“I wasn’t raped, but...”: The phenomenon of unacknowledged rape and sexual assault

For Rachel Thompson, it took ten years to realise what had happened to her was sexual assault. 

In a piece published in The Guardian, Thompson, author of Rough: How violence has found its way into the bedroom and what we can do about it, exposes the phenomenon of ‘unacknowledged rape’. According to Thompson, research shows it can take years, even decades, for victims to realise their experience constitutes rape or sexual assault.  

I would speak about “bad sex” or “grey-area experiences”. I would start sentences with: “This doesn’t really count, but …” or: “I wasn’t raped, but …” as if I didn’t have the right to the trauma I had buried.

I define unacknowledged rape as “an experience that meets the hallmarks of rape or assault but is not labelled as such by the victim. Instead, terms such as ‘misunderstanding’, a ‘hookup gone wrong’ and ‘grey area’ are used.”

Thompson cites research highlighting the scale of the issue – a 2016 analysis of 28 studies of almost 6000 women who had experienced sexual violence found 60% of them didn’t label their experience as “rape”, instead using terms like “bad sex” or “miscommunication”. Similarly, a US study estimated 60% of female university students have experienced unacknowledged rape. 
In her recently published memoir Making a Scene, film star Constance Wu recounted her own experience of unacknowledged rape, and how it took her more than ten years to identify it as a rape. (Content warning.) 

He kissed my lips, my forehead, and looked into my eyes. He was being so tender. I repeated, as seriously as I could, “Really, I’m not ready for sex,” my face flushing. He smiled at me again like I was a baby kitten, held me close, kissed me, gently moved my legs apart, and then he . . . did it anyway.
I didn’t fight back. I just . . . gave up.
I was trying hard to be blasé and cool, it was also embarrassing to have big feelings or reactions. Even in this moment I wanted to be the cool girl. Cool girls didn’t freak out.
Plus . . . he wasn’t violent. He just didn’t listen to me. And, while he was being tender now, if I fought him there was a risk that he could become angry or violent. Could I really fight someone twice my size and a decade older than me? In his apartment? Or what if he got mad at me? Called me crazy? Laughed and said “Calm down. I didn’t want to have sex with you. You really think you’re all that hot?” Then he’d get to be the cool guy, and I’d become the conceited girl who thought she was all that hot. I was already so embarrassed. Of my body, my arousal, my unacknowledged plea. So even though he and I were the only two people in the room, I didn’t fight back because I didn’t want to make a scene.
And since he was wearing a condom, I rationalized that it wasn’t that bad. Read more.  

So why do so many women struggle to acknowledge what happened to them as rape or sexual assault, even when it clearly fits the criteria?
One reason for this is that women’s experiences frequently differ from common stereotypes about rape – what it looks like, who the rapist is, how the victims are ‘supposed’ to respond.
Media often portrays rape as being perpetrated by a stranger, but the vast majority of rapes and sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. Many victims also freeze during rape or sexual assault. Victims may believe if they didn’t fight back, if the perpetrator was someone they knew or were romantically involved with, if it was not overly violent or if he otherwise seemed nice, then it is not a ‘real’ rape. For others, it may be too painful to acknowledge their experience as rape, even if they know deep down it was wrong.

Why consent education is not enough

While some claim rape is often an issue of miscommunication which can be remedied by teaching women to more clearly communicate their refusal, Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith argue this is an ineffective approach.
In a paper published in Discourse and Society, Kitzinger and Frith agree that young women do find it difficult to say no to sex, because they don’t want to hurt the man’s feelings. This is also the case for many people who find it difficult to say no in all sorts of contexts, like declining offers and invitations.
As Kitzinger and Frith point out, conversationally it is unusual to ‘just say no’ emphatically, and there is typically an attempt at softening the no. The authors conclude:

Young women are communicating in ways which are usually understood to mean refusals in other contexts and it is not the adequacy of their communication that should be questioned, but rather their male partners’ claims not to understand that these women are refusing sex...
[T]he root of the problem is not that men don’t understand sexual refusals, but that they do not like them.
The problem of sexual coercion cannot be fixed by changing the way women talk.

One of the factors that is often neglected in these discussions is the role of pornography in normalising and promoting male dominance and sexual entitlement, as well as the aggression, abuse and degradation of women. 

In a piece published on ABC Religion and Ethics, Movement Director Melinda Tankard Reist argues that consent education will not be effective unless we first address porn. 


If we don’t address pornography’s conditioning of boys, which trains them to accept rape myths — that “no” in fact means “yes” — and which normalises aggression, coercion and domination, these girls and all those that follow don’t stand a chance.
I have sometimes heard it said that the boys didn’t know what they were doing. That they needed to be taught more about consent, or that, in the heat of the moment, they simply misunderstood the girl’s wishes. But surely we can all agree that if a boy rapes a girl while she is asleep, there was no attempt to gain consent. If a boy sexually assaults a girl while his friends film it and they then share the footage, there was no intention to gain consent. In both instances, sexual gratification triumphs over empathy. The victory is in the taking. Can we really claim that this many — otherwise intelligent, well-educated — boys didn’t know that it was wrong to behave like this? Do we really needing to be writing on whiteboards in class, “If a young woman is unconscious, you shouldn’t have sex with her”?

As men and boys’ sexual templates are being moulded by porn – which they are regularly consuming from increasingly younger ages – women and girls are paying the price. Until we challenge porn, nothing will change.

See also:

Why “consent” doesn’t stand a chance against porn culture - ABC Religion and Ethics

The role of pornography in intimate partner sexual violence

Growing Up in Pornland: Girls Have Had It with Porn Conditioned Boys - ABC Religion and Ethics

Submission to Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence Inquiry

NZ survey finds sexual violence on the rise due to porn

The morning after I was raped, I made my rapist breakfast

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  • Caitlin Roper
    published this page in News 2022-12-08 08:56:30 +1100

You can defend their right to childhood

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