How does a crime committed against nearly 238,000 women a year go unreported 60 percent of the time? According to a new report, many victims of sexual assault may not actually see themselves as victims.
Heather Hlavka, a sociologist at Marquette University, analyzed interviews with 100 girls between ages three and 17 who may have experienced sexual assault. Overwhelmingly, their accounts indicated that sexual violence had been normalized in their communities. They considered harassment an everyday part of life rather than a criminal act.
The study identifies several common reasons why girls do not report their assaults, including shame, fear of retribution and mistrust of authority. The most alarming conclusion, however, is that young women “regard sexual violence against them as normal.” Moreover, the girls interviewed believed that men “can’t help it” and perceived “everyday harassment and abuse as normal male behavior.”
One participant — only 13 years old — said harassment is standard in her school: “They grab you, touch your butt and try to, like, touch you in the front, and run away, but it’s OK, I mean… I never think it’s a big thing because they do it to everyone.”
Obviously, that “they do it to everyone” does not make such behavior “OK,” but those types of perceptions interact with other factors to diminish the likelihood that survivors of sexual violence will report their assaults, and that perpetrators of sexual assault will be held accountable.
Once sexual harassment is “normalized,” reporting it becomes a “big thing” likely to be perceived as an overreaction. Hlavka also found that when young women expect adult men to act inappropriately, it leads to a community-wide distrust of male authority figures, such as police officers, to whom sexual assault should be reported.
The girls whose interviews Hlavka considered also assumed that other young women would regard them as “sluts” and “whores” if they disclosed that they were assaulted. This paints a grim picture of the state of sexual assault reduction in many American communities.
The report reminds us that parents and trusted authority figures must teach young girls (and boys) that sexual violence is not acceptable — before media and community norms give the impression that it is. When it comes to sexual assault, the sooner we empower young women and men with agency and information, the better.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated byRAINN. For more resources, visit theNational Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.