compelling and interesting.

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