Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Sexual assault non-reporting motivation

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Sexual assault non-reporting motivation:
What motivates non-reporting of sexual assault by victims?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Sexual assault remains one of the most under-reported serious crime types despite numerous studies that indicate a high prevalence of sexual assault in today's society. It is often referred to as a hidden crime because of the high rate of nondisclosure. The motivations behind non-reporting of sexual assault are complex, and include the influence of societal constructs and the victim's mental and physical well-being. Victims will often report negative experiences of initial disclosure which dissuades them from further disclosure and seeking prosecution of their perpetrator through the justice system.

This chapter will outline contributing motivations behind the non-reporting of sexual assault by victims. It will explain relevant theories such as learned helplessness and social stigma theory. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will be outlined. PTSD is a psychological disorder that affects a large number of sexual assault victims. The disclosure process model will be explained from the perspective of a sexual assault victim and the chapter will conclude with the societal factors that motivate non-reporting of sexual assault.

Victims are likely to experience a complex combination of all of the motivations as set out in this chapter that will contribute to their unwillingness to disclose their assault.

Definitions[edit | edit source]

Sexual assault is as "an act of a sexual nature carried out against a person's will through the use of physical force, intimidation or coercion, and includes any attempt to do this. This includes rape, attempted rape, aggravated sexual assault (assault with a weapon), indecent assault, penetration by objects, forced sexual activity that did not end in penetration and attempts to force a person into sexual activity" (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012).

Sexual assault statistics[edit | edit source]

  • One in five women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime.
  • One in thirteen men will experience sexual assault in their lifetime.
  • Females aged between 15 and 19 years were seven times more likely to have been a victim of sexual assault compared to the overall Australian population.
  • 70 per cent of sexual assaults are committed by a perpetrator known to the victim and are often a family member, friend or acquaintance.
  • One in ten adult women who are sexually assaulted are victims to their current or past intimate partner.
  • Most sexual assaults occurred at a residential location and did not involve the use of a weapon.
  • Victims will wait an average of 11 months before disclosing their assault (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012).

Disclosure process model[edit | edit source]

The Disclosure Process Model (DPM) explains the motivations and timing behind interpersonal verbal disclosure and how it can be beneficial to those who have a concealable identity including victims of sexual assault (Chaudoir & Fisher, 2010). The DPM aims to encapsulate the disclosure process as a single process including the initial decision as to whether disclosure will occur. It also includes the processes involving the outcome of the disclosure and whether it will occur again. The DPM theorises that disclosure can have serious effects on the individual, interpersonal relationships and wider societal relationships, through three mediating processes:

  • Alleviation of inhibition
  • Social support
  • Changes in social information (Chaudoir, Fisher, & Simoni, 2011).

The DPM represents one disclosure process in what could be an ongoing number of decisions to disclose by a sexual assault victim over their lifetime (Chaudoir et al., 2011). It is theorised that a victim of sexual assault will go through the DPM whether the disclosure is informal to a friend or family member, or part of the formal process involved in reporting their assault as part of the legal process to prosecution.

Antecedent goals[edit | edit source]

The first step of the disclosure as purported by the DPM involves the setting by the individual of antecedent goals that are represented by avoidance and approach goals (Chaudoir & Fisher, 2010). Approach goals are made with the outlook to pursue what the victim perceives as positive outcomes, in the case of a victim of sexual assault this may include the following:

  • Increase understanding by another about the victim's personal situation
  • Strengthening interpersonal relationships with others through disclosure
  • Education of others on the nature and prevalence of sexual assault (Chaudoir et al., 2011)

Avoidance goals are designed to avoid negative outcomes that the victim might recognise as having the potential to be punishing or have long term effects on their well-being and functioning (Chaudoir et al., 2011). In the case of a sexual assault victim, this may include the following:

  • Social rejection and/or social stigma
  • The breakdown of relationships both intimate and social
  • Reveals the victim as vulnerable to exploitation or revictimisation (Chaudoir et al., 2011)

Victims of sexual assault who decide to disclose with approach goals as their motivator are more likely to benefit from the resulting disclosure as opposed to those who decide to disclose despite having avoidance goals in the initial stage (Chaudoir et al., 2011). Avoidance goals can stop the victim from progressing past the first stage of the DPM and the avoidance of negative outcomes may be strong enough to motivate the victim to never disclose their incident of sexual assault.

Disclosure event[edit | edit source]

The disclosure event involves the verbal communication by the victim to the receiver about their identity of a sexual assault victim. According to the DPM theory, the extent and nature of the disclosure event is characterised by the breadth, depth, duration and emotional content of the disclosure (Chaudoir & Fisher, 2010). The victim will receive and gauge the response of the recipient of the disclosure as being a positive, negative or neutral response. The manner in which a victim communicates during the disclosure can be influenced by the antecedent goal, with victims who had an initial approach goal being more likely to communicate more effectively and receive positive responses from the recipient of the disclosure (Chaudoir et al., 2011).

Mediating processes and disclosure outcomes[edit | edit source]

The long-term effects of disclosure can be both negative and positive. The negative effects can include psychological distress for the victim, increasingly risky sexual behaviour or increased drug or alcohol use. The positive effects can include increased support from social or official support networks, social and personal awareness of the nature of sexual assault. In the longer term, the disclosure may serve to change stereotypes of sexual assault victims in the victim’s social circle (Chaudoir et al., 2011).

Feedback loop[edit | edit source]

A single disclosure event can shape future instances of a victim disclosing their sexual assault experience. The victim may take the results of the previous disclosures, particularly if they were negative and decide to conceal the incident and never disclose again. Those who had an overly positive experience are likely to continue to cycle through the DPM for future potential disclosure opportunities (Chaudoir et al., 2011).

Social stigma theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. A poster produced by the U.S. Navy supports the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program

The social stigma theory comes from the work of Erving Goffman who theorised that "stigma is an attribute that extensively discredits an individual, reducing him or her from a whole and usual person to a tainted discounted one" (Major & O'Brien, 2005). In response to his early work, further research into social stigma theory expanded the explanation to include the notion that "stigmatisation occurs when a person possesses (or is believed to possess) some attribute or characteristic that conveys a social identity that is devalued in a particular social context" (Major & O'Brien, 2005).

In the context of the non-disclosure of sexual assault by victims, social stigma theory has an influence on the motivations of a victim to avoid disclosure of the incident so as to avoid social stigma. The concept of social stigma is not a phenomenon that exists only within an individual’s concept of self, but is a socially created one with the idea that in order to live successfully in a society, those who possess undesirable attributes are to be avoided (Herek, 2007). Victims of sexual assault are likely to avoid disclosure to escape the social identity stigma that goes with being a victim of sexual assault; these can include being perceived as sexually promiscuous, being a less than ideal partner for social exchange and being vulnerable to exploitation (Miller, Canales, Amacker, Backstrom, & Gidycz, 2011).

Learned helplessness theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Victims can feel they are trapped

The learned helplessness theory is used to explain the phenomenon of individuals being exposed to uncontrollable and inescapable situations such as a sexual assault and as a result developing an inability to act or extract themselves from similar future environments or occurrences (Maier & Seligman, 1976).

The learned helplessness theory originated from the findings of Maier and Seligman who exposed dogs to inescapable electric shocks and then observed that during the next exposure to the shocks the dogs didn't attempt to escape and were observed to be frozen in their inability to act and extract themselves from the situation (Wortman & Brehm, 1975). The observations and similar research conducted into the behaviour of individuals repeatedly exposed to traumatic situations has demonstrated that learned helplessness has de-motivational consequences on human behaviour (Maier & Seligman, 1976).

The theory has serious implications in the context of nondisclosure of sexual assault by victims. Victims of sexual assault, particularly those who experience repeated instances of abuse are likely to develop learned helplessness. The victim may not disclose the assault as a result of experiencing feelings that they have no alternatives or choices to better their situation. Victims reported that during the period of sexual abuse they felt emotionally unsupported, without financial or socially supportive options and a general feeling of being unable to better their situation (Sable, Danis, Mauzy, & Gallagher, 2006). In many instances of repeated sexual assault by a family member, victims did not disclose the instances of assault until a lengthy period of time had passed and the perpetrator had died. The victims expressed that they had felt helpless at the time of the ongoing assault and that it wasn't until significant time had passed that they felt able to disclose the details of the sexual assault to someone (Sable et al., 2006).

Post-traumatic stress disorder[edit | edit source]

An experience of a traumatic event such as a sexual assault can lead to development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms can become so serious that the victim is unable to disclose the assault. This is due to a number of factors, including fear of flashbacks, emotional detachment from friends and family leading to reduction in social support and a general inability to complete everyday tasks as a result of the PTSD (Klump, 2006).

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V criteria for PTSD (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) are outlined as follows:

Criteria A

Individual is exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual assault: (one symptom required for diagnosis)

  • Direct exposure
  • Witnessing an event
  • Indirect exposure through learning that a close family member or friend has experienced trauma
  • Frequent or indirect exposure to traumatic elements of the event, often as part of professional duties. Examples include, emergency first responders, individuals working with details of child abuse (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Criteria B
intrusion symptoms

The traumatic event is re-experienced in the following ways: (one symptom required for diagnosis)

  • Re-occurring, involuntary, and intrusive memories
  • Disturbing nightmares. Note: Children may have frightening dreams that do not contain elements of the trauma
  • Flashbacks, which may range from brief episodes to complete loss of consciousness
  • Intense short or longer term distress after exposure to traumatic reminders
  • Marked physiological reactivity after exposure to trauma-related stimuli (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Criteria C

Persistent avoidance of distressing trauma-related stimuli after the event: (one symptom required for diagnosis)

  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings connected to the traumatic event
  • Avoiding people or situations connected to the traumatic event (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Figure 3. PTSD represented visually
Criteria D
negative alterations in mood or cognitions ===

A recently added criteria that encapsulates symptoms reported by suffers of PTSD.

  • Memory problems associated with the event
  • Negative thoughts about themselves or the world
  • Distorted sense of blame relating to the event
  • Ruminate on severe emotions such as shame or horror related to the event
  • Isolated or detached from others
  • Loss of interest in pre-event activities (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Criteria E
increased arousal

The brain remains alert and hypervigilant:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increase in irritability and temper
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Hypervigilance
  • Easily startled (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Victims of sexual assault may experience all or a large number of the common symptoms of sexual assault. Disclosure of the sexual assault can be hindered not only by PTSD but also by additional mental health issues. These may have developed as a result of the traumatic event and/or after experiencing the long term effects of PTSD. Common additional mental health issues can include depression and anxiety, and can be emphasised by heavy use of drugs and alcohol (Klump, 2006).

Societal factors[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Informal support networks[edit | edit source]

Two thirds of sexual assault victims disclose the incident informally to at least one person they trust (Ahrens, 2006; Campbell, Ahrens, Sefl, Wasco, & Barnes, 2001). However, negative reactions and subsequent actions of the recipient of the information can often influence further disclosure of the incident (Ahrens, 2006). The most common reactions that prevent disclosure to additional sources of assistance or in order to begin legal proceedings are blaming victims for the assault occurring or doubting the victim’s disclosure (Ullman, 1996). In addition to this, victims reported that they were encouraged by informal support networks to maintain secrecy and were discouraged from seeking legal assistance (Ahrens, 2006).

Case Study: "Karen was abandoned by her boyfriend at a coffee shop during a cross-country road trip. The manager offered her a room at the adjacent motel, but when the night watch-man brought her food, he raped her. When Karen tried to tell her sister about the assault, her sister didn’t seem to identify the experience as rape. This unsupportive interchange caused Karen to question the efficacy of disclosure. Her sister’s response was so unsympathetic that she never spoke to her about the assault again. Believing that there was no-one in her life who would support her, Karen did not disclose again for 19 years." (Filipas & Ullman, 2001).

Relationship to the perpetrator[edit | edit source]

Victims were less likely to disclose an incident of sexual assault if the perpetrator was someone that was known to them or someone with whom they were in a close familial or intimate relationship. The following statistics reveal the true extent of the effect of the perpetrator’s relationship to the victim on nondisclosure of the sexual assault (Willis, 2011):

  • 25 per cent of victims disclosed sexual assault if the perpetrator was a stranger
  • 17 per cent of victims disclose sexual assault if the perpetrator was a former partner
  • 1 per cent of victims disclose sexual assault if the perpetrator was a current partner (Willis, 2011).

The motivation for non-disclosure of sexual assault committed by a known offender can be severely hindered by the victim’s fear of repercussions from the perpetrator and the family and friends of both parties. The perpetrator may have the ability to exert power over the victim over a long period of time, by threatening financial hardship and/or breakdown of the familial unit. These strong motivators for nondisclosure are likely to encourage the victim to deal with the incidence of sexual assault privately and to avoid pursuing prosecution through the legal system (Willis, 2011).

Revictimisation[edit | edit source]

A number of studies into victims of sexual assault indicate that following disclosure by victims of assault to a confidant or as part of a public awareness campaign, in some instances the victim was targeted by an additional perpetrator. This perpetrator reportedly used the methods that the victim had described as part of their disclosure (Sable, Danis, Mauzy, & Gallagher, 2006). Victims often reported feeling extremely vulnerable to further attacks after disclosure and that they would be less motivated to report subsequent incidences due to the threat and occurrence of revictimisation (Mason, Ullman, Long, Long, & Starzynski, 2009).

Those who had disclosed sexual assault, reported that often they were coping with additional issues such as increased alcohol and drug use and had become increasingly promiscuous as part of coping with the event (Mason et al., 2009). Often because of the additional issues that they were experiencing, victims were vulnerable to revictimisation and experienced further incidences of sexual assault. Victims felt that because of their history of being a sexual assault victim, the drug and alcohol use, and the promiscuity, they were unable to disclose any of their sexual assault incidents (Mason et al., 2009).

Revictimisation may additionally come through the disclosure process itself. The victim may have to endure invasive medical procedures, give lengthy and detailed statements of the sexual assault and may come into contact with the perpetrator as part of the prosecution process. The victim may feel that they have just recovered from the ordeal only to be forced to go through it again through revictimisation during the legal process (Willis, 2011).

Knowledge of services[edit | edit source]

Victims of sexual assault are often unaware of the services available to them after their experience. The threat of a negative response as a result of previous experiences of disclosure and social stigma often prevents the victim from conducting research into what options are available to them. Without an informative support network such as a rape crisis centre or a victim support network, victims are likely to feel that disclosing the assault will only lead to undesirable outcomes. The victim may feel that the prosecution process is too daunting to face on their own (Sable, Danis, Mauzy, & Gallagher, 2006).

Perceptions of police[edit | edit source]

Perceptions of police, and the justice system as a whole, may severely hinder disclosure of a sexual assault. The victim may not feel assured that they will be believed and that the outcome of any legal action may not reach a desired outcome. Police are often under resourced and face the challenge of gathering enough evidence for the matter to appear before court. The victim may feel that the police do not have enough empathy towards them and are simply stepping through the required process. Sexual assault is often a difficult offence to prosecute. Recent studies have found that in the Australian Capital Territory one third of cases that proceeded to prosecution resulted in a conviction and one in ten apprehended offenders was acquitted. Sexual assault victims may not feel that a disclosure as part of the prosecution process will be beneficial to them (Willis, 2011).

Disclosure can additionally be affected by cultural aversions towards police. Disclosure is unlikely to occur if the victim has had negative interactions with the police in their community, or if the victim comes from a cultural background that has an inherent distrust of law enforcement bodies. Victims may be encouraged to deal with the issue within the community and not disclose the incident further (Willis, 2011).

The role of media and popular culture[edit | edit source]

Media and popular culture have often portrayed sexual assaults as violent crimes involving weapons, and as being committed in public spaces by strangers. Statistics reported by sources such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that this is indeed largely a false representation (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012). The majority of sexual assault victims will be assaulted by someone that is known to them and the methods used by the perpetrator often do not involve a weapon. The false representation of how sexual assault occurs perpetuates the idea to victims that what they experienced was not a 'true' representation of rape or an attack as portrayed by popular culture. This means that the victim can often decide to not report their assault as they feel that they will not be believed, or they experience self-doubt that their attack is not worth reporting (Dowler, Fleming, & Muzzatti, 2006).

In addition to the portrayal of how a sexual assault occurs, media and popular culture can shape societal views on how acceptable such an act is. Through media and popular culture, sexual assault can often be sensationalised to appear alluring and in the extreme desirable or exciting. University of California Los Angeles media researcher Dr Neil Malamuth stated that "media portrayals can promote the view that women desire violence; they can transform sensitive individuals' view of rape to make it seem more acceptable and not such an abhorrent act." With this in mind, a victim is less likely to report their attack as it may be viewed as just 'something that happens' and a minor incident in everyday life that should be accepted as such (Media Values, 2015).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The motivations behind a victim not reporting their sexual assault can be complex. The circumstances of the assault and the victim's own perceptions and emotional responses mean they can be overwhelmed and indecisive. They may not be aware of support services available to them.  Individuals need access to a positive and supportive audience. They need to be assisted to understand and accept they are not to blame for an incident. This is as an important first step in encouraging disclosure. A victim should be made aware of the support services available and be assisted to understand their options and the processes that may take place if they decide to disclose (Sable, Danis, Mauzy, & Gallagher, 2006).

Victims may need encouragement to seek help for peripheral or consequential issues such as serious drug or alcohol use or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. This will help them to recover from their ordeal fully or as part of pursuing a prosecution.

Some victims may decide to disclose their sexual assault, but express a desire to keep their details confidential for example, to avoid social stigma. The victim’s wishes should be respected and they should be reassured that every effort will be taken to ensure that this is adhered while they decide how they proceed.

See also[edit | edit source]

Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Emotional impacts of sexual assault

Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Sexual harassment and emotion

References[edit | edit source]

Ahrens, C. E. (2006). Being Silenced: The Impact of Negative Social Reactions on the Disclosure of Rape. American Journal of Community Psychology, 38(3), 263-274. doi:10.1007/s10464-006-9069-9

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2012). 4906.0 - Personal Safety, Australia, 2012. Retrieved from

Campbell, R., Ahrens, C. E., Sefl, T., Wasco, S. M., & Barnes, H. E. (2001). Social reactions to rape victims: Healing and hurtful effects on psychological and physical health outcomes. Violence and victims, 16(3), 287-302.

Chaudoir, S. R., & Fisher, J. D. (2010). The disclosure processes model: understanding disclosure decision making and post disclosure outcomes among people living with a concealable stigmatized identity. Psychological bulletin, 136(2), 236.

Chaudoir, S. R., Fisher, J. D., & Simoni, J. M. (2011). Understanding HIV disclosure: A review and application of the Disclosure Processes Model. Social Science & Medicine, 72(10), 1618-1629.

Filipas, H. H., & Ullman, S. E. (2001). Social reactions to sexual assault victims from various support sources. Violence and victims, 16(6), 673.

Herek, G. M. (2007). Confronting sexual stigma and prejudice: Theory and practice. Journal of Social Issues, 63(4), 905-925.

Klump, M. C. (2006). Posttraumatic stress disorder and sexual assault in women. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 21(2), 67-83.

Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. (1976). Learned helplessness: Theory and evidence. Journal of experimental psychology: general, 105(1), 3.

Major, B., & O'Brien, L. T. (2005). The social psychology of stigma. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 56, 393-421.

Mason, G. E., Ullman, S., Long, S. E., Long, L., & Starzynski, L. (2009). Social support and risk of sexual assault revictimization. Journal of Community Psychology, 37(1), 58-72.

Miller, A. K., Canales, E. J., Amacker, A. M., Backstrom, T. L., & Gidycz, C. A. (2011). Stigma-Threat Motivated Nondisclosure of Sexual Assault and Sexual Revictimization A Prospective Analysis. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35(1), 119-128.

Sable, M. R., Danis, F., Mauzy, D. L., & Gallagher, S. K. (2006). Barriers to reporting sexual assault for women and men: Perspectives of college students. Journal of American College Health, 55(3), 157-162.

Ullman, S. E. (1996). Social Reactions, Coping Strategies, and Self‐blame Attributions in Adjustment to Sexual Assault. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 20(4), 505-526.

Values, M. (2015). Media's New Mood: Sexual Violence. United States of America: Center for Media Literacy.

Willis, M. (2011). Non-disclosure of violence in Australian Indigenous communities. Retrieved from

Wortman, C. B., & Brehm, J. W. (1975). Responses to uncontrollable outcomes: An integration of reactance theory and the learned helplessness model. Advances in experimental social psychology, 8, 277-336.

External Links[edit | edit source]

Ted talks. Jessica Lad: The reporting system that sexual assault survivors want

Ted talks. Ione Wells: How we talk about sexual assault online

Ted talks: Melissa Walker: Art can heal PTSD's invisible wounds

External links[edit | edit source]

Where to find help