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.