The majority of sexual assault victims don’t acknowledge that they were raped right away, if ever. The fear of stigma is part of it – but so is the body’s automatic response to trauma.
By Christine Ro
She was 16, he was 40. She told herself it was a romantic affair.
But her body and mind would do strange things when they were together. Sometimes she felt as if she was separate from her body, which would shake and shake after seeing him. This was a full-body shaking, more like a quake than a shiver.
She hadn’t experienced these things before – but neither had she ever been with an older man. This must just be how it was, she thought. She dismissed them.
It took Marissa Korbel more than a decade to view what had happened to her not as an affair, but as assault. “I really took all of the blame for it for at least nine or ten years,” she says. With years of therapy behind her, she’s now a mother and an attorney for an organisation in Oregon that advocates for survivors of sexual assault.
Even today, Korbel finds herself sometimes re-experiencing the bodily dissociation that she first encountered with her assaulter. Revisiting this trauma is a way for her to try to understand it. “I’m seeking sexual experiences that overwhelm me, and that make me basically leave my body,” she explains matter-of-factly. “I have a very complicated relationship with dissociation because I understand that it’s a marker of a trauma. And I know that when I learned to do it, it wasn’t a good thing.”
Korbel isn’t alone. A meta-analysis of 28 studies of women and girls aged 14 and older who had had non-consensual sex obtained through force, threat or incapacitation found that 60% of these victims didn’t acknowledgethat they had been raped.
The stories behind the shockingly high numbers show one key reason that sexual assault often isn’t reported right away: it’s common for victims to need time to acknowledge what’s happened to them.
Labelling of unwanted sexual experiences is generally a gradual process, and one of the hallmarks of PTSD is emotional or behavioural avoidance of reminders of the trauma. In fact, 75% of the people who contact centres run by the organisation Rape Crisis England and Wales are seeking support for an assault that took place at least a year earlier.
Not only is there no link between how quickly someone reports an assault and how genuine this allegation is, but a number of social and psychological factors keep assault survivors from processing their experiences immediately.
One key aspect is that many people aren’t sure if what happened to them was ‘really’ rape. Legally, definitions vary by country, even by state. In the UK, for example, a woman can’t legally be considered to have committed rape (although she can be charged with sexual assault). In the US, meanwhile, the age of consent is 14 in Missouri (if the other person is 20 years old or younger). But in its next-door neighbour Illinois, the age of consent is 17.
These varied laws reflect an equally confused – and evolving – cultural understanding of what rape is. And those narratives themselves can make someone even more unsure of what they experienced.
The persistent stereotype of ‘real rape’ involves a male stranger who violently penetrates a resisting woman in a public place. When sexual assault doesn’t match that narrative, it can make it difficult for even the survivor to recognise that it still was, in fact, sexual assault. The brain, after all, categorises experiences according to what we have been taught about what they mean.
But one of the biggest problems with this narrative is that it is a myth. Rape not only includes a number of other circumstances, but it usually is a different circumstance, than the stranger-in-an-alley story.
In fact, one 2016 study of all of the rapes reported to a central UK police force over a two-year period showed that not one of the 400 incidents fit the ‘real rape’ narrative of a male stranger with a weapon using physical force to penetrate a resisting woman outdoors, at night.
For instance, it’s common that victims of rape don’t physically resist because they’re unconscious, terrified or physically frozen. In a 2017 study of women visiting an emergency rape clinic in Stockholm, 70% reported significant tonic immobility: a temporary and involuntary paralysis stemming from intense fear. These women hadn’t passively consented. Their bodies had responded in a biologically normal way to a threat.
Dissociation, which Korbel first experienced as a teenager, is another unsurprising automatic response to threat. As Zoe Peterson, a clinical psychologist who leads Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute Sexual Assault Research Initiative, says, “it’s frequent – when people are in a traumatic experience that they have no physical way of escaping – that they sort of psychologically escape”.
The brain may dissociate to help a survivor get through the moment. But it also makes them less likely to fight back. That, ironically, makes the experience less like the ‘real rape’ narrative so many of us are taught – which may be why women who don’t fight back “are less likely to label the experience as rape”, says Peterson.
Another cultural script is that only women and girls can be sexually assaulted. Distressingly, the majority of men who were sexually abused as children or raped as adults don’t consider their experiences to be abuse or rape. A study conducted by Peterson and colleagues asked 323 men to complete an online questionnaire about their sexual experiences. Only 24% of those who’d been raped as adults called it rape.
Matthew Hayes, who lives in California, understands how hard it is to use that word. He’d known that the relationship he was in, in his early 20s, wasn’t normal. But his girlfriend was usually coercive rather than physically violent, which is why he resisted thinking of it as rape. (Matthew’s name has been changed in this story at his request.)
Hayes remembers three particular incidents when his ex-girlfriend was both high and threatening. “The first was where she would hit herself until we had sex. The second was that she had a knife, and threatened to cut herself throughout the course of the night unless we had sex.
“The third was the only [threat] directed actually at me, where she had somehow acquired a gun. She brought it out and, as per the usual, told me that something would happen unless I had sex with her.”
It wasn’t until a year after the relationship ended that, after speaking to a friend who was horrified to hear about the experience, he realised that this was more than manipulation – it was rape. After all, his experience didn’t map onto the common rape narrative. A large part of this was his gender.
But there are many ways in which someone’s experience doesn’t map onto how they define rape themselves. Peterson and her colleague Charlene Muehlenhard found, in a study of 77 female college students who’d been non-consensually vaginally penetrated, varied reasons why the women didn’t classify their experiences as rape. These included:
- The attacker didn’t match their expectations of a rapist (“he was my friend and everyone loved him”)
- They worried that their behaviour didn’t match a ‘normal’ victim’s (“it was my fault to be that intoxicated”)
- There hadn’t been physical violence or resistance (“he wasn’t beating me”)
Some stereotypical rape scripts may apply more in situations of conflict, displacement, and natural disasters, when reports of outdoor rape by armed strangers become more frequent. Rape is well-known as a weapon of war. When order breaks down generally, sexual violence increases.
This prevalence can itself lead to the cultural definition of ‘rape’ narrowing even further.
Ranit Mishori is a medical expert consultant for Physicians for Human Rights, which runs a programme on sexual violence in conflict zones. One of their regions is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where violent conflict has persisted for decades.
There, “we see what we call ‘rape normalisation’”, she says.
“In one study, almost a third of men told investigators that women want to be raped and may even enjoy it. Survivors may internalise these messages and simply consider such assaults part of ‘normal life’ or something every woman eventually has to deal with, as opposed to a serious crime. This is common in many countries and cultures where male sexual entitlement is pervasive.”
But whatever the context, Peterson cautions that “it’s really important to be clear that whether or not someone labels a sexual assault or rape as a sexual assault or rape, it doesn’t necessarily influence whether or not it’s traumatic”.
As for Hayes, when it clicked that he’d been raped, he was stunned and devastated. He says he is glad that he had that time before it hit him. “It absolutely helped that there was an interim period where the other wounds were able to heal,” he says.
The toll of acknowledging assault
Another confounding factor in realising an experience was an assault is that survivors sometimes continue – or even start – relationships with their assaulters. Marry-your-rapist lawshave a long history. These laws, which protect rapists from prosecution if they marry their victims, still exist in Algeria, the Philippines, Tajikistan, and other countries. Even in places without such laws, survivors report dating their assaulters in an effort to neutralise the trauma or regain some control over an event that left them powerless.
There’s a protective psychological logic to this. Responses to trauma vary based on individuals’ existing belief systems. Sexual assault is a blow to beliefs about, for instance, certain men (like a husband or a friend) being trustworthy. Some people who are assaulted will reject this threat to their beliefs.
In the same way that the brain can counteract any other terrible or traumatic shock with denial, it may be more comforting to believe that it wasn’t actually rape.
As Rape Crisis England & Wales spokesperson Katie Russell says, “people can find it very difficult to name, say, their partner, their former partner, perhaps the co-parent of their children, as a rapist. It’s difficult to do that publicly, but it’s difficult to do that even privately, and to yourself.”
Peterson sees this as a kind of cognitive dissonance between “this idea that rapists are deranged sociopaths” and the more uncomfortable reality that assaulters are all around us. “In many ways, based on the research, men who rape women are not that different than men who don’t rape women,” she says.
She found that the women in her study were reluctant to think of their assaults as rapes for a number of reasons, including:
- They didn’t want to call the man a rapist (“At first I was upset about it, but cared about the guy so I didn’t want to call it rape”)
- They didn’t want to think of similar men as potential rapists (“He just seems like a lot of guys I’ve met”)
- ‘Rape’ is an intimidating word (“I tell people my first experience was not by my choice, it was forced. I think that it makes me less upset to say.”)
Survivors, particularly girls and women, often put a lot of effort into apologising on their assaulters’ behalf. They frequently minimise the assaults by calling them cases of ‘miscommunication’ or ‘bad sex’. And they redirect the blame because of the many costs to calling it rape – which might range from gossip and feeling blamed to the loss of economic opportunities, family disownment, and ostracism.
Then there is the stigma.
Heather Littleton, a psychology professor at East Carolina University, has been studying unacknowledged rape for decades. A paper she co-authored about low-income women notes that acknowledged victims feel more stigmatised. Not acknowledging rape might protect people from absorbing that stigma. At a conscious level, survivors may want to avoid the distress and anxiety that comes with acknowledged victimisation – which is clearly far from being a ‘coveted status’. “For other victims, there may be a very quick, likely unconscious rejection” of the label, Littleton tells me.
So it’s common to internalise the shame and embarrassment, and even for survivors to blame themselves in anticipation of what sceptics will say. This shame impedes recovery. Rape avoidance programmes may actually make it more likely that women blame themselves rather than perpetrators. Alcohol use is another factor that makes victims more likely to blame themselves.
Working on this article has made me realise how textbook my own experiences are. I shrugged off being drunk and high in a teenage boyfriend’s van when he pushed his penis into my mouth. I laughed off being groped at a party by a friend, and by a relative at home. I’m like many women and children who have so normalised the idea that our bodies don’t belong fully to ourselves that breaches of our bodies don’t feel like violations.
So it’s ever-important for survivors to hear: it wasn’t your fault. Pain and shame can become a toxic cocktail of misdirected blame. But it wasn’t your fault.
“There’s the trauma of what happens to you, and then there’s this way that you beat yourself up for the way you responded,” Korbel says quietly. “There’s so much shame that people don’t know.”