Definition And Prevalence

Gang rape, group rape, and multiple perpetrator rape are all terms used variously in the research literature to describe incidences of sexual assault in which there are two or more assailants. The term gang rape dates back to the 1970s and 1980s and is the term most commonly referenced in the literature. Further, it remains the most preferred concept among some academics. Ullman,1-2 one of the pioneers in the field examining sexual assault (both individual and multiple assailant) generally uses the term gang rape to refer to "a rape of a woman by multiple men" (p. 50). Her rationale for using this term is multifold: First, she would like to maintain consistency with previous literature, and second, it clearly denotes the distinction between rapes committed by "one man against one victim." In her more recent work, Ullman2 acknowledges that the term gang has other connotations, specifically to established "street gangs," which exist prior to and following the sexual assault and are often involved in other criminal and noncriminal acts together. With this in mind, Ullman includes rapes committed by "street gangs" under the umbrella term gang rape.

However, Horvath and Kelly3 argue that the concept of "gang rape" is not all encompassing and prevents delineation between the types of groups of men that may be perpetrating the assaults, and furthermore may serve to disguise these variations. As such, the term group rape entered into academic discourse more recently, and indeed is associated with attempts to overcome the limitations of "gang rape." Typically, "group rape" is defined and used very broadly to refer to attacks committed by two or more offenders.4 In sum, studies have used varying terminology to name and define the of fense, from gang rape to group rape.2,4 Consequently, whichever terminology has been used, the findings about the basic characteristics of the offense are variable. Nevertheless, the most frequently occurring size of the group fluctuates from two5 to four,6 which is consistent with earlier estimations about co-offending more generally, which proposed that the modal number of perpetrators in a crime incident is two or three.7

Not surprisingly, varying terminology across the literature has compounded the problems encountered in estimating accurately the prevalence and incidence of multiple perpetrator sexual assaults; therefore, researchers cannot state with certainty the extent of the sexual assaults involving multiple perpetrators. However, it is likely that, as for other kinds of sexual assault, the figures available underestimate the problem.8 To date, research indicates that the rate of multiple perpetrator sexual assault range from under 2% in student populations to up to 26% in police samples.9

The prevalence of sexual assault in prison populations is more difficult to determine, as our society and researchers largely ignore rape of inmates. Nevertheless, some research has been done in this area. In a sample of 538 inmates (486 men and 42 women) in a Midwestern prison system, the researchers found that approximately 50% of the participants had been forced to have intercourse (vaginal, anal, and/or oral), with one-fourth of the cases qualifying as gang rape.10 Of the male victims, 50% said that only one perpetrator was involved, 30% said two or three persons, 10% said four or five persons, 6% said six to ten persons, and 4% said eleven to twenty-six persons; for the female victims one incident involved a single perpetrator, and two incidents involved three or four perpetrators.10 Furthermore, the researchers found that in these worst case incidences the perpetrator(s) of the assault were most often male.10

In addition, a growing body of literature has increasingly been able to capture some of the associated characteristics of multiple assailant sexual assaults. As an example, in a descriptive study comparing multiple perpetrator and individual rape incidents among a large, urban-area sample of community-residing female sexual assault victims, Ullman2 found that in regard to situations prior to the assault, more victims of multiple perpetrator sexual assault were at parties/bars or walking outdoors before the attack, whereas victims of single-offender rape were more often at home or on a date. In this same study, multiple perpetrator sexual assaults were more likely to occur indoors, to be committed by strangers, and to involve violence including verbal threats, weapons, and physical injuries; further, these offenses were also more likely to involve substance use and victim resistance than single-offender rapes.2 In addition, victims in this sample reported more nonforceful and forceful verbal resistance and more fleeing but less forceful physical resistance during the assault as compared with single-offender rapes.2 Finally, Ullman2 found that oral and/or anal penetration was more likely in sexual assault with multiple assailants, as was physical injury.

In an effort to gain a better understanding of this devastating phenomenon, this author examined the risk factors, psychological sequelae, and disclosure and help-seeking patterns among survivors of multiple perpetrator sexual assaults. First the author describes at-risk populations and situations in which the likelihood of experiencing multiple perpetrator sexual assaults is heightened. Next the author identifies the emotional and psychological effects that may develop in the aftermath of sexual assault. Then the author addresses experiences of disclosure and help seeking (to both informal and formal networks) among survivors of sexual assault. Finally, counseling and policy implications are provided. Of note, in the current work, the author will primarily focus on sexual assault with multiple assailants in which the perpetrators were male and the victim is female in nonprison populations.

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