Section 2: Understanding Sexual Assault from a Victim’s Perspective
4 Hours, 40 Minutes

(70 minutes)

Defining Our Terms
(5 minutes)

Before we get into a discussion on sexual victimization, let’s be clear about the terms we’re using and what they mean. The terms sexual assault, sexual violence, sexual abuse, molestation, incest, and rape are often used interchangeably to describe both legal and illegal behaviors that cause victims to feel anything from discomfort to assault and violation. There is disagreement, both within the advocacy community and the criminal justice system, about which is the best, most accurate, and descriptive term to use. You may find that the victims and advocates in your community have preferred terms that will show up in their literature or in their conversations with you. It can be helpful to have a conversation with them about why they use the term or terms that they do. Careful definition of terms can increase your mutual understanding regarding shared information and provide an opportunity to clarify viewpoints.

For the purposes of this training, we will be using sexual assault to describe the range of behaviors committed by sex offenders, since sexual assault is usually a legal term used to describe degrees of sexual victimization ranging from unwanted sexual contact to rape. Legal definitions vary from state to state and you may find yourself having to familiarize victims with your state’s definitions; therefore, your own familiarity with those definitions is important. In terms of specific types of sexual assault, the term rape is generally defined as forced or non-consensual sexual intercourse. Child sexual abuse or molestation is often used when discussing inappropriate sexual acts perpetrated against children and adolescents. A central component of any child sexual abuse is the dominant position of an adult that allows him or her to force or coerce a child into sexual activity. Incest refers to sexual relations between close relatives, including parent–child, siblings, grandparent–grandchild; it also includes relations between a child and his/her legal guardian or other members of the immediate family. It can include a range of sexual assault behaviors.

Use SlideUse Slide #3: Definition of Sexual Assault

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The definition of sexual assault for the purposes of this curriculum is: “Forced or manipulated unwanted sexual contact between two or more adults or two or more minors, or any sexual contact between an adult and a minor, or between two minors with a significant age difference between them.” Sexual assault is a broader term than rape and includes various types of unwanted sexual touching or penetration without consent.

Sexual Assault: Myths and Facts
(20 minutes)

As supervision officers, you are probably aware that sexual assault in the United States is widespread. It is estimated that approximately 78 forcible rapes of women 18 years of age and older are committed each hour in the United States, and 1 of 6 women and 1 of 33 men have experienced an attempted or completed rape as a child and/or adult.1 At least one in five girls and one in seven boys have been sexually abused by age 18.2

Additional information and relevant statistics about sexual assault are summarized in a handout included in your training materials.

Misconceptions about the nature of sexual assault result in a variety of myths that contribute to the tendency to place blame for sexual assault on victims. This “victim–blaming” attitude can lead to underreporting of sexual assault by victims who believe that they will be blamed for the assault and will not receive appropriate support from others when disclosures of sexual assault are made. You may be familiar with many of these myths from your work with offenders, whose cognitive distortions often draw on these very beliefs. These myths are also propagated because they can help us convince ourselves that we can control our safety and the safety of our loved ones. For this reason, it can be difficult to set these myths aside in working with victims.

Let us take a few minutes to examine in more detail some of the most prevalent and damaging of the myths surrounding sexual assault.

Use SlideUse Slide #4: Myths and Facts

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MYTH: Most sexual assaults are committed by strangers.
FACT: 3 in 4 victims know their attacker. Most sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim or the victim’s family, regardless of whether the victim is a child or an adult.

Adult Victims:

Statistics indicate that the majority of women who have been raped know their assailant. A 1998 National Violence Against Women Survey revealed that among those women who reported being raped, 76% were victimized by a current or former husband, live–in partner, or date.3 Also, a Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that nearly 9 out of 10 rape or sexual assault victimizations involved a single offender with whom the victim had a prior relationship as a family member, intimate, or acquaintance.4

Child Victims:

Approximately 60% of boys and 80% of girls who are sexually victimized are abused by someone known to the child or the child’s family.5 Relatives, friends, baby–sitters, persons in positions of authority over the child, or persons who supervise children are more likely than strangers to commit a sexual assault.6 This means that some of the victims you have contact with will have had some kind of relationship with the offenders on your case load beyond or in addition to the assault—though these are not the cases that are most likely to result in prosecution.

MYTH: If people are careful and alert they can avoid being victims of sexual violence.
FACT: The majority of victims are assaulted by someone they know. Many people believe that sexual assault can be avoided if certain places or situations are avoided. But more than half of all rapes occur in a home setting and, as we just indicated, most victims are assaulted by someone they trust, like a partner, family member, friend, or neighbor.7 Many sexual assaults of adult women are considered “confidence rapes,” in that the offender knows the victim and has used that familiarity to gain access to her. The overwhelming majority of child and adolescent victims are also assaulted by someone they know who has often worked hard to gain their trust and confidence prior to the assault. Thus, there is no foolproof way for a potential victim to prevent sexual assault. Only the offender can truly prevent an assault, and that’s why our work is so important.

Use SlideUse Slide #5: Myths and Facts

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MYTH: Sexual assault is an impulsive crime of sex committed by a sexually frustrated man.
FACT: Most sexual assaults are planned in some way. Most sexual abusers plan the assault and perpetrate against a vulnerable victim, including children or women who are known to them.8 Their motivations vary, from the urge to cause pain to the desire to exercise power and control to a desire to experience intimacy with someone who is unable to object or find fault with them. Many offenders have intimate partners with whom they have ongoing sexual relationships at the time they commit their sexual offenses.

MYTH: Sexual assault isn’t that harmful to victims unless there is a lot of physical violence involved.
FACT: Victims suffer regardless of whether they sustain visible physical injury. By definition, the absence of consent makes sexual assault an act of violence. The violation of trust that accompanies most sexual assaults has been shown to dramatically increase the level of trauma the victim suffers, and can cause harm that lasts much longer than most physical injuries sustained by victims.9 Even for the small percentage of victims who are visibly physically injured (Over 2/3 or rape victims (70%) reported no physical injuries; only 4% sustained serious physical injuries, with 24% receiving minor physical injuries)10, these emotional and psychological injuries can be devastating; in fact, the majority of these victims believed they would be seriously injured or killed. There are a lot of offenders who believe this, who convince themselves that, because they did not use physical violence, they were not really hurting their victims.

MYTH: Child sexual abusers usually find their victims by frequenting such places as schoolyards and playgrounds.
FACT: Most child sexual abusers offend against children whom they know and with whom they have established a relationship. Approximately 90% of children know their abuser.11 Just as in the case of adult victims of sexual assault, child sexual abuse is not a crime predominantly committed by strangers. Child sexual abusers will typically attempt to gain the confidence of children and their parents (grooming) before they commit a sexual assault.

MYTH: Women “cry” rape.
FACT: The truth is that approximately 8% of all forcible rape claims are labeled as unfounded. That percentage includes both false reports and unfounded reports, or reports for which insufficient evidence can be found to substantiate a charge—not necessarily an indication that the report is false.12 This rate is higher than the unfounded rate for other index crimes (which average 2%); however, since some sources estimate that only 16% of all sexual assault victims ever report the crime to police, it still appears that victims are much more likely not to report anything than to make a false report.13

MYTH: The majority of sexual offenders are caught, convicted, and in prison.
Only a fraction of those who commit sexual assault are apprehended and convicted for their crimes. Most convicted sex offenders eventually are released to the community under probation or parole supervision.

A 1992 study estimated that only 12% of rapes were reported.14 According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics there were 209,880 rapes and sexual assaults measured in 2004. However, only 36% of all rapes and sexual assaults reported through the victimization survey were reported to the police.15 (No current studies indicate the rate of reporting for child sexual assault, although it generally is assumed that these assaults are equally under–reported.) The low rate of reporting leads to the conclusion that the approximate 265,000 convicted sex offenders under the authority of corrections agencies in the United States represent less than 10% of all sex offenders living in communities nationwide.16

Use SlideUse Slide #6: Myths and Facts

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MYTH: All sex offenders are male.
FACT: The vast majority of sex offenders are male. However, females also commit sexual crimes. In 1994, less than 1% of all incarcerated rape and sexual assault offenders were female (fewer than 800 women).17 By 1997, however, 6,292 females had been arrested for forcible rape or other sex offenses, constituting approximately 8% of all rape and sexual assault arrests for that year.18 Additionally, studies indicate that females commit approximately 20% of sex offenses against children.19 Males commit the majority of sex offenses but females commit some, particularly against children. This can create some challenges for us, because if we do have females on our case loads, often there are two few to create a treatment group and we have to seek alternative strategies for working with them.

MYTH: Youths do not commit sex offenses.
FACT: Adolescents are responsible for a significant number of rape and child molestation cases each year. Sexual assaults committed by youth are a growing concern in this country. It is estimated that adolescents (ages 13 to 17) account for up to one–fifth of all rapes and one–half of all cases of child molestation committed each year.20 In 1995, youth were involved in 15% of all forcible rapes cleared by arrest—approximately 18 adolescents per 100,000 were arrested for forcible rape. In the same year, approximately 16,100 adolescents were arrested for sexual offenses, excluding rape and prostitution. The majority of these incidents of sexual abuse involve adolescent male perpetrators.21 However, prepubescent youths also engage in sexually abusive behaviors.

The Importance of Understanding these Myths and the Consequences of Misconceptions
(5 minutes)

Understanding these myths can make a tremendous difference in how we approach victims. The things we believe about sexual assault affect how we as professionals respond to victims and offenders and how we make decisions that contribute to, rather than compromise, victim and community safety. For example, increased understanding by the criminal justice system about the true nature of sexual assault—that it is typically committed by a known offender and without visible physical violence—has led to new methods of evidence collection designed to detect more subtle forms of force and resistance. Had we continued to believe that only victims with visible physical injuries were telling the truth about being assaulted, these new methods would never have been sought out, and our ability to prosecute sexual offenders would have remained limited.

There are other real consequences when the myths about sexual assault remain unchallenged. One consequence of holding misconceptions about sexual assault is that there is a tendency to question the credibility of victims who do not fit the stereotype of how victims “should” behave or who they are. For example, if we believe the myth that only men commit sexual assaults, we may not believe a victim who claims to have been assaulted by a woman. If police and prosecutors believe the myth that all offenders are strangers to their victims, they may be reluctant to pursue cases where the offender is known to, or perhaps even in a relationship with, the victim—regardless of the victim’s willingness to proceed.

When we don’t understand the misconceptions about sexual assault, we’re in danger of not realizing how they may affect and undermine our ability to work effectively with victims. Common myths about sexual assault can and have influenced criminal justice practice and have contributed to the sense of shame that is felt by many victims of sexual assault. For many years, charges were not routinely filed in cases where the victim and perpetrator were on a date because the myths that sexual assault was perpetrated by strangers and that it was unlikely that women could be sexually assaulted by someone known to them, among other myths, were so widely held. And it’s not just myths about victims that can adversely affect the system’s ability to respond to sexual violence—suspects who do not fit the stereotype of a “typical” sex offender (i.e., a “dirty old man” or someone who is mentally unstable) may be treated differently by the system because of these assumptions.

In our job as supervision officers, understanding these myths can help us in a number of ways. They can remind us, for example, that it is important to monitor both the casual and intimate relationships of sex offenders to ensure that they are not in situations where they can be grooming children. When we hear an offender claim that “it just happened” or “it was no big deal—I didn’t hurt her,” we can detect the myths at work and probe more deeply into the offender’s explanations to consider what led up to the assault and take into account and respond appropriately to the non–physical injuries that are experienced by sexual assault victims.

Learning ActivityLearning Activity: Cross Examination of a Robbery Victim
(40 minutes)

The following activity is designed to demonstrate or bring into relief the ways in which sexual assault as a crime is handled differently from other kinds of crime.22 Pay attention to the assumptions that are made about the victim of the crime and think about whether the questions you would ask would be different if the case involved sexual assault.

Learning Activity Material Learning Activity Materials

Cross–Examination of a Robbery Victim

Note: You may want to prepare a handout with the statutory definitions of illegal sexual behaviors relevant to your jurisdiction.

Use SlideUse Slide #7: Cross–Examination of a Robbery Victim

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Note: Watch out for attitudes that attempt to blame victims for being raped. Out of fear, people often try to distance themselves from victims by pointing out how victims “brought the assault/abuse on themselves.”

Personalizing the issue may be the only way to engender compassion for victims. If blame is expressed, probe the audience with such questions as: Haven’t we all, or someone we loved, at one time or another put ourselves in a risky situation? Does anyone deserve to be raped just because they exercised poor judgment?

Cross Examination of a Robbery Victim:

  1. Do this Learning Activity with a co–trainer or ask a member of the audience for assistance.
  2. Provide a script for the co–trainer or audience volunteer.
  3. The trainer should play the defense attorney.
  4. The co–trainer or audience volunteer should play the victim.
  5. Follow–up with discussion.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does this scenario about a robbery victim relate to perceptions of sexual assault victims (blaming them and saying they wanted it to happen or should have known better)?
  2. Why are sexual assault victims more frequently blamed and not believed than victims of other crimes?
  3. If a victim complies with the offender, does that mean she was not robbed (or sexually assaulted)?
  4. Do people “ask” to be sexually assaulted and violated?
  5. What would be a better, more supportive response to a victim of sexual assault?
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