As a society, our view of, and attitudes toward, sexual violence—how we define it, how we treat its victims, how (or if) we punish the perpetrators, and what we try to do to prevent it—have been changing. In many people’s minds, sexual assault is synonymous with rape (an act of unwanted sexual intercourse), an act perpetrated by males against females, and, while generally considered a crime, its investigation, prosecution, and punishment are often affected by variations in state laws, social mores, and local attitudes. Negative perceptions and judgments of victims have figured prominently in our social view of sexual assault.
More than one researcher has addressed the effect of rape culture, defined as “the normalization of rape based on negative attitudes toward gender and sexuality.” It can be a strong deterrent to reporting rape because it places an undue burden of proof on the victim. Rape culture embraces arbitrary standards of personal behavior, such as requiring a victim to possess a “pristine sexual history” in order to be believed and supported (Dastagir, 2017; Robinson, 2017; Zaleski, 2015).
Sexual violence and its aftermath presents a complex and multi-faceted problem. Researchers have found that what happens after a sexual assault varies depending on gender and on ethnic background (white, black, Latino/a, Asian, or Native American). Rates of victimization vary across ethnic groups, and cultural and historical influences play a role in those variations (Robinson, 2017).
Gender differences and cultural differences in attitude toward sexual assault affect victim self-perception, willingness to report an assault, perception of the victim by outsiders, physical/medical issues and treatment, mental health responses and treatment, and even the personal consequences when mental health issues cause other problems with employment, living situation, and relationships (Robinson, 2017). And, as this class will explore, there can be significant differences between the experiences of civilians and those of members of the military.
As our society engages more fully with the problem of sexual violence, we must confront the reality that sexual violence and sexual trauma are far more widespread than we like to admit and that they encompass many things besides the act of rape; these include actual or attempted physical assault (oral, vaginal, anal, using body parts or objects), threats of assault, and harassment of a sexual nature. Victims are both women and men, as are perpetrators, and perpetrators may be of the same or opposite gender as the victim (VA, 2017a).
Sexual violence is not confined only to certain socioeconomic or occupational groups. It has become evident that the nuances of the problem vary widely among different populations. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than within the U.S. military where, according to research by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), acts of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment “occur nearly twice as often. . . as they do in civilian society” (ACLU, 2013a).