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Is It Rape?
A study by Dr. Arnie Kahn explains why more than half of all women who are sexually assaulted don't report it to law enforcement officials
By Charles Culbertson
When a crime occurs, the victim is usually immediately aware of it. This isn't always true, however, when rape is the crime.
More than half of all women who are sexually assaulted don't recognize that they've been victimized and, therefore, don't report the crime.
Dr. Arnold S. Kahn, a professor of psychology at James Madison University, together with his colleagues and students, has spent the past 15 years examining what determines whether a woman labels her sexual assault experience as rape. Kahn has recently completed an exhaustive study that provides new insight into what is, unfortunately, an old problem with roots in misguided and antiquated notions of sex, relationships and criminal behavior.
The study, "Differences in the Experiences of Acknowledged, Unacknowledged and Uncertain Rape Victims," examined the actual rape experiences of 28 acknowledged rape victims, 55 unacknowledged college-student rape victims and seven victims who were uncertain whether they had been raped.
Because of a wide variety of factors victim age, opinion about what constitutes a "typical" rape ("rape script"), alcohol or drug use, familiarity with the assailant, amount of force used by the assailant, feelings of "deserving" the assault and whether the rape occurred within a marriage Kahn stressed that no single variable can be used in determining whether a woman labels her experience as rape or something else.
"Rape," said Kahn, "can take many forms an attack by a stranger, a date who refuses to stop and holds the woman down as she says 'no,' a husband who forces his wife to have intercourse or a man having intercourse with a woman who has passed out, to name a few.
"Given the vast variety of rape situations, we should not expect a single variable to be responsible for determining whether a woman labels her experience as rape versus something other than rape," he continued. "Indeed, past research has indicated that a number of factors can contribute to a woman acknowledging she has been raped."
Women's Views on Various Assault Situations
% Labeled Rape
% Labeled Not Rape
Submit to boyfriend's continued begging, whining, arguing or threats
Sexual assault during childhood, middle school age or younger
The man used force to obtain or perform oral or digital sex
Woman was emotionally unstable, wanted someone to care for her but did not want intercourse
Her boyfriend used threats or force to obtain intercourse over woman's resistance
An acquaintance would not yield to woman pleas to stop, using force, threats or coercion
Sleeping woman awakes to man performing sexual acts on her
Woman was severely impaired by alcohol and/or drugs and did not have the ability to resist
Past research by Kahn and his colleagues found that how a woman conceptualizes a "typical rape" distinguishes acknowledged from unacknowledged victims. This study showed that almost 95 percent of acknowledged rape victims pictured the "typical rape," or "rape script," as occurring between a man and a woman who were acquainted, while 50 percent of unacknowledged victims viewed a typical rape as occurring between a woman and a violent stranger. Therefore, some women especially those who are sexually assaulted by an acquaintance are less likely to label their experience as rape and are less likely to report it as a crime.
"A woman might be less likely to label her experience as rape if her assailant were someone she knew well and with whom she had previous consensual sexual relations than if the assailant had been a stranger or someone she had just met," Kahn said. "If a woman knows the perpetrator well and loves him, it may be difficult for her to call her experience rape because rape is not what is supposed to happen between loved ones."
Kahn's study also revealed that what happens during the assault can affect rape acknowledgment. If, for example, the woman had not been using alcohol and the man used a great deal of force and the woman resisted strongly, she might be much more likely to label the experience as rape. Conversely, if she had been drinking alcohol and the man used lower levels of force, her tendency would be to not view the experience as rape.
"Research has found," he said, "that women who label their experience as rape report greater assailant force and greater resistance than those who did not."
Kahn noted too that rape victims frequently react very differently to the same experiences. If a woman fully or even partially blames herself for what happened, she may be less likely to label the experience as rape than a woman who blames her attacker. Self-blame is especially prevalent among women who used alcohol prior to their assault.
On the other hand, women who have strong negative emotional experiences following their assault were much more likely to acknowledge what happened as rape than one who has fewer negative emotional reactions.
The Importance of the Situation
In a second study, "What College Women Do and Do Not Experience as Rape," Kahn and his colleagues identified three situations in which women almost always called their situation rape: when they were assaulted by a man when they were asleep, were forced to have sex by an acquaintance and were forced to have sex as a child. Other women, who read assault descriptions, tended to agree with the victims. There were, however, two situations that the victims did not label as rape forced oral sex and forced intercourse by a boyfriend. Women reading that description could not agree as to whether rape had occurred.
Putting it all together
Kahn's examination of what leads a woman to acknowledge rape has created a cohesive picture of victims not employed in previous studies. By taking into consideration "rape scripts," views on love and sex, alcohol and drug use, emotional responses and details about the assault itself, Kahn has presented to researchers, educators and the criminal investigation community a valuable tool with which to understand rape victims and combat the crime.
"Is there value to having women acknowledge that they have been raped?" he asked. "In favor of acknowledgment might be the argument that if a woman does not acknowledge her experience as rape, the experience will not be reported to authorities, the assailant will not be apprehended and he will be free to repeat the assault on others."
And it is a crime, he said, even if the woman drank or used drugs before the assault; was intimate with the assailant beforehand; it wasn't vaginal intercourse; and if little force was used.
But Kahn's study did more than simply identify and explore the many instances in which a rape can occur; it forwarded a conclusion that, if followed, could have far-reaching and lasting effects on how society deals with this most intimate and devastating of crimes.
"Rather than examining victims' categorizations of their experiences, perhaps we should examine and work to change the norms of heterosexual dating in which sex and violence merge, and men are permitted to use force in order to have sex."