When Victims Blame the Victim

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 300,165 women were sexually assaulted in 2013. However, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that closer to 1.3 million women are raped every year. Both estimates come from surveys; the difference stems from methods. If a survey uses the word “rape” to gauge respondents’ experiences, the rate is much lower than if when it uses the phrase “unwanted sex.”

Why are so many victims of sexual violence seemingly reluctant to label their experiences “rape”?

Kaitiln Boyle and Ashleigh McKinzie explored that question in their recent study in Social Psychology Quarterly. They found that participants who did not label their unwanted sexual experiences as rape were typically protecting either their assailants or themselves. Protecting the assailant meant explaining away their partners’ sexually aggressive or coercive behavior as a miscommunication or a social pressure that the assailant could not control. In blaming themselves, victims thought they may have been teasing their assailants or they might simply not have a high enough sex drive. They defended their assailant’s presumed good intentions. Protecting themselves came in the form of disparaging their younger selves, claiming to know better now how to avoid exploitive sexual situations. Often, they would come to call their unwanted sexual experiences with ex-boyfriends “rape” after the relationship ended, but they still blamed the rape on their own naivete.

Whether the crime was called rape or unwanted sex, the participants still described themselves and victims in simulations similar to their own as “powerless.” And even if the participants did not report feeling traumatized after the encounter, feelings of powerlessness are known to have grave ramifications for maintaining healthy intimate relationships. Boyle and McKinzie’s study exposes many of the subtle difficulties in fully recognizing and responding to sexual assault and its lasting effects.