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Sexual Assault: The New Normal Among Young Women?


New evidence from a study published in the journal Gender & Society helps explain what women’s advocates have argued for years – that women report abuse at much lower rates than it actually occurs. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 44% of victims are under the age of 18, and 60% of sexual assaults are not reported to police. Statistics from the Department of Justice are even more dire: Among college-age women, as many as 95% of sexual assaults go unreported. 

According to sociologist Heather Hlavka of Marquette University, one reason that young women may not be reporting their experiences of sexual assault is that they don’t identify it as such. “Many young women [do] not name what law, researchers, and educators commonly identify as sexual harassment and abuse,” writes Hlavka. “It cannot be assumed that legal definitions of sexual harassment and assault are socially agreed on, understood, or similarly enacted.”

To better understand how young women conceptualize sexual violence, Hlavka analyzed forensic interviews with 100 youths between the ages of three and 17. All interview subjects were identified as potential sexual assault victims by the Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC), an advocacy group devoted to preventing child abuse and providing treatment for victims.

The study, “Normalizing Sexual Violence: Young Women Account for Harassment and Abuse,” will appear in the June 2014 issue of Gender & Society, a top-ranked journal in Gender Studies and Sociology. The findings reveal that girls and young women rarely reported incidents of abuse because they regarded sexual violence against them as normal.

Hlavka found that the young women experienced multiple forms of sexual violence in their everyday lives including objectification, sexual harassment, and abuse. These types of sexual violence are so ubiquitous that they appear to be part of the fabric of young women’s lives.”

According to the author, most young women in the study assumed that being harassed, assaulted, and abused was simply something that everyone experiences. Hlavka said that sexual violence is so normalized among young women that “experiences of everyday violence were characterized as a normal adolescent rite of passage.” Young women overwhelmingly depicted boys and men as natural sexual aggressors, unable to control their sexual desires.

During one interview, referring to boys at school, a 13 year-old girl states:

“They grab you, touch your butt and try to, like, touch you in the front, and run away, but it’s okay, I mean… I never think it’s a big thing because they do it to everyone.”

Hlavka’s analysis led her to identify several reasons why young women do not report sexual violence.

  • Girls believe the myth that men can’t help it. The girls interviewed described men as unable to control their sexual desires, often framing men as the sexual aggressors and women as the gatekeepers of sexual activity. They perceived everyday harassment and abuse as normal male behavior, and as something to endure, ignore, or maneuver around.
  • Many of the girls said that they didn’t report the incident because they didn’t want to make a “big deal” of their experiences.  They doubted if anything outside of forcible heterosexual intercourse counted as an offense or rape.
  • Lack of reporting may be linked to trust in authority figures. According to Hlavka, the girls seem to have internalized their position in a male-dominated, sexual context and likely assumed authority figures would also view them as “bad girls” who prompted the assault.
  • Hlavka found that girls don’t support other girls when they report sexual violence. The young women expressed fear that they would be labeled as a “whore” or “slut,” or accused of exaggeration or lying by both authority figures and their peers, decreasing their likelihood of reporting sexual abuse.

When girls did report their experiences, many were confronted with criticism from their female peers for not being able to successfully maneuver men’s aggressive behaviors. Most of the time, girls’ reports of sexual assault were disbelieved by their peers, and many girls were re-victimized through vicious rumors and slander. 

“So, while over three decades of feminist research and activism has challenged rape myths and gender stereotypes, seeking to empower girls and women to name the injustices done to them, my research shows that there is very little incentive for young women to name or to tell anyone about their experiences of abuse,” wrote Hlavka.

It’s not difficult to identify examples of Hlavka’s findings playing out in the public. Back in October, rape survivor Daisy Coleman spoke out against victim-blaming attitudes after law enforcement officials in the small Missouri town of Maryville dropped the charges against her rapist, a football player at her high school. According to Think Progress:

After [Coleman] was raped, she was bullied by her classmates, who called her a liar and told her she was a “skank” who was “asking for it.” She was suspended from her school’s cheerleading squad because of her “involvement” in the incident. Her peers took to social media to tell her to kill herself, and she did try to commit suicide twice.

The harmful effects of victim-blaming made headlines in several other rape cases over the past year. Rehtaeh Parsons and Audrie Pott both committed suicide in the aftermath of sexual assault. In both of these cases, the teenagers became the target of bullying by their peers after details of their sexual assault spread throughout social media. 

The young women in Hlavka’s study provided important insight into how some young women perceived their experiences of sexual violence and harassment during sexual encounters with men. In particular, the study pointed to how the law and popular media may lead to girls’ interpreting their abuse as normal.

Hlavka’s study mirrors findings from previous research, which show that unhealthy attitudes about sexuality develop from a young age, contributing to a culture in which many men simply feel entitled to women’s bodies. In fact, many rapists report that they don’t believe they actually did anything wrong. These misconceptions discourage women from reporting abuse, further reinforcing societal tolerance of sexual violence and objectification of women. 

According to Hlavka, policymakers, educators, and lawmakers need to address how sexual violence is actually experienced by youth beginning at very young ages in order to increase reporting practices, and to protect children from the everyday violence and harassment all too common in their lives. 

“We need to treat young people as agents and decision-makers, create safe spaces for dialogue, and challenge our systems and ourselves to confront the prevalence of normalized, sexualized violence experienced by many children and youth,” writes Hlavka. “We must challenge our communities and our families to confront the gendered cultural practices that are so clearly communicated to children and are so frightfully disempowering.”

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