On Accountability After Sexual Victimization

During Colorado’s legislative session, issues related to violence and abuse were front and center, from Senate Bill 88’s focus on the statute of limitations after child sexual abuse to the sunset review of the Sex Offender Management Board.

Both the Senate bill and the sunset review focused attention on the importance of accountability after sexual abuse and assault to individual survivors and our communities.

Accountability matters for many reasons, including because sexual victimization is prevalent and often met with denial. Let’s take a look.

How prevalent is sexual victimization?

Approximately 27% of girls and 5% of boys have already been sexually abused or sexually assaulted when they are 17 years old, according to national surveys.

Looking to individuals from age 12 into adulthood, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) estimates that more than 450,000 (459,310) people were sexually assaulted or raped in 2019 alone. These hundreds of thousands of people translate into roughly 1.7 individuals sexual assaulted or raped per 1,000 people. This estimate is in line with the previous 4 years of data collected in the NCVS: From 2015 to 2019, an average of 463,634 people were sexually assaulted or raped each year.

What role does denial play in sexual violence?

Since at least the 1980s, researchers have documented denial as a strategy used by people who sexually offend. More than a psychological defense, denial is part of a set of responses that further the harm of sexual violence.

Psychologist Dr. Jennifer Freyd and her colleagues have described these strategies as Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim Offender (DARVO), and developed a measure of these behaviors. With that measure, they established that DARVO is a pattern of responses to which people, especially women, are commonly subjected upon confronting others about wrongdoing.

Next, Freyd’s research team used a set of experiments to test the impact of DARVO on perceptions of victims and offenders in scenarios that described intimate partner violence. The results were striking: Participants exposed to DARVO strategies “perceived the victim to be less believable, more responsible for the violence, and more abusive; DARVO also led participants to judge the perpetrator as less abusive and less responsible.”

As someone who studies the impact of sexual and other forms of intimate violence on victims and survivors, I can tell you that we hear time and again from survivors in our research studies about the harm of denial. Indeed, survivors have told us and other research teams around the globe about how critical accountability and belief are to healing.

Consider what we learned when my research team interviewed more than 200 women who were sexually assaulted in the previous year about the reactions they got to disclosures. We discovered that friends and family commonly responded to disclosures with negative reactions. For example, they blamed victims, treated them differently, took away their control. Another research team examined 51 studies like ours on reactions to sexual assault disclosures. Across studies, negative reactions to disclosure were linked with worse mental health outcomes, such as more severe posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. The researchers concluded, and I agree, that women disclose sexual assault with the expectation of getting help and support. Being met with negative reactions, like DARVO, furthers harm.

And make no mistake, the harm of sexual abuse and sexual assault is serious. Research by my team and others across the country have documented that sexual violence has serious immediate and long-term psychological and physical health consequences as well as impacts in other areas of life, such as at school and work. From PTSD and suicidality to chronic health problems and poor school performance, survivors and our communities pay a high price for sexual abuse and assault.

What are pathways to accountability?

When researchers ask survivors what is important after victimization, their answers vary, ranging from material and practical support, safety, and recognition of the harm caused to accountability for the offender, prevention, and to be valued and heard. 

Though survivors tend to name a broad mix of restorative and retributive outcomes, public emphasis often veers towards the criminal legal system — whether its the propagation of the rape myth that survivors report to the police right away or actions that make Title IX campus investigations more closely mirror criminal proceeding.

The reality is, however, that sexual abuse and assault are vastly under-reported to law enforcement relative to other crimes. For example, back in 2011, researchers described phone interviews with 3,001 women from across the country as part of the “National Women’s Study – Replication.” Of those three-thousand women, 526 reported having been raped. Only 15.8% of women – or fewer than one in six – had reported the most recent rape to the police. Sadly, that rate was no different from those seen in the 1990s.

The Traumatic Stress Studies Group has looked at these issues in Colorado, including in research funded by the National Institute of Justice.1 In that study, we recruited 228 women aged 18 and older who were sexually assaulted in the previous year, and who had disclosed the sexual assault to at least one formal support person, such as a healthcare provider, victim advocate, or the police.

Importantly, this means that the sample of women we interviewed were unique in that they had all disclosed to a formal support person. Yet, only 42% of those women had reported to law enforcement.

Thus, even among women willing to disclose the sexual assault to someone formal and talk to a researcher about their experiences, still only a minority had reported the incident to law enforcement.

After the initial interview, we invited women back to talk with us again 3, 6, and 9 months later. At each interview, we asked them about sexual assaults that had occurred since the previous interview; and if so, whether they had reported to law enforcement.  

Two out of every five women (40.6%) we interviewed were sexually assaulted at least once in the subsequent nine months. Yet, at each interview, only a small minority (9-18%) of women had reported new sexual assaults to the police.

These findings make plain that survivors do not necessarily report new incidents of sexual assault – even if they have previously disclosed to service providers or reported to law enforcement.

And of course, even if sexual assault cases are reported, the vast majority will not end in prosecution or accountability in the criminal legal system.

Take-Aways

Research findings on denial, the prevalence of sexual victimization, and police reporting offer us at least two important take-aways for thinking about accountability.

First, denial is a strategy used against victims, which makes a firm commitment to accountability of central importance to supporting survivors.

Second, sexual victimization is terribly common; however, many women do not engage with the criminal legal system for a host of reasons. Legal options outside the criminal system are essential to accountability, making efforts such as those undertaken in Senate Bill 88 to expand civil legal options especially important.

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Note: This post was adapted from text submitted as written testimony in response to HB 1320.

1 National Institute of Justice Grant #2012-W9-BX-0049. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views or the official position of the National Institute of Justice or any other organization.