Rape myths and rape culture can often lead to confusion. Survivors might not even know they were assaulted. This is because of messages from society or friends that counteract the realities of consent. Research has shown that up to 73% of college women who are survivors of rape don’t acknowledge the sexual assault. Moreover, half of the women from one study reported experiences in line with sexual assault but didn’t know they were assaulted. This is what is called unacknowledged sexual assault.
So what is unacknowledged sexual assault? Basically, it is when sexual activities meet the criteria for sexual assault but the survivor doesn’t consider it to be assault. Unacknowledged survivors in general may be more likely to call the assault “miscommunication” or “bad sex”.
We spoke recently about some commonly misunderstood reactions to sexual assault. That will tie into this article through responses like explanation or normalization. Now let’s explore some reasons why someone might not consider themselves to have been sexually assaulted. Even with evidence to the contrary.
Factors leading to an unacknowledged sexual assault
To start, if you haven’t read about the rape myths and rape culture linked above, please go through those as a precursor to the rest of this article. For those who are familiar with them, you may have an idea of why so many sexual assaults go unacknowledged. A major factor to sexual assault being unacknowledged is when the survivor knows the perpetrator. This is especially true when the survivor has been in a romantic relationship with the perpetrator, and may have consented to sex in the past. Research shows that they might believe that, in those relationships, “sexual activity would be considered appropriate and expected”.
Survivors of unacknowledged sexual assault may also have a different idea of what a sexual assault is. These “scripts” that survivors face may be informed by rape myths and rape culture. For example another factor in unacknowledged sexual assault is if there isn’t physical violence during the assault. Another one is if the survivor doesn’t follow the rape myth of resisting the assault. We have written in the past about different reactions to trauma, including freezing, and how they don’t mean that an assault didn’t happen.
Unacknowledged survivors are more likely to be younger. They are less likely to know a friend who was sexually assaulted. And they are less likely to report receiving information from friends about sexual assault.
What are the effects of unacknowledged sexual assault?
Not acknowledging a sexual assault can be a way a survivor tries to protect themselves. It can lead to feeling less distressed about the event than someone who acknowledges the sexual assault. This might be the first part of a process where the survivor comes to terms with the assault before they are able to label it that way. Unfortunately, there is little evidence in this realm, but oftentimes labelling can be part of the recovery process. But, each survivor will experience their assault differently. And they will have different ways of coping with and/or labelling the experience.
There are a few things that we have good evidence for though. The first being that unacknowledged sexual assault is a risk factor for being victimized again. The survivor may have to go through the same experience with the same partner. Especially if the relationship is maintained and rape myths are not questioned. Also, unacknowledged assault survivors are less likely to reach out for support. This can include medical, mental health, or support services. This may come from fears of sharing the experience or even for blaming themselves for the assault. A study found that only 3% of people who acknowledged being a survivor of a sexual assault didn’t disclose this to anyone. On the other hand, over 1 out of 4 people who didn’t acknowledge an assault happening had never disclosed the incident.
What can be done about unacknowledged sexual assault?
Many of these experiences happen on a university campus. Moreover, one study found that 80.5% of college females didn’t acknowledge a sexual assault as such. Major risk factors are a belief in rape culture and rape myths, a lack of social conversations about sexual assault, and being young. So, campuses can play a major role by opening up these conversations with their students. Offices of the prevention of sexual violence are key players in this space, but everyone plays a role. If you haven’t spoken about sexual assault with the people in your life, read through one of our guides. You can also share this article with those close to you to open up a conversation.
How can Vesta help?
People normally think that there are safe and effective ways to report sexual assault online. However, VESTA stands alone as the first fully online third-party reporting tool for sexual assaults. The VESTA Reporting tools can help in a variety of settings. Campuses, workplaces, or community organizations can get support for those who have been assaulted. They can simply use our tool to document the incidence. They can also either share anonymous statistical data or file a full police report. VESTA can help survivors connect to resources in their community as well, so that nobody has to recover from sexual assault alone. Then, when our communities start to heal, we can move step by step towards eradicating rape culture from the world.