Surveys suggest a large proportion of women have experienced sexual assaults that they labelled as a misunderstanding. This has serious psychological repercussions and increases the chance of being victimised again
The Guardian- Rachel Thompson- Getty Images
The morning after it happened, I said a cheery: “Good morning,” to my university roommate, as if nothing was wrong. “How was last night?” she asked. “So fun,” I lied. The truth was that the night before I had feared for my life.
I didn’t articulate it, but deep down I knew that what had happened had felt violating, degrading and not what I signed up for. Yet it took me a whole decade to realise what had really happened: I had been sexually assaulted.
So that morning when my roommate asked me excitedly: “Do you think you’ll see him again?” I said: “I hope so.” That part wasn’t a lie. My limited understanding of consent and sexual violence at that time, and my overall sexual inexperience, meant I believed I was to blame for what had happened, that perhaps I just didn’t know “how sex usually is”. On top of all that, I had feelings for the guy.
For the next 10 years, I would speak about “bad sex” or “grey-area experiences”. I would start sentences with: “This doesn’t really count, but …” or: “I wasn’t raped, but …” as if I didn’t have the right to the trauma I had buried. Then the #MeToo movement gained widespread prominence in 2017 and something shifted.
“That’s trauma,” a therapist said to me when I finally opened up about the events that had taken place years earlier. Hearing those words gave me permission to feel the weight of what I had endured at 19, to understand why anxiety lurked close to the surface of my body. A voice inside my head finally said: “That was sexual assault.” At 33, I know that now.
My experience is one that many survivors of sexual violence share. Research suggests that it can take years – sometimes decades – for some survivors to realise or accept that their experience amounts to sexual assault or rape. Psychologists refer to this as “unacknowledged rape” or “unacknowledged assault”. One study on the subject from the US estimates a staggering 60% of female university students have experienced unacknowledged rape. Other studies have determined that between 30% and 88% of all sexual assaults go unacknowledged by survivors.
In my book Rough: How Violence Has Found Its Way Into the Bedroom and What We Can Do About It, I define unacknowledged rape as “an experience that meets the hallmarks of rape or assault but is not labelled as such by the victim. Instead, terms such as ‘misunderstanding’, a ‘hookup gone wrong’ and ‘grey area’ are used.” A 2016 analysis of 28 studies of nearly 6,000 women and girls aged 14 or older who had experienced sexual violence found that 60% of survivors didn’t label their experience as “rape”. Instead, they used descriptors such as “bad sex” or “miscommunication”.
When I began researching my book, I spoke to more than 50 women and people of marginalised genders about past violations that they described as “grey areas”, “just a weird night”, “not rape, but …” Although during the writing process I respected the terminology that interviewees used, what followed these statements often struck me unequivocally as rape or assault.
Since finishing the book, I have spoken to many more people whose experiences echo this. Jodie (not her real name) tells me: “I knew deep down that I had been assaulted, but I was too afraid to fully admit it for years, as it wasn’t ‘that bad’, because of how rape is often portrayed.” She was drunk at the time, so, confused by victim-blaming culture, it took her a while to stop blaming herself for “putting myself in that position”. “Not acknowledging it was also a bit of a coping mechanism, but it meant I didn’t give myself permission to accept that something awful had happened to me or to forgive myself for something that wasn’t my fault,” she says. It has taken her five years to acknowledge it.
Even when Jodie could eventually say: “I was raped,” when talking with friends, a voice inside her head would insist “it wasn’t that traumatic; maybe you’re just saying this to get attention”. Finally acknowledging she was raped has been a positive step for Jodie, however. “Fully naming it for what it was has helped me to take some power back,” she says. “I have sometimes regretted not calling him out at the time, but I have forgiven myself for needing time to accept what had happened to protect myself and process it in the way I needed to.”
But why do survivors find this can take so long? Prof Heather L Littleton, a psychologist at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, who specialises in social-cognitive factors in sexual assault and trauma, says: “Women who have an experience that legally would be rape, instead label what happened to them as something that is not a crime, such as a miscommunication.”
A big contributing factor for this is the way rape and assault are presented in the media, with TV and movies commonly portraying violent “stranger rapes” in narratives of sexual violence. This is despite research showing that 90% of assault survivors knew their attacker. Stereotyped ideas interfere with a person’s ability to identify sexual violence when it is happening to them. “Rape scripts” – mental scenarios constructed from ideas and stereotypes about how rape is typically supposed to play out – can interfere with acceptance. “The more someone’s experience with rape differs from their script … the less likely they are to label it as such,” says Littleton. “In other words, their experience does not match what they think rape looks like; maybe they trusted the assailant, the assault was not violent, they did not resist strongly or the perpetrator was a woman.”
As Dr Veronica Lamarche, a psychology lecturer at the University of Essex, says, situational ambiguity is also a contributing factor. “The majority of assaults happen in the ‘grey areas’ of sexual intimacy. This situational ambiguity makes it hard for victims to clearly say: ‘I was assaulted,’ because their experiences don’t perfectly map on to the model scenario.”
When Georgia (not her real name) was 16, she was very drunk at a friend’s house. “I had a crush on her older brother,” she says. “He was seven years older.” She ended up in bed with him. “He said: ‘Is this OK?’ and I said yes, without knowing what I was consenting to,” she tells me. “Next thing I know, he is having anal sex with me. It was painful and I bled after. I’d never had any type of penetrative sex before.”
Georgia saw him two more times after her rape, because she thought he loved her. “We had vaginal sex in the front of his car,” she says. “I honestly had no idea what was happening or the power dynamics at work,” she adds. “I still don’t know if that anal incident counts as rape, but I was certainly taken advantage of. I have only told two friends.”
Her friend later took her own life and Georgia was forced to see her rapist at the funeral. “He said to a group of us: ‘Which one of you did I bend over?’ He didn’t even remember it was me.” Now in her 30s, Georgia still questions whether her experience was rape. “I do think if I had had more education around consent and relationships I would have known that this wasn’t right,” she says. “I think about it most days, swinging between: ‘It’s my own fault, I could have said no,’ and: ‘He was a bastard for what he did to me, but will never see it like that.’”
Georgia says she will never report what happened, but is considering therapy. “I feel low all the time, have terrible self-esteem and generally have hated myself for a long time,” she says. “I have perfected keeping that all under wraps.”
A lack of education on consent and misconceptions about sexual violence can make it difficult for someone to identify when an assault or rape is taking place. Research by the End Violence Against Women (Evaw) coalition shows that widespread confusion over rape and its consequences is prevalent. According to Evaw research, 33% of people in Britain think it is not usually rape if a woman is pressed into having sex but there is no physical violence. One in 10 people are not sure or think it is usually not rape to “have sex with a woman who is asleep or too drunk to consent”. Research by the sexual health charity the Family Planning Association has shown that only 47% of people think it is acceptable to withdraw consent if they are already naked.
In the short term, survivors may also feel a psychological or social benefit by not acknowledging a rape or assault – such as lower symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder compared with acknowledged rape.“It may enable you to avoid the stigma of being a rape survivor, allow you to maintain relationships with your social group; this could be especially important if the perpetrator is a member of the survivor’s social group,” says Littleton. “It also may make it seem more manageable.”
But the long-term consequences of not accepting that you have been raped can be devastating. Dr Laura Wilson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, says research shows that unacknowledged rape survivors are “less likely to report the crime to police, less likely to seek services – eg medical, mental health – and more likely to be victimised again”.
Another survivor, Sarah (not her real name), tells me that it took her years to acknowledge the multiple violations that she endured when she was younger. It was only in the last week that she connected the dots that they constituted sexual assault and coercion. “Only once I was in a long-term, healthy relationship did I reflect on previous experiences and realise how many of them were without my consent, involving coercion or full-on assault,” she says. “Most involved drink or drugs, so I never thought twice about them being all my fault.”
Most of the incidents occurred between the ages of 16 and 19 – Sarah is now 25. As a disabled person, they also shaped her feelings towards her body. “I haven’t spoken to anyone about them except my partner, including my friends who were there at the time,” she adds. “I was raped once and I knew that was what it was, after it happened at age 18,” she says. “But the rest I swept under the rug.”
The stigma attached to being a victim of sexual violence – and being a perpetrator – can also play a part. A survivor may worry “that people might not believe them or will take the side of the perpetrator”, says Littleton, or they might even be “in an ongoing relationship with the assailant”. Plus, there is the fear that the perpetrators’ career and life could be destroyed by an allegation. But what about the survivor’s life?
So what can we do to address unacknowledged rape? Education is key. I know if I had been taught about sexual violence then I would have been better equipped to identify it when it was happening to me.
But this is not just about a lack of education and misinformation about what constitutes sexual violence. This is about survivors’ silent understanding that, even if they do acknowledge what happened, our society might only proffer a shrug in response. “I think the bigger problem is that we as a society continue to view rape as not a serious problem and continue to believe that survivors are somehow at least partly at fault for their assaults,” says Littleton. “Individuals who commit rape are unlikely to face legal or even social sanctions for doing so. A survivor who does not acknowledge his or her rape is in many cases responding to these societal attitudes.”
Imagine if our society were more willing to believe survivors rather than question whether a violation was serious enough to merit the accused losing their livelihood. Perhaps then those of us who have survived sexual assault wouldn’t doubt the validity of our experiences.
Rough by Rachel Thompson is published by Vintage, price £14.99. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
- Rape Crisis offers support for rape and sexual abuse on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland or 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html
- In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.