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

(70 minutes)

(2 minutes)

Because sexual assault has no ethnic, age, cultural, sexual orientation, religious, geographic, or gender boundaries, it is important to understand the differences in how sexual assault is experienced by victims from different backgrounds. We would like to briefly explore some of the factors that are likely to influence the way different victims experience sexual assault and the decisions that victims must make about whether and whom to tell about the sexual assault. This additional insight may be useful when you are making decisions about how to reach out to a particular victim or community of victims, or when you are trying to develop a rapport with a particular individual who may share some of the experiences we will be describing.

Use SlideUse Slide #27: Cultural Competency: Responding with Sensitivity to Victims from All Backgrounds

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Note: With this issue, as with some of the others, the details are too complex to fully explicate within this training. Participants are being encouraged to develop sensitivity to the different issues that may impact on a victim’s experience, and to consider how that, in turn, may impact their work with a victim. You may want to try covering this material as a conversation. Ask the participants to suggest how the experience of sexual assault and disclosure might be different for someone who was a recent immigrant, or a person of color, or a man who has been sexually assaulted by another man. Use the material presented here to prompt answers that are not suggested by the participants. Suggest that participants seek information from their state Departments of Mental Health on cultural competency guidelines and/or materials.

Use SlideUse Slide #28: Seniors and People with Disabilities

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Use SlideUse Slide #29: Older Victims

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Note: For assistance in locating specialists in working with the elderly, call Eldercare Locator: 1-800-677-1116 or contact the National Association for Area Agencies on Aging to find the Area Agency on Aging in your jurisdiction:

One way of thinking about this is in terms of cultural competence, a factor equally important for working with offenders as well as victims. Achieving cultural competence means communicating and/or providing services to members of all populations with an understanding of their background, culture, and life experiences and, of equal importance, a recognition of your personal biases and prejudices.

Senior and People with Disabilities
(13 minutes)

We may have an image in our minds of who we think the victims of sexual assault are, but often that image—whatever it is—neglects two populations that are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault and abuse. People with physical and mental disabilities and the elderly are vulnerable in very distinct ways. The following section addresses some of the ways in which their vulnerability manifests itself and some of the issues they and you may face as a result.

Older Victims:

Older victims can be particularly vulnerable to sexual assault for a number of reasons:

What this means for your work: The concerns and needs of older victims of sexual assault have not always been well addressed, even by the victim advocacy community. Make sure you solicit the help of elder abuse specialists or others who work specifically with older victims of crime to ensure that you have taken relevant issues into account in designing your management plan for the offender(s). At a minimum, considerations might include providing large print versions of written materials for an elderly victim, limiting interviewing to an amount of time that will not overwhelm the victim, utilizing individuals of an age, gender, and/or ethnicity the older person is generally comfortable speaking with, and ensuring that you address their concerns about their safety in a way that is easy for them to understand.

People with Mental Illness:

Use SlideUse Slide #30: People with Mental Illness

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For a mentally ill victim, the trauma of sexual assault may exacerbate their illness and their symptoms. Unfortunately, their illness can be used to discredit their disclosure, especially in the criminal justice system.

What this means for your work: Most of the time, you will not be able to distinguish between those who have a diagnosable mental illness and those who do not. If the illness is severe and/or they are not in treatment, you should not use this as an excuse to discredit them or ignore their concerns or input. Make sure your referral list includes traditional mental health service providers, as well as other counseling options for victims, like support groups.

People with Physical Disabilities:

Use SlideUse Slide #31: People with Physical Disabilities

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Note: Every state has a Developmental Disabilities Council. A full list of councils and contacts can be found on the Web site of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities:

Physical disabilities often require individuals to depend on family members or paid caregivers for personal care. The privacy and intimacy of these relationships (needing assistance with bathing, for example) can leave the person with disabilities vulnerable to sexual violation. Limited mobility can make someone less able to self–defend or escape from an attack.

Additionally, communities of people with disabilities can be very small and insular, and options for personal care can be limited. This can make it especially difficult to disclose abuse and/or to avoid a perpetrator. Depending on the degree of disability, a person may have very few choices about where to live.

People with disabilities who are sexually assaulted can experience helplessness, and lose confidence in their ability to be independent. Those closest to them may become over protective.

What this means for your work: When you work with a victim with a physical disability, do not assume that the physical impairment lessens his/her understanding of the assault or their ability to communicate about details of the assault or the assailant. Speak to him/her directly, not to a family member or care provider who happens to be there. Make sure you take account of his/her safety needs in relation to the offender, since their disability may limit safety options.

People with Developmental Disabilities:

Use SlideUse Slide #32: People with Developmental Disabilities

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Victims with developmental disabilities may not be able to understand the intent of the abuse and/or understand the options that are available to them to intervene. They may not understand sexuality or define what it means to engage in sexual behavior in the same way that someone without a disability might define these issues. Many can be easily manipulated because of their desire to be included or liked. They may be particularly reluctant to report for fear of not being believed or being blamed. If they are abused by their caretaker and are dependent upon that person, they may be particularly reluctant to disclose. In communities with few resources for the developmentally disabled, helping a victim find safety away from an abusive caretaker can be extremely challenging.

What this means for your work: The materials that you provide to other victims may not be prepared in such a way as to be accessible to people with developmental disabilities. If you need help communicating effectively with a victim and your victim advocacy allies do not have sufficient expertise in this area (and most do not), contact your local independent living center or other disability resource center for support. People with developmental disabilities may also need additional therapy or treatment to respond to abuse; perpetrators may need to be held accountable for these additional expenses.

Life Experiences of Victims
(10 minutes)

Use SlideUse Slide #33: Life Experiences of Victims

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The following are some factors or conditions that are part of the lives of many victims. Like age and physical and mental ability, these issues will shape the way a person experiences sexual assault and the way they understand the options they have to respond.

Survivors of racism/prejudice/homophobia: In addition to experiencing similar feelings/emotions after a sexual assault as any victim might, people of color and members of religious and sexual minorities will also bring to their experience the additional burden of surviving racism and/or other forms of prejudice. Offenders will often use this fact to further frighten or manipulate a victim into remaining silent. (Some of the specific manifestations of this are discussed below.)

Mistrust of criminal justice/medical systems: Due to past treatment and targeting of people of color, victims of color will often not avail themselves of needed services.40 Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals are also suspicious of both the medical and criminal justice systems since they have often been, at best, invisible to them and, at worst, targets for misunderstanding and mistreatment. For immigrants who have come from countries where the criminal justice system is particularly corrupt, the system may not be considered as a potential resource at all. For all these groups, and others, a lack of health insurance may result in a failure to seek medical services, despite the fact that they could potentially be reimbursed through victim compensation or other resources.

Reluctance to betray her/his community: When a community has been mistreated or stereotyped, members sometimes prefer to keep problems to themselves, for fear of creating or reinforcing negative perceptions. For example, a man or woman of color may not report a sexual assault by a man of the same racial background to avoid fueling a common myth that men of color are more likely to commit rape. Since 90% of sexual assaults are intra–racial, meaning the offender and victim are typically of the same race, this is a very real concern.41

Citizenship status: Immigrant victims may be threatened with loss of citizenship or destruction of important documents if they disclose sexual assault. Fear of deportation may be worse than enduring the abuse. Victims may or may not be aware of resources available to them outside the public criminal justice agencies, and may be afraid to report to anyone, including health care providers, for fear that using any part of the system will be an obstacle to gaining citizenship or remaining in the country.

Language barriers: Sexual assault can be difficult enough to talk about in one's native language. Many agencies are not prepared to deal with different languages and therefore will have a difficult time communicating with victims who are monolingual in a language other than English, or who are fully competent in English but who are not comfortable using it to discuss sexual assault.

Taboos: In some cultures, sex is a taboo subject and thus extremely difficult to discuss in any direct way. In some cultures, disclosing that you have been raped brings shame to your entire family. Older victims, raised in a different era, may also have difficulty disclosing sexual assault. Other taboos, including homosexuality and HIV/AIDS, can prevent victims from asking for the help they need. Confidentiality may be particularly important to these victims, and criminal justice personnel will have to be very careful not to assume that family or other close associates of the victim are aware that they have been victimized.

Anger: Men and women may react differently to having been sexually abused. While men and women experience similar feelings of powerlessness and loss of control, men are not supposed to be helpless and may feel particularly ashamed of having been victimized, while in some cultures, expression of anger in women is considered unacceptable. Although men's responses to sexual assault may not always manifest themselves in the same way as women's, they are felt with equal intensity.

Gender and Sexuality: Men are usually assaulted by a member of the same sex. Because of homophobia, men who have been sexually assaulted by another man (whether or not the victim is homosexual) may have difficulty disclosing for fear of appearing homosexual or somehow having their masculinity or sexuality called into question. This same problem prevents men from getting health care. Male–on–male rape often involves considerable force and anal sodomy. Sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS are a real concern but men are afraid to raise this with health care providers. Women who are sexually assaulted by women experience a different obstacle, as many do not believe that women are capable of sexually abusing another person.

Public Disclosure: Many victims fear having their name appear on the nightly news or in the newspaper. They fear for their privacy, and fear that the stigma of sexual assault will negatively impact their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Other reasons to fear disclosure include: undocumented immigrants afraid of deportation; gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals afraid of being exposed, and; people of ethnic or religious minorities afraid of the impact that their disclosure may have on their community if negative news reaches the larger public.

All of the above factors will play out differently for each individual, even those whom you might consider members of the same group or same community. You are not expected to become expert in working with victims in these various circumstances. What you can do is recognize that these factors will impact victims’ experiences, and think through any adjustments you will want to make in your protocols or practices to enable these victims to participate fully and benefit from the management strategies in place in your community.

Learning ActivityLearning Activity: Understanding the Victim’s Experience
(45 minutes)

We have been talking about victims, but it is very important that we include the voices of victims in this work. See if you notice any of the themes or phenomena that we have been discussing as you listen to/watch the following. Try to pay attention to how these stories make you feel—whether anger, sadness, or anything else—because it is important for us to be aware of our own reactions and consider how they influence the way we do this work.

  1. Show participants vignettes from a video that features different types of sexual assault survivors talking about their experiences. Strive to find vignettes that show a diversity of experience, such as child sexual abuse, adult sexual assault, assault by acquaintance, male, female, etc.
  2. At the end of the video viewing, use the following questions for a brief discussion.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What did you notice? What stood out? Can you explain why?
  2. What surprised you, if anything? What did you expect that was different from what you heard or read? What did you learn that was new to you?
  3. If you were going to summarize the content of this story or stories—for example, if you wanted to show the victim(s) that you heard what was important about what they were saying—what would you say? (“I heard her saying that ….”)
  4. How does the story (or stories) make you feel? Do you find yourself feeling angry? Sad? Disbelieving or suspicious? Numb (like you've heard it all before)? If you were dealing with this victim/these victims in person, how do you think your feelings would affect your interaction?
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