Blog

Month: March 2016

Why Do Victims Minimize Sexual Violence?
Posted by On Tuesday, March 29, 2016

When asked why they didn’t report an incident of sexual assault, a common reason given by survivors is that they didn’t believe it was serious enough to report, or that it wasn’t clear that the assailant meant harm or had committed a crime at all. This outlook contradicts the popular understanding of sexual assault as always being traumatic. Trauma is processed and manifested in complex interactions with the environment in which they occur. Unacknowledged rapes, or experiencing incidents that fit the legal definition of rape but not labeling it as such, are a surprisingly understudied phenomenon considering its prevalence: among a national sample of college women, 73 percent of rape victims did not acknowledge what happened to them as being sexual assault. 

 

We do know some things about the phenomenon. Sexual assaults are more likely to be unacknowledged if they were committed by a current romantic or sexual partner, used less physical force, and resulted in less physical injury to the victim. Additionally, victims who were inebriated during the attack and did not have a clear memory of the incident were less likely to acknowledge the incident as having been sexual assault. Interestingly, 84 percent of victims of unacknowledged rape engage in one or two forms of resistance, such as verbal reasoning, or physical struggling. However, the enactment and violation of the resistance are later re-conceptualized as “miscommunication”.


The data also contains clues about why victims may conceptualize the event as something other than a crime. Those who acknowledged their rapes were more likely to disclose the event to a higher number of people, but also reported receiving more negative feedback from those people compared to victims who did not acknowledge their rapes. Both types of victims experienced similar negative internal states following the attacks, with acknowledged victims experiencing slightly more intense symptoms of PTSD, possibly due to the fact that acknowledged rapes tend to be more violent.

 

Unacknowledged rapes do not remain constant over time—it is likely that low initial acknowledgement rates are related to victims needing time to process the event in order to understand what happened to them. While only 25% of victims who had been raped within a six-month time period acknowledged their rape, 70.5% of rape victims whose rape occurred over three years ago acknowledged what happened to them. Unfortunately, this timeline can make prosecution difficult, as much physical evidence must be collected immediately following the assault.

 

The reasons for unacknowledged rapes are complex. Some studies point to hetero-patriarchal sexual script-building and maintenance during adolescence as important factors. Young girls and women conceptualize male sexual aggression as being a normal part of everyday life and do not consider minor or even major acts of physical aggression as anything other than “just how boys are.” Additionally, girls and women are often taught to police each other’s sexuality as a way to maintain their own moral reputations. That is, they commonly learn that women are meant to be gatekeepers of sex, and that outside perceptions of how hard a woman has “fought off” unwanted sex is tied to her perceived complicity in sexual assault. Therefore, acknowledging a rape opens the victim up to a barrage of scrutiny.

 

Importantly, the study also discusses the low rate of reporting and the minimization of sexual violence as being related to the victim’s perception of the enforcing institution as an extension of the patriarchal apparatus. Enforcing institutions are part of the same culture that gives rise to sexual violence, and are additionally imbued with institutional or legal power. Girls and women may therefore be wary of the forensic interview setting as being hostile to their sexuality, sense of agency, or their decision to use alcohol or drugs. As a result, women may dismiss or play down instances of sexual violence as a way to build rapport and maintain their own credibility in the face of biased reception.

 

Unacknowledged rapes carry with them the threat of future victimization, and that can be costly to both the victim as well as the community. However, denial may also serve an environmentally protective role for the victim when their social context makes it costly to be a victim. It is therefore vitally important for educational institutions to not only ensure that students are aware of reporting policies and practices, but that the social context in which reporting is carried out is one in which victims will feel that they will be supported and believed.

Talk About It!Share on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

The Dangers of Projecting Expectations onto Victims of Sexual Assault
Posted by On Friday, March 11, 2016

On an episode entitled “Anatomy of Doubt” producers of the NPR radio show This American Life teamed up with The Marshall Project and ProPublica to present a story of what can happen when well-meaning people make erroneous assumptions about how victims of sexual assault ought to behave after an attack. The episode recalls the experience of a young woman named Marie who was brutally raped in her home by an intruder. After the attack, Marie called her former foster parents and the police for help. Even though the police found and collected physical evidence of the assault at the scene, Marie’s detached and “flirtatious” behavior caused even those people closest to her to question her truthfulness. This ignited a cascade of doubt and disbelief that erupted into a second trauma for Marie and nearly landed her in jail.

The neurobiology of trauma involves a number of self-protective mechanisms that can produce disruptions in memory and emotional expression in the victim. The amygdala, or the part of the brain responsible for processing fear, interferes with memory consolidation when it is hyper-activated. This may account for lapses in memory or problems with recall in a victim of sexual violence. The body also produces opioids in response to trauma as a way to minimize pain—these endogenous opioids behave similarly to opiates like heroin, and can flatten affect and have adverse effects on memory consolidation. These effects are particularly prevalent for individuals like Marie who have been exposed to trauma during childhood. While complying with the Campus SaVE Act can help educate students on these matters, it is also vitally important for the general public to be aware of the possibility of such reactions in order to minimize incidents of re-traumatization.

The episode also highlights the way in which faulty interviewing techniques can coerce victims into retracting their statement. The police in charge of Marie’s case lacked experience in handling sexual assault cases and presumed that Marie was lying based solely on an inaccurate understanding of how traumatized people are supposed to behave. Their line of questioning was more befitting a suspect of a crime rather than a rape victim. By threatening Marie with the famously faulty polygraph test, they ensured her recantation. Recantations are usually counted as false reports, and those produced under coercive circumstances may therefore inflate the number of false reports. False rape reports are already disproportionately emphasized in the conversation around sexual assault reporting, and the social and legal consequences for reporters who have been determined to be lying are severe.

“Anatomy of Doubt” provides a compelling argument for believing victims. Victims of sexual violence can appear emotionless, carefree, or even cheerful directly following the attack. They may display flirtatious or sexual behavior toward responders, or giggle and laugh at unexpected times. None of these things alone should be taken as an indication that the victim is lying about having been assaulted.

Talk About It!Share on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrEmail this to someone