Our understanding of the scope and scale of sexual violence is hampered by under reporting. We will not be able to fill the gaps in our knowledge unless some fundamental blocks to telling or disclosure are addressed. Many experience SV, most do not report. This silence is driven by commonly held rape myths that block or delay victims’ recognition of their own experience. How? By the shaming and poor responses from formal agencies; by the immunity given through poor prosecution and conviction rates, by employer responses and high-profile cases that evidence a high cost to calling out sexual harassment and violence. Actions such as creating supportive spaces, communities, people and responses to reporting are proposed in order to ‘earn disclosure’.
How much don’t we know?
The WHO estimates 1 in 3 women experience physical/sexual violence during their lifetime, but these rates do not include sexual harassment, vary across ethnicity, age, gender and sexual identity, generally tracing intersecting patterns of structural inequality. What does not vary is that the majority do not report it. The Office for National Statistics found that around 83% incidents in the UK are not disclosed to authorities, which means that there is a massive gap between being a victim of sexual/violence abuse and having that formally recorded.
In our own research, of students on campus at a UK university who had experienced some form of sexual harassment/abuse (n=109), most (60% n=65) said they did not report it. This lack of reporting extended to those going health services as a result of the assault, with only 6 of the 32 who used sexual health services disclosing and 4 of the 27 attending GPs disclosing.
The scale of harm
Public Health has increasingly acknowledged the wider impact these experiences can have on physical and mental health.
Ongoing psychological costs are high with almost all female sexual assault survivors experiencing significant post-traumatic symptoms in the immediate aftermath of an assault and around half continuing to experience these symptoms three months later. The prevalence and impact for male victims is harder to quantify as reporting tends to be lower particularly within societies that equate victimisation with weakness and rely on rigid definitions of gender.
What stops survivors telling?
· Recognising SV with no map and no language. Victim/survivors report difficulties with identifying their own experience as sexual violence. In our study, survivors reported that widespread rape myths about what SV looks like did not match their experience and they struggled to even find the right words to describe it. This lack of knowledge and language stopped victim/survivors making sense of or reporting sexual harassment and violence. Rape myths or the common stereotyping of rape (i.e., rape is perpetrated by strangers using violence and can be avoided by victims changing their behaviour) results in well documented barriers to disclosures. These myths are the maps we use to understand SV and present a narrow and focus on criminal justice, one off incident definitions. Sexual violence is widely understood as an extension of social inequality and intersectional power inequalities. Work around social norms, gender inequality and rape myths/what is a healthy relationship have good evidence of effectiveness. Our own work at UWE is exploring better screening in first response agencies.
· Shame and blame - The silencing effect of shame/victim-self blaming stops people telling, partly through judgements around their own rape myth induced guilt about how they themselves were to blame for their own victimisation. This can delays acknowledgement of their own trauma, stops help-seeking and disclosure. Again, social norms work and education around healthy relationships, tackling rape myths as well as supportive responses have good evidence of effect in addressing this.
· What is the point: why tell? – In our own interview study, disclosure was seen as something done at great cost to the victim, for limited benefit. Research describes victim-survivors’ calculation of a cost-benefit analysis of disclosure, based on factors such as ‘Will I be believed?’ or ‘Is this my fault?’. At the same time, it is easy to see very public examples of reporting not going well, such as the Blasey-Ford testimony and the current experience of Jenni Hermoso. Therefore, efforts to improve disclosure might need to look at the what is gained such as avoiding the harm caused by SV and the benefits of help-seeking, including access to specialist services.
This is a challenge in light of the massive fall in prosecutions and convictions of sexual crimes. The UK's Crown Prosecution Service data show that the year ending March 2017, 3671 cases were charged, by 2020 this had fallen to 1867, a 50% cut in charging across this period of time.Yet the total number of rapes reported between 2014 to 2018 had tripled, 20,751 up to 53,970. We have a justice system that is failing to even prosecute sexual violence let alone convict in a court with a jury, why should they report?
· Sexual violence as a delivery system for inequality - At work between 40 to 85% women report sexual harassment/abuse. Most women just want it to stop and often it is easier to simply leave the organisation avoiding formal reporting in which the costs are so high and the likelihood of a good outcome so low. This enables gender inequality in the workplace and HR departments often seem to work for the patriarchy.
Distrust in the system is a particular issue for racially minoritized victim/survivors whose relative positioning at the intersection race, gender and power ensure they are both more victimised and yet less likely to tell. Formal reporting agencies must to better in providing a trauma informed approach within a confidential, timely and balanced response with visible benefit.
Solutions - Earned Disclosure
Evidence shows that reporting rates can be improved and a review of this field has identified a range of measures that include work to create disclosure supportive environments, supportive communities/people and good responding to early disclosures. These actions are summarised in the following diagram.
Sexual violence against women and girls is under documented and follows patterns of gender and intersectional inequality. Without robust prevalence and outcomes data we are in the dark about what happens or what helps. However, there is enough evidence to suggest a wide range of measures to improve both the reporting and prevention of sexual harassment/abuse within a wider of goal of improving equality.