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.

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Weekly Roundup
Posted by On Friday, February 20, 2015

The federal government offers funding for research on campus responses to sexual assaults and an open letter against proposed state laws that would legislate higher education responses to sexual violence.

$1.5 Million for Research on Sexual Assault Responses

We’ve featured numerous articles in this space on the need for more information about campus sexual assault and what does and doesn’t work when trying to prevent it. Apparently the United States Department of Justice agrees, because the National Institute of Justice has issued a call for proposals for studies that will investigate different methods of responding to sexual assault on college campuses. They are offering $1.5 million in funding for research into how schools handle campus sexual assault cases. With numerous schools trying a wide variety of methods to address the issue, such additional data is sorely needed.

Educators Call on Legislators to Vote “No” on Sexual Assault Bills

This week numerous student affairs associations and victim’s advocates groups sent an open letter to all “Elected Leaders of the 50 United States,” urging them to vote down proposed state legislation that would require school officials to refer all reports of sexual violence to law enforcement, as well as bills providing enhanced legal rights to the accused, but not to victim/survivors, such as legal representation at conduct hearings, judicial review of decisions made in institutional proceedings, and recovery of money damages if the court rules in favor of the accused student.  This approach, it is argued, “ignores the balance set by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the scope of accused students’ due process rights.” The letter also points out that mandatory reporting laws for sexual assault complaints conflict with federal laws that require schools to give victims the option not to report their sexual assault to local police. They also argue that such requirements could have a chilling effect on reports of sexual assault to school officials by victim/survivors who don’t want the police involved. The letter is signed by higher education professional organizations, state coalitions working to combat sexual violence, and national women’s and victims’ rights organizations, including NASPA, Know Your IX, and the Victim Rights Law Center.

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Weekly Roundup
Posted by On Friday, November 7, 2014

For this week’s roundup the emphasis is on research and writing to inform reporting on and the handling of campus sexual assault cases. We spotlight a new initiative from Newsweek to cover sexual assault as well as helpful resources for anyone working on these complex issues whether from a distance or on the ground.

Newsweek to Crowdfund Reporting on College Sexual Assault

Newsweek is partnering with crowdfunding platform Beacon and journalist Mandy Van Deven to support “Understanding the College Rape Crisis,” a long-term investigative journalism project that will see Van Deven embedded at various schools, conducting numerous interviews, and publishing regular updates as well as longer, more in-depth reports. Van Deven says, “My coverage will try to strip away the sensationalism and focus on the nuts and bolts of what it takes to be responsible for the well-being of thousands of young people.” Having covered numerous similar stories, published a book on gender-based violence and human rights, and worked as a peer reviewer for Feminist Studies, Van Deven appears to be well-equipped to work on a project of this scope on this particular subject. As noted in the Newsweek article linked to above, crowdfunding this project reflects a growing trend in journalism that has successfully funded a variety of other similar projects “where editorial mission and public interest align.”

Sexual Violence Research Roundup

The need for more research to develop effective sexual violence prevention strategies is the focus of this research roundup from Journalist’s Resource, which not only encourages responsible journalism but could also be highly useful to college administrators. It includes an in-depth summary of recent developments in sexual violence coverage and prevention efforts as well as summaries of and links to some of the latest academic studies on sexual assault and prevention.

Guidelines for Talking About Sexual Assault

While written for the media, another useful resource for both college administrators and anyone working to solve the problem of campus sexual assault is available on the website Know Your IX. This page describes do’s and don’ts for covering sexual assault stories, including contextualizing gender-based violence, choosing language to avoid victim blaming, and accurately reporting the rate of false reports. While the advice is geared towards journalists, many sections, including what language to use to describe assaults and tips for interviewing survivors, could be extremely useful for administrators dealing with assault cases on their campuses.

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Weekly Roundup
Posted by On Friday, April 11, 2014

We’ve spent the last couple of weeks focused on content related to sexual violence and sexual violence prevention in recognition of the fact that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. However, as it happens April is also Alcohol Awareness Month, a topic which is, of course, highly relevant to our work here at CampusClarity. This week, we’re briefly shifting gears to highlight some stories related to that topic.

Alcohol Awareness Month

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence has sponsored Alcohol Awareness Month every year for the last 27 years with the intention of “reducing the stigma associated with alcoholism that too often prevents individuals and families from seeking help.” This year the NCADD has chosen a theme particularly relevant to higher education: “Help for Today, Hope for Tomorrow.” That theme was chosen in order to draw attention to the detrimental effects of underage and college drinking, a problem which the NCADD says can be addressed at least in part through improved substance abuse education for students.

References to Alcohol in Pop Music Increase Teen Drinking

If you were worried after hearing that research found a quarter of the Top 40 hits from 2009 through 2011 referenced alcohol and glorified heavy drinking, another study justifies your concern. Researchers have found that, even after controlling for factors such as age and parental alcohol use, teens who professed a fondness for pop songs like LMFAO’s “Shots” (“Shots, shots, shots, shots everybody!”) were three times as likely to drink and twice as likely to binge drink when compared to peers who preferred more sober tunes.

Drunk People Can’t Guess Their BAC

Finally, we have this fun but relevant story from the website Cockeyed. By setting up a table on the streets of Sacramento on St. Patrick’s Day, challenging inebriated passersby to guess their own BACs, and then comparing their estimates to the more precise measurements of a Breathalyzer, Rob Cockerham confirmed what most of us probably already suspected: drunk people aren’t very good at estimating just how drunk they actually are.

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