Verified by Psychology Today

Why Some Victims Don't Acknowledge Sexual Assault

Denial as a defense mechanism.

Most of us know someone who has been sexually assaulted. In most of those cases, the victims never reported the crime. I have spent my career prosecuting sex offenders who were reported; knowing they represent only a small percentage of perpetrators.

Why don’t victims report more often? Some of the reasons are obvious: shame, self-blame, embarrassment, fear of being disbelieved, or because they have a close relationship with the perpetrator. But another reason sexual assault victims don’t report is that they talk themselves into believing the encounter was not rape.

Source: Image by Ria Sopala from Pixabay

Rape or Romantic Encounter?

Sexual assault is linked to a host of negative consequences, emotionally, behaviorally, and psychologically. Researchers have studied how a victim’s own perception of sexual assault impacts his or her functioning afterward. Laura C. Wilson et al., in a piece entitled “Examining the Psychological Effect of Rape Acknowledgment” (2017) examined this issue.[i] They begin by noting that most rape survivors do not refer to their assaults as “rapes,” which the authors label “unacknowledged rape.” They note that existing literature is mixed regarding how this choice of labeling impacts psychological functioning.

No Such Thing as Retroactive Consent

Wilson et al. note that research reveals that many women who were raped under existing legal definitions mislabel the offense, meaning they were not a “victim,” instead referring to the encounter as “bad sex” or “miscommunication.” They refer to these women as unacknowledged rape survivors. They cite a meta‐analysis that indicated 60.4% of rape survivors chose not to label their experiences of unwanted sex as rape—a finding they note as “remarkable ... in light of the prevalence of this crime and the significant consequences of rape in terms of survivors’ psychological adjustment.”

Why wouldn’t a rape victim identify as such? Wilson et al. note that situational factors often explain why this is the case. Specifically, they note that two of the most common situational factors are the level of familiarity between victim and assailant, and the degree of physical force used to commit the rape.

Analyzing a sample of 128 women who were rape survivors, they measured the interaction between acknowledging having been raped and ambivalent sexism, in terms of the way they affected posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. They found a link between acknowledging having been raped and benevolent sexism as related to both symptoms of PTSD and depression. They did not find a link between rape acknowledgment and hostile sexism. In terms of clinical implications regarding the recovery process and psychological functioning, Wilson et al. concluded that there are apparently other factors that should be taken into account beyond rape acknowledgment.

In terms of numbers, they found that 71.9% of the female rape survivors they studied failed to acknowledge their experience as “rape,” which they note is consistent with previous research suggesting that “college rape survivors may be at particularly high risk of unacknowledged rape.”

Rape Acknowledgement and Gender Roles

Regarding psychological consequences, in their study, Wilson et al. found the highest levels of PTSD symptoms and depression existed among survivors who acknowledged rape, and had low levels of benevolent sexism. Both acknowledged and unacknowledged rape survivors who had high levels of benevolent sexism reported lower levels of depression and symptoms of PTSD. Which group appeared to be suffering the least? Wilson et al. found the lowest levels of depression and PTSD symptoms occurred among unacknowledged rape survivors who also had low levels of benevolent sexism.

The authors explain that women who “endorse higher levels of conformity to beliefs about traditional gender role and femininity,” regardless of the manner in which they characterize their own rape experience, might perceive it as less stressful, a result they note might be due to minimizing the assault. They further note that because women in this category believe they belong to the subordinate gender, they may experience moderate distress levels independent of the rape experience. They make the additional observation that unacknowledged rape survivors who also have low levels of benevolent sexism might not be in the high-risk category when it comes to psychopathology due to their failure to accept their own victimization and because they do not consider themselves to belong to the subordinate gender group.

Unacknowledged Rape Is Still Rape

Rape is a crime, not a miscommunication. Family members, clinicians, and therapists continue to work with victims to process their experience, in an effort to achieve closure and healing, making sexual assault reframing into a road to recovery.


[i] Wilson, Laura C., Katherine E. Miller, Emma K. Leheney, Alesha D. Ballman, and Angela Scarpa. 2017. “Examining the Psychological Effect of Rape Acknowledgment: The Interaction of Acknowledgment Status and Ambivalent Sexism.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 73 (7): 864–78. doi:10.1002/jclp.22379.

Read Next

Most Popular