Sexual Assault Dynamics

Although every sexual assault situation is different, many sexual assaults have certain characteristics in common. For example, the majority of sexual assaults occur in private settings like a home or car rather than a public setting,3 with the bulk of these assaults occurring at night. For both male and female victims, the majority of rape incidents involve one perpetrator.3 That noted, assaults involving more than one perpetrator ("gang rapes") often result in more severe outcomes than do individual assaults.17

Perpetrator tactics. Sexual assault perpetrators may use a variety of tactics to try to gain compliance from their victims during the assault, including verbal coercion, threats of physical harm, and actual physical violence. Verbally coercive tactics include the following: telling lies and making false promises, threatening to spread false rumors, engaging in continual verbal pressure, showing displeasure, being critical of the victim, and getting angry.18 Physical violence can include slapping or hitting, kicking, biting, choking, hitting with an object, beating, and using a weapon.3

A perpetrator may use multiple tactics during an assault. For example, one survey of young women aged eighteen to twenty-four who reported experiencing at least one incident of sexual assault found that 61% reported being pressured to have intercourse through either words or actions that did not involve actual threats of physical harm, while 32% reported that the perpetrators threatened to physically harm them.19 Fifty-seven percent reported that they were physically held down during the assault, while 40% noted that the perpetrator used his larger physical size as a means of intimidation. Twenty-six percent reported being physically injured during the assault. These tactics also vary by perpetrator-victim relationship, in that sexual assaults perpetrated by strangers are typically more likely to involve the use of a weapon and result in physical harm than are assaults perpetrated by known individuals.20

Alcohol and drugs. One contributing factor to the occurrence of sexual assault is alcohol. Research has consistently found that a majority (55% to 74%) of acquaintance sexual assault incidents involves alcohol use by male perpetrators, female victims, or both.21,22 In her extensive review of rape avoidance studies, Dr. Sarah Ullman concluded that completed rapes are more likely when both victim and offender have been drinking than when both are sober.23 Importantly though, the presence of alcohol in a sexual assault situation does not justify or excuse the assault itself.

Alcohol use might increase the risk of sexual assault through a variety of pathways. Intoxicated victims may be less likely to perceive that they are at risk for sexual assault, and thus may be less likely to take precautionary measures when intoxicated than when sober.24 Additionally intoxicated victims may be less able to resist an assault effectively, particularly at higher levels of drinking.25

"We were at a party and had both been drinking. When he said he wanted to get to know me better, we went to one of the rooms to talk. I never really thought something like this would happen. I mean, he seemed like a nice enough guy. I never really felt like I was in danger until it was too late. I was too drunk to stop him."

—Twenty-two-year-old Caucasian woman

Intoxicated perpetrators may be more likely to use alcohol as an excuse for their actions and may believe that intoxication justifies sexual aggression. They may also be more likely to misperceive their victim's sexual interest and whether consent has been given, particularly if the victim has also been drinking.26 Finally, some perpetrators may intentionally provide their victims with alcoholic drinks in order to facilitate their sexual access. Alcohol may increase the risk of sexual assault whether consumed voluntarily by the victim or consumed due to deliberate attempts by the perpetrator to incapacitate the victim.

Other drugs may also be used to facilitate the occurrence of sexual assault. In particular Rohypnol and GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate) have been widely discussed in the media as drugs that may be surreptitiously slipped into a victim's drink to incapacitate the victim. However, other drugs may also increase the occurrence of sexual assault, including marijuana, cocaine, barbiturates, and hallucinogens. One study found that marijuana was the drug most frequently used in rapes that involved the consumption of drugs by the victim, accounting for 73% of the drug-involved assaults.27 Additionally, gang rapes are more likely than individual rapes to involve drug use by the victim.17

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