Susan Sullivan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Susan Sullivan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I promised in my last post on Sexual Assault to address several prickly, controversial quarrels (“contentious disagreements” according to Muehlenhard and colleagues) regarding sexual assault reports. These disagreements have been frequently fraught with considerable emotional reactions—often unnecessarily so because advocates’ misunderstandings about both the ways in which data are gathered and the meaning of the findings.

Defining Sexual Assault

One of the most common errors is equating Rape and Sexual Assault. Muehlenhard defines rape as nonconsensual sexual penetration while sexual assault refers to a broader range of nonconsensual behaviors. “Confusion can result if these terms are used interchangeably.” Using “rape” cavalierly when the actual behavior assessed was “unwanted touching, rubbing, or kissing” is an injustice to the term rape. The result can be deceptive or ambiguous statistics and inappropriate findings. Good research doesn’t equate the two terms but those reporting the findings do not always make this critical distinction.

Defining Part Two

Because sexual assault carries with it the sense of unacceptable behavior, where to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable? Muehlenhard writes, “Such decisions can advantage some people and disadvantage others; they reflect beliefs about sexuality, power and influence, and gender.” Some believe that sexual assault is too broad of a term because it includes “trivial experiences.” But what might be trivial to one woman (being touched while intoxicated) might not be to another. Three points are made:

1. Nonconsensual touching is criminal regardless of the effect on the woman

2. The focus should be on behaviors not outcomes (for example, one need not be “emotionally devastated” to have been assaulted)

3. The effects of sexual assault are not necessarily linked with the exact behavior that occurred: “the severity of an incident depends on numerous stimulus factors (e.g., the perpetrator, the behavior involved), contextual factors (e.g., how others react, how supported the individual feels), and individual factors (e.g., victimization history, available resources, the individual’ s attributions about the event.”

Reports of Sexual Assault & Rape

What does a “report” mean? Is it made by the woman either anonymously or publicly? The police? The university? These can vary widely and researchers and the media need to know what is the basis of the report. For example, many assaults are never reported to the policy or the university.

The Questions

It is better to ask women about specific behaviors that occurred rather than general questions about rape and sexual assault, largely because the latter two might depend on the particulars of the young woman. For example, Muehlenhard points out that many women are less likely to label an incident as rape or sexual assault if she was dating the perpetrator, if she had been drinking, if little force was used, of if she didn’t resist as much as she thought she should. Nevertheless, they experienced specific behaviors that should be classified as sexual assault or rape.

Gender

The fact that most reports are by women about men should not negate the fact that in a minority of cases (and little is known about these incidents) women are the perpetrators and that woman-on-woman and man-on-man sexual assaults and rapes occur.

Gender Part Two

If men are expected to be “responsible for obtaining women’s consent but not vice versa [then this] could send the message of a double standard in which men are [considered] more responsible than women.” And, that women are the “weaker sex” who need protection from their own desires. Neither should be true under a gender-neutral protocol.

Conclusion

Perhaps the real, undiagnosed problem is sloppiness on the part of researchers who use samples and methods inappropriately or without due diligence and on the part of media reporters who are unfamiliar with the kinds of issues that Muehlenhard and colleagues discuss.

References

Muehlenhard, C. L., Peterson, Z. D., Humphreys, T. P., & Jozkowski, K. N. (online). Evaluating the one-in-five statistic: Women’s risk of sexual assault while in college. Journal of Sex Research. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2017.1295014

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