Sexual assault and rape are serious social and public health issues in the United States. Women are overwhelmingly the victims of sexual assault and rape, while men are nearly always the perpetrators. National surveys in the United States estimate that one in six women has experienced an attempted or completed rape at some time (Basile, Lang, Bartenfeld, & Clinton-Sherrod, 2005). The vast majority of women are sexually assaulted by men with whom they are acquainted. Women are far less likely to report a rape or assault when they know their assailant, thus instance of sexual assaults are greatly under-reported. This essay examines a number of reasons why women fail to report an assault to formal support agencies and examines some of the ways in which social services agencies can reach women in need of support. This article also discusses rape prevention programs that are effective in reducing instances of sexual assault, including programs that educate college students on the dangers of alcohol and its association with assault. In addition, the gender role beliefs that play a role in how rape is perceived by men and women, particularly when there is a relationship between the victim and the perpetrator are investigated. A look into the continued study and research regarding rape is also included, specifically the ability of such research to identify risk populations and risk factors as well as the type and format of education required to counter the effects of sexual assault.
Keywords Consent; College Rape; Date Rape; Gender Roles; Interventions; Stranger Rape
Sexual violence is a major social and public health problem in the United States. According to the National Violence against Women Survey (NVAWS), one in six women and one in thirty-three men report having experienced an attempted or completed rape (Basile, Lang, Bartenfeld, & Clinton-Sherrod, 2005). The overwhelming majority of victims, however, are women who have been victimized by men (Franiuk, 2007).
Rape is defined as penetration or attempted penetration, but the definition of sexual assault is broader. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), sexual assault encompasses the following (2008):
- Completed or attempted penetration;
- Abusive sexual contact without penetration;
- Non-contact sexual abuse (harassment and voyeurism).
The definition also extends to acts of rape perpetrated during war, sex trafficking, and female genital mutilation (Basile et al., 2005). This essay is limited to a discussion of the three bulleted points above.
In most states, the legal definition of first- or second-degree sexual assault involves non-consensual sexual contact and/or intercourse (Franiuk, 2007). Consent is a critical factor when determining if sexual assault has occurred. If a victim doesn’t consent to engaging in sexual activity with another individual, then the act is legally defined as sexual assault. Non-consent or ambiguous consent cannot be construed as affirmative consent. Victims of sexual assault may not be able to give consent due to age, illness, or impairment or may be intimidated through physical violence or threats (Basile et al., 2005) and therefore afraid to refuse.
Historically, rapes and sexual assaults were believed to be perpetrated against women by strangers, but current data shows that women are much more likely to be sexually assaulted by men with whom they are acquainted. In fact, estimates suggest that 82 percent of all victims of sexual assault know their assailant (Basile et al., 2005).
The majority of first-time rape victims are young; 71 percent of all rapes occur before the victim reaches the age of eighteen. Young women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four are the most at risk for being raped (Feminist Majority Foundation, 2005).
Although women are susceptible in almost any situation, a college campus has unique elements that contribute to higher rates of sexual assault (Franiuk, 2007). College women report they "often feel emotionally and psychologically coerced into sex" (Feminist Majority Foundation, 2005).
A 1987 study of 3,000 college women surveyed indicated that more than 50 percent reported being sexually victimized and 15 percent were victims of rape. The statistics were re-affirmed by subsequent 1997 and 2006 studies (Franiuk, 2007).
Colleges have higher rates of sexual assault than non-college settings because of the prevalence of (Franiuk, 2007):
- Men and women living in close proximity;
- Increased exposure to others having sex.
Many trends are apparent and disturbing when it comes to sexual assault:
- Women are far less likely to report instances of assault if the assailant is known to them. Since only 15 percent of rapes are committed by strangers, this statistic is likely to indicate that only a small number of sexual assaults actually get reported.
- Intoxication clouds judgment and causes uncertainty about what has actually happened.
- Women and men have different ideas about what constitutes "consent"
- Women may subscribe to sexual scripts that suggest women are prey while men are predators "this is how sex is supposed to be-maybe it wasn’t assault"
- College students lack knowledge about sexual assault and its prevalence on campus (Franiuk, 2007).
Responding to Sexual Assault through Education
Researchers and sociologist believe that heightened awareness and education for both men and women can reduce the instances of sexual assault at colleges and universities. One such study provided students with a number of different scenarios and asked them to decide which of the situations constituted sexual assault. Student perceptions revealed that many young people do not have an accurate picture (or definition) of what constitutes sexual assault. In a large number of cases, incidents that met the legal definition of rape or sexual assault went unreported simply because the young women involved did not perceive the incident as a sexual assault.
Knowing that the instances are likely to be significantly under-reported, it is imperative to be able to identify which scenarios are actually sexual assault and discuss the factors that make the situations less clear (Franiuk, 2007).
"Discussing and Defining Sexual Assault: A Classroom Activity" used the following methodology to help raise awareness of sexual assault and clarify its definition. Students were required to complete the following steps (Franiuk, 2007):
- Define sexual assault (student’s perception);
- Read scenarios and determine if they constitute sexual assault;
- Discuss with classmates and instructor;
- Define sexual assault post discussion with the understanding of what defines "sexual assault" and "consent."
After students read and evaluated eight scenarios about what constitutes sexual assault, they discussed the scenarios with others. Students did not accurately label some of the situations as sexual assault for the following reasons (Franiuk, 2007):
- The victim didn’t explicitly give consent, but was ambiguous "I don’t know if I want to have sex";
- Intimidation and pressure were misconstrued by students and needed to be clarified;
- One victim drank too much and so was labeled by students as "responsible” for the assault: "She should have been more responsible";
- Gender of the aggressor confused some students — woman pressured boyfriend to have sex.
A report from the United Kingdom documents the role that alcohol plays in increasing the chance of sexual assault and rape. While this study didn’t focus specifically on college students, it pointed to the overall link between alcohol use and sexual assault. Eighty-one percent of reported sexual assaults involved alcohol and amounts were significant enough to cause disorientation, memory loss, and loss of consciousness. In 60 percent of cases, the amount of alcohol was significant enough to "make it questionable whether the victim would have been able to even give consent" (French, Beynon,& Delaforce, 2007).
The voluntary use of alcohol is linked to an increased risk of being victimized by sexual assault by reducing inhibitions that affect judgment decisions and generally put the potential victim at greater risk for assault. There is also increased concern about drug facilitated sexual assault (DFSA), but the clandestine use of these drugs is not well documented. One challenge to reporting is that the drugs may cause memory loss or amnesia, which prevents or delays reporting of assault, which puts at risk the collection of evidence and makes confirmation and prosecution of assault more difficult (French et al., 2007).
In the United States, men are being informed of the legal definition of rape as part of rape prevention programs. "It is a felony for a man to have sex with a woman who’s too intoxicated to give consent" (Choate, 2003,) but in many cases neither men nor women define this scenario as rape. Prevention needs to focus on sex and relationship education to inform both men and women of what their responsibilities are while participating in healthy relationships (French...
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