- Do Victims Fail to Acknowledge Having Been Raped?
- The Reluctance to Label Sexual Assault
In all cases of sexual assault, pursuing justice for survivors includes helping them process the experience, in order to heal both physically and emotionally.
With this in mind, researchers have documented the reality that many victims do not seek help right away because not all rape is recognized as the crime that it is.
This phenomenon has both relational and emotional consequences for the survivor, and is well documented in research.
Alexandra J. Lipinski, et al. (from 2021) report that although almost one in five women report having been raped, a meta-analysis revealed that 60.4 % of survivors do not label these experiences as such.
This variation is referred to as "rape acknowledgment."
Lipinski, et al. (ibid.) recognize possible reasons survivors are reluctant to label their experiences as rape, including the fact that most rapes are non-violent assaults by known perpetrators, including romantic partners or acquaintances.
Because these experiences are not consistent with socialized messages or myths which depict "real rape" as physically violent, many survivors are reluctant to label an experience "rape" if their details don't fit the stereotype.
This decision may impact both physical and emotional outcomes.
Consequences of Failing to Acknowledge Rape
Many studies over the years have documented differences in processing the rape experience between acknowledged and unacknowledged survivors, including mental health outcomes and risk for sexual re-victimization.
Melissa J. Layman et al. found that acknowledged rape victims exhibited more symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder than unacknowledged victims, and reported that they would be more likely to be willing to "press charges" against the assailant.
Consistent with other research, they also recognized that being sexually assaulted does not necessarily dissuade a woman from maintaining a relationship with her rapist.
In their study, nearly one-third of the victims maintained a relationship with the perpetrator; one-fourth continued to have sex with the assailant post-attack, although Layman et al. admit they are unable to determine whether that sex was voluntary or forced.
Heather Littleton et al. (2017) found that the majority of college women who are raped are unacknowledged victims — which may elevate their risk of re-victimization compared to acknowledged victims.
They found that unacknowledged victims reported higher amounts of attempted and completed rapes, the relationship between acknowledgment and attempted rape was mediated by the number of sexual partners, and that both number of partners and regular drinking mediated the relationship between acknowledgment of victimization and completed rape.
Explaining the cycle of revictimization, Littleton et al. (ibid.) conclude that failure to acknowledge having been raped may increase vulnerability partly because unacknowledged victims may be more likely to engage in behaviors that make them vulnerable to revictimization.
Littleton et al. (supra) also report that unacknowledged rape victims sometimes downplay their experience, characterizing the event using what they term as a "benign, non-victimizing label" such as a "miscommunication" or "bad sex," if they are even able to come up with a way to label their experience.
Nonetheless, in some cases they note that in terms of trauma, unacknowledged rape victims may suffer the same type of psychological distress as acknowledged victims.
What Is Ambivalent Acknowledgement?
Lipinski et al. (supra) discuss a third category of survivors they describe as having ambivalence about acknowledging rape.
They describe these survivors as suffering from significant distress related to the experience, but are reluctant to label the event as "rape" in order to avoid potential consequences which might include blame by self or others or associated social stigma.
In all cases, it is essential to remember that help is available, to promote health and healing, to empower victims to both survive and thrive.
The preceding article was originally published in Psychology Today, and is used with the permission of its author.
Wendy L. Patrick, JD, MDiv, Ph.D., is an award-winning career trial attorney and media commentator. She is host of "Live with Dr. Wendy" on KCBQ, and a daily guest on other media outlets, delivering a lively mix of flash, substance, and style. Read Dr. Wendy L. Patrick's Reports — More Here.
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