Journalists Guide to Sex Assault Research Focuses on Survivors

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Most people who experience unwanted sexual contact do not report it—for reasons such as the victim does not view the encounter as ‘rape,’ even when it fits the legal definition— according to a new report for students, journalists and researchers by the Journalist’s Resource at the Harvard University Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. 

“Over the past year, as the #MeToo movement has grown and national figures such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein have faced allegations of sexual misconduct from women they knew years ago, one question has continued to surface: Why would someone claiming abuse wait so long to come forward?” author Denise-Marie Ordway writes.

Research indicates the answer is complicated, she continues.

“There are a wide range of reasons people don’t report their experiences with sexual harassment and assault to authorities and, oftentimes, even hide them from friends and family members.”

One reason is self-blame, said Karen G. Weiss, an associate professor of sociology at West Virginia University whose research focuses on sexual violence, the roundup report notes.

The report gathered and summarized a sampling of peer-reviewed research — including two academic articles from Weiss — that investigates why many people don’t report sex crimes.

The following list includes studies that look at factors that discourage or prevent reporting among specific groups, including teenagers, college students, prison inmates and women serving in the military.

“Meta-Analysis of the Prevalence of Unacknowledged Rape” Wilson, Laura C.; Miller, Katherine E. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, April 2016.

Laura C. Wilson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington, led this review of 28 academic studies to estimate how often women who’ve been sexually assaulted do not label their experience as rape.  The 28 studies focused on the experiences of a total of 5,917 women who had been raped at some point in their lives after age 14.

Across the studies, the researchers find that 60.4 percent of women, on average, did not recognize their experience as rape even though it fit the definition — an unwanted sexual experience obtained through force or the threat of force or a sexual experience they did not consent to because they were incapacitated.

“This finding has important implications because it suggests that our awareness of the scope of the problem may underestimate its true occurrence rate, depending on the type of measurement,” the authors write.

“This impacts policy reform, allocations of mental health services, survivors’ perceptions of their experiences, and society’s attitudes toward survivors.”

“’You Just Don’t Report That Kind of Stuff’: Investigating Teens’ Ambivalence Toward Peer-Perpetrated, Unwanted Sexual Incidents” Weiss, Karen G. Violence and Victims, 2013. 

In this study, Weiss investigates why many teenagers who experience unwanted sexual contact from other teens trivialize those experiences as unimportant or normal. She relies on data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, administered each year to tens of thousands of individuals aged 12 years and older.

According to survey data, 92 percent of teens who say they experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact are girls, 81 percent are white and 13 percent are Hispanic.

Just over half of these incidents — 53 percent — involved sexual coercion such as rape and attempted rape while 47 percent involved other contact such as groping. Almost half of teenagers — 44 percent — said the perpetrators were other youth between the ages of 12 and 17.

A key finding: Teens who experience unwanted contact rarely report it. Five percent of incidents were reported to police and 25 percent were reported to other authorities such as school officials or employers.

“Too Ashamed to Report: Deconstructing the Shame of Sexual Victimization” Weiss, Karen G. Feminist Criminology, July 2010. 

In another study from Weiss, she “deconstructs shame as both a culturally imbued response to sexual victimization and as a much taken-for-granted reason for why victims don’t report incidents to the police.”

Weiss analyzed statements made by men and women as part of the annual National Crime Victimization Survey. She examined their responses to a survey question asking them to describe what happened to them. She also examined structured responses to questions about sex-related incidents.

What Weiss found was that many respondents expressed shame as part of their description of what happened and why they didn’t go to the police. Thirteen percent of incidents made some reference to shame. For example, a 19-year-old women stated that she was ashamed and felt partly to blame for a male acquaintance raping her because she couldn’t stop him.

“Barriers to Reporting Sexual Assault for Women and Men: Perspectives of College Students” Sable, Marjorie R.; Danis, Fran; Mauzy, Denise L.; Gallagher, Sarah K. Journal of American College Health, 2006. 

For this study, a research team from the University of Missouri-Columbia surveyed students at a large, Midwestern university to better understand what they perceive as the biggest barriers to reporting rape and sexual assault for men and women.

Students rated “shame, guilt and embarrassment,” “confidentiality concerns” and “fear of not being believed” as the top three perceived barriers to reporting rape among both men and women. However, students rated shame, guilt and embarrassment as a much larger barrier for men than women. Another major barrier to reporting for men, according to students, is the fear they could be judged as being gay.

“Compared with women, men may fail to report because reporting is perceived to jeopardize their masculine self-identity,” the authors write.

“The high score that being judged as gay received by the respondents may acknowledge society’s consideration that male rape occurs in the gay, not the general, community.”

“Reporting Sexual Assault in the Military: Who Reports and Why Most Servicewomen Don’t”Mengeling, Michelle A.; Booth, Brenda M.; Torner, James C.; Sadler, Anne G. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, July 2014. 

For this study, researchers interviewed women who had served in the U.S. Army or Air Force and acknowledged at least one attempted or completed sexual assault while they were in the military. Of the 1,339 women interviewed, 18 percent said they had experienced sexual assault while serving on full-time active duty.

Meanwhile, 12 percent said they had experienced sexual assault while serving in the Reserves or National Guard.

Among the key findings: Three-fourths of servicewomen did not report their assaults. Eighty percent of women who said they’d been assaulted identified the perpetrator as U.S. military personnel.

The researchers found that sexual assaults were more likely to be reported if they occurred on base or while on duty or if they resulted in a physical injury.

They also found that enlisted women who had never gone to college were most likely to report. The most common reasons women gave for not officially reporting their assault were embarrassment and not knowing how to report.

“The Darkest Figure of Crime: Perceptions of Reasons for Male Inmates to Not Report Sexual Assault” Miller, Kristine Levan. Justice Quartely, 2010. 

Kristine Levan, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Idaho, surveyed a random sample of 890 inmates from eight state-run prisons in Texas to understand why a male prisoner might not report sexual assault.

Inmates said the three most common reasons prisoners may not report sexual assault are embarrassment, retaliation from other inmates and a fear of harassment and abuse from other inmates.

“The male prison environment thrives on exerting one’s own masculinity,” Levan writes.

“Although the assailant of a sexual assault gains respect and status, the victim is ultimately emasculated … Heralding back to the tenets of the convict code, inmates are expected to not show signs of weakness, especially to other inmates, and admission to sexual victimization may be an indication to other inmates that they are indeed weak.”

“Would They Officially Report an In-Prison Sexual Assault? An Examination of Inmate Perceptions” Fowler, Shannon K.; Blackburn, Ashley G.; Marquart, James W.; Mullings, Janet L. The Prison Journal, 2010. 

A research team led by Shannon K. Fowler, an associate professor at the University of Houston, examines whether prisoners would report sexual violence or recommend that other prisoners report violence they had experienced. The team surveyed 935 male and female inmates from a large Southern prison system.

Here’s what they found: Most inmates said they would report their sexual assault. However, those who already had experienced assault while incarcerated were less likely to say they would. “

This finding tends to support the bulk of work dedicated to prison culture and sexual assault, where inmate reports to staff could add additional consequences, like retaliation or additional labels of being ‘weak,’ which could lead to increased harassment by other inmates,” the authors write.

Other resources that may be helpful to journalists and researchers:

A full copy of the report by the Journalist’s Resource at Harvard University can be found here. 

Megan Hadley is the senior staff writer and associate editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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