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Essay on Sexual Violence - Factors Contributing to Non-disclosure of Sexual Violence Experiences

A guest blog by Desiree Quek, University of Victoria, Wellington

Introduction Rape and sexual assault have recently been widely acknowledged to be common yet still largely under-reported (Sullivan, 2007). Studies and research over the issue of sexual violence have been increasingly popular over the past years with many focusing on changing the attitudes surrounding sexual violence and increasing empathy for survivors of sexual violence (Dickson & Willis, 2016). This article aims to highlight the various ways which prevent or discourages survivors of adult rape from disclosing and/or reporting their sexual violence incident. According to the World Health Organization (2013), sexual violence had been described as a global health problem on an epidemic scale. Sexual violence and rape have been consistently associated with various adverse mental health and social consequences (Dickson & Willis, 2015). Within New Zealand, rates of sexual violence are comparable to that found in other developed countries where a study of 2,855 adult women resulted in a one in three women experiencing non-consensual sexual acts (Dickson & Willis, 2015). Despite official statistics commonly regarded as based on a tiny sample due to under-reporting, sexual violence is still a major social problem in New Zealand where according to UN Women (NZPA 2011), ranked New Zealand as the worst in sexual violence incidences out of 12 developed countries. Notably, re-victimisation rate is over one in two New Zealander women (Ministry of Women’s Affairs, 2013).

Definition of Rape The definition of rape and sexual assault often varies within legal, cultural and social definitions; thus consensus on the meaning of what constitutes as rape or sexual assault has always been elusive and limited (Muehlenhard & Klimes, 1999). Sexual coercion through language is often ignored as a factor in a breach of sexual consent (Kelly & Radford, 1998). The complications surrounding the reality of rape is steeped with myths such as the apparent presence of marked physical trauma from violence, inducing fear of death and grievous injuries (Wasco, 2003). However, a majority of reported rape cases often do not result in physical injuries (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). The understanding of what constitutes as a sexual assault primarily factor into the likelihood of a victim deciding to report the assault or not (Sullivan, 2007). Terms such as ‘sexual assault’, ‘rape’ and ‘sexual consent’ are frequently used without acknowledgement or providing an explicit definition (Beres, 2007). Within New Zealand, under the Crimes Act 1961, Section 128A, sexual consent is not given when an individual has force applied to them or others, or that explicit or implied threat of application of force was given, or if the individual experiences fear of having violence upon them or another person. The section also denotes that no consent is given if the individual is asleep or unconscious, or “so affected by alcohol or some drug” that they cannot consent or refuse to consent to the sexual activity. The following definition allows for interpretation as to when or on what basis does “so affected” apply? Considering the language interpretation disparity within the legal structure, it is not surprising that there also exists variation in definition within research and popular definitions (Beres, 2007). These variations of definitions that individuals are often exposed to merely add to the confusion and doubts to their understanding of what acts constitute as sexual violence, this confusion is amplified among ethnic minorities with differing cultural barriers and norms (Rahmanipour, Kumar & Simon-Kumar, 2019).

Conceptualising Sources of Harm to Survivors Experiences of sexual violence and rape often extend past the physical act during the assault, thereby our understanding of the harm done by such acts should not be limited to just the singular physical event but to also understand the symptoms surrounding the assault (Wasco, 2003). According to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (2012), the prevalence for sexual violence is more than one in two Māori women for experiencing physical and/or sexual IPV, with one in ten Asian women reporting the same, one in three women from Pacific communities and Pakeha communities (Fanslow et al., 2010). Typically, women have been statistically less likely to report violence. Therefore, reporting sexual violence is even less likely to occur especially among ethnic women where cultural taboos surrounding sex and sexuality are often more strict and induce more guilt and shame with the affected individuals (Rahmanipour, Kumar & Simon-Kumar, 2019). Male sexual victimisation is also another grossly under-reported crime, being that the notion of a victim of any sexual crime being male is still relatively new (Graham, 2006). One major factor accompanying the lack of reporting is due to the feelings of intense shame and stigma of victimisation if the individual identifies as male (Hlavka, 2017). Within most cultures worldwide, there exists the normative expectations about masculinity which acts as an additional barrier to the disclosure of sexual victimisation. Often in fear of more humiliation and the association with negative labels such as inadequacy, homosexuality and weakness (Hlavka, 2017). These social influences of masculine stereotypes cultivate an association of victims’ definition of their experiences as shameful and/or stigmatising (Hlavka, 2017). Stigma and shame are fundamental in social construction and reflected emotion based on societal experiences (Scheff, 2005) where individuals perform behaviours according to anticipated reactions and appraisals received from other individuals around them (Hlavka, 2017). Mainly, shame is mediated by a culture that defines, encourages and monitors specific gender behaviours and sexual behaviours (Weiss, 2010). As such, individuals often develop strategies surrounding the protection of their portrayed identities and may refrain from any impressions which may communicate deviance from their identities (Hlavka, 2017). Historically in New Zealand, settler society influences New Zealand’s gendered culture by encouraging and normalising divisions of women’s and men’s behaviours and roles (Weiss, 2010). This colonial legacy also disrupts Māori social organisation where gender roles within Māori culture was not a fixed organising principle (Dickson & Willis, 2015). This forced adoption of a gendered culture alongside moral conservatism and education by the Catholic Church and other religious organisations reinforces stigma and shame surrounding sexuality, understanding and awareness surrounding sexuality education and information (Bay-Cheng, 2015). This historical, conservative cultural value is prevalent even in present New Zealand culture, which leads to more shame and stigmatisation, thus resulting in a silence surrounding sexual assault (Breckenridge & Laing, 1999). Studies have also confirmed a reluctance among New Zealand Asian and Pacific communities in the involvement of others surrounding ‘family matters’ which also affects formal reporting of sexual violence (Fanslow et al., 2010).

Rape-Supportive Culture Rape-supportive values and culture acceptance increases the likelihood of believing experiences which may constitute as sexual violence and/or assault as normative and usual (Schwartz & DeKeseredy, 2000). Rape-supportive culture and values form an environment where a set of beliefs and values become conducive to and supports rape (Boswell & Spade, 1996). This belief system promotes all types of sexual violence including but is not limited to rape (Argiero et al., 2010). Key features of a rape-supportive environment include acceptance of rape myths, promotion of hegemonic masculinity, and peer support of rape-supportive beliefs (Schwartz & DeKeseredy, 2000). Rape myths typically are defined as false attitudes and assumptions based on stereotypes and prejudices, where the responsibility of men and encourage sexual aggression towards women (Argiero et al., 2010). These rape myths form a limited view surrounding what actions constitutes rape, most notably, a common rape myth is the notion that rape involves a stranger as the aggressor with violent assault and force on the victim (Argiero et al., 2010). Thus when a situation falls short of this limited view, the perpetrator justifies and/or rationalises their actions since it does not constitute as rape (Argiero et al., 2010). This environment promotes perpetrators, victims and bystanders into believing that there is nothing wrong with non-consensual sexual activities and behaviours (Carr & VanDuesen, 2004). Such beliefs discourage victims from identifying experiences of sexual violence and/or removes peer support of experiences with sexual violence, thus reducing the likelihood of disclosure to official or non-official authorities. Masculine stereotypes such as aggression, homophobia, and emotional detachment is another essential factor surrounding a rape-supportive culture where men have been found to believe that it is acceptable to behave aggressively towards women in both intimate and non-intimate situations (Carr & VamDiesem. 2004). This belief discourages male victims from seeking support or disclosing information especially if the aggressor is female as men are promoted to have the impression that any sexual activity with a female is positive regardless if consent was given or not (Argiero et al., 2010). The cultural expectation that men are viewed as personally responsible for being raped as well as being perceived as less traumatised by rape than women (Carr & VanDuesen, 2004) adds to the harsh judgement of male victims by their communities. This removal of peer support from their male friends and a perceived lack of support due to this societal norm encourages male victims to stay silent regarding their experiences.

Community Responses to Rape Disclosure The perceived adverse reactions from the community are not the only factor in the decision process of disclosure for victims. For victims who have disclosed their experiences to others, adverse reactions from friend groups, blaming or doubts experienced from formal support providers such as police officers, physicians, and/or attorneys (Wasco, 2003) also compounds the harm of the assault experienced. These experiences of non-believing or doubt increase the shame and humiliation felt by the victim and decreases the likelihood of similar experiences by not reporting should a second incident occur. It is commonly known within literature and popular media, that perpetrators of sexual violence are less likely to be charged or convicted in comparison to other assaults. Together with significant negative consequences experienced by victims during and after a rape prosecution (Department for Health, 2005) indicates that non-disclosure may also be a rational choice for victims. This effect is amplified for individuals who are also sex workers as complaints of sexual violence and/or rape made by sex workers often risks a higher likelihood of not being taken seriously by legal authorities such as the police, judges and juries (Sullivan, 2007). In common law jurisdictions like New Zealand, evidentiary jurisprudence has clear associations of chastity with veracity. Therefore, individuals who were or are sex workers, or individuals who are labelled ‘promiscuous’ often lack the credibility within the judicial system (Sullivan, 2007). Individuals within this category have been argued to be consenting to any sexual activity and thus are ‘not able to be raped’ (Sullivan, 2007). Despite recent law reforms and evidentiary rules modification, the negative cultural attitudes surrounding sex workers remains a significant problem. Where disclosure of experiences as sex workers and other rape complainants still experiences having a high attrition rate before trial with a lower likelihood of conviction or charges (Sullivan, 2007). Many successful cases still relied on the young age of the victims, significant and/or visible injuries and recorded video evidence of the assault (Sullivan, 2007).

This pervasive silencing of victims’ narratives facilitates the reluctance of disclosing sexual violence experiences even within the professional setting where professionals believe that due to their greater knowledge, wisdom, training, and/or experience that they know what is best for others. The silencing of narratives largely discounts the victims’ experience as essential and again facilitates the unwillingness to voice out their experiences due to prior adverse reactions by therapists, physicians, or police (Breckenridge & Laing, 1999). Reports of victims not being taken seriously persists till today where recent news coverage of sexual violence allegations at Otago University in New Zealand reports that one in three university students have experienced sexual violence including rape (TVNZ, 2019a). Another similar report of a recent sexual crime case in Auckland, New Zealand indicated that a photo of the victim’s undergarment was used as a way of insinuating blame on the victim (TVNZ, 2019b). These news reports show that rape myths are prevalent even in today’s society. Where such media reporting tend to add to the silencing of other victims’ disclosure as they indicate a high likelihood of further humiliation and shame experiences should the sexual violence incident be disclosed. The psychological distress experienced from the initial sexual violence experience includes a damaged sense of worth, feelings of objectification, and self-blame (Goodman, Koss, & Russo, 1993). Where not only shame and self-blame discouraging disclosure, but the perceived further psychological trauma from the disclosure acts as another discouragement for victims.

Conclusion This article concludes that historical culture, community and current culture all factor into the non-disclosure of sexual violence experiences. Where rape myths are critical factors in the formation of an unfavourable environment for the discourse and disclosure of sexual violence experience, often inducing high levels of psychological distress such as shame, self-blame and humiliation for the victims (Sullivan, 2007; Goodman, Koss, & Russo, 1993; Wasco, 2003). The limited view of society regarding sexual violence, consent and sexuality is a problem that needs to be addressed for victims to be more likely to report rape and/or sexual violence experiences (Wasco, 2003). The society also lacks understanding surrounding the trauma and harm after initially experiencing sexual violence despite a large amount of literature and political discourse surrounding this subject (Wasco, 2003). Official rates and surveys of sexual violence within New Zealand would largely still depend on reported statistics and would always leave a large gap of unreported statistics unless society is educated on rape myths and sexual consent distinctions (Beres, 2014). The high prevalence rates of sexual violence within New Zealand highlights the urgent need to prioritise sexual violence education and prevention within relevant social, health, and education policies (Dickson & Willis, 2015).

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