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Family Violence

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This research examines the issues surrounding the criminal behavior referred to as rape. Rape refers to the forcible sexual assault on a person by another individual with whom the victim had no prior acquaintance or relationship. Historical/Political Insights

Violence results in loss of life and human potential, and consumes scarce health care dollars (American Academy of Family Physicians Commission on Special issues and Clinical Interests, 1994, p. 1636). Physical violence includes rape. While the concept of rape applies to men as victims as well as to women, the overwhelming proportions of rape victims are women. Gender and unequal power are factors in the perpetration of rape against women (American Academy of Family Physicians Commission on Special issues and Clinical Interests, 1994, p. 1636). The overwhelming majority of physical violence involves aggressive behavior by men toward women.

Less than 10 percent of partner violence in the home involves women abusing men. Presumably, socialization plays a role in promoting the concept of unequal power over a submissive partner or dependence carried to the point of abuse. One reason sexual violence is taken for granted by many people is that such behavior is so prevalent (Brison, 1994, p. 10). While official statistics reflect a high incidence of rape, these official statistics are thought to reflect only 10 percent of the actual number of rapes that occur. Official/Social Reaction

Prior to the 1970s, the focus was on the danger of assault or rape by strangers or acquaintances (American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, 1992, p. 3184). Violence in the family was thought to be infrequent and to result from psychopathology in the individuals involved rather than being viewed as a society-wide problem. Rape laws have been amended to protect victims of assault by marital partners. Nearly every state has established new legislation addressing violence between adult partners. The focus of this research is on forcible rape as opposed to statutory rape. The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines forcible rape as the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will. The act of rape has not, however, always been so defined. The rape of a woman did not even begin to be considered as a crime against the person until the twelfth century.

Prior to that time, rape was considered only in the context of an abuse, misuse or damage to the property of another man. The concept of rape as a property crime persisted in most jurisdictions well after the twelfth century. Medieval cannon law was revised in the twelfth century, however, to define rape as an assault involving abduction, coitus, violence, and a lack of free consent on the part of the woman. Rape came to be defined in English common law as carnal knowledge by a man of a woman not his wife; by force or threat of force; against her will and without her consent. Reform of rape laws initiated by most American states beginning in the 1970s modified the common law definition of rape to some extent; however, the common law definition remains the essence of even the most radical reform statutes. Modifications in the definition of rape involved the establishment of different degrees of rape in some states without changing the essential elements of law required to prove a charge of rape.

Legal modifications of the definition of rape, therefore, have led to little improvement in the position of women as rape victims. The major deficiency of the legal definitions of rape from the perspective of many women is that what is actually an offense encompassing a wide range of sexual assaults has in practice been applied to only the most extreme and violent incidents. As a consequence of the narrow legal definition of rape that persists in the United States, many victims of sexual assault fall outside the protection of the law because the offense perpetrated upon them falls outside the scope of state statutes defining rape. Justice for many women victims of sexual assault remains undelivered despite rape law reform because male perceptions of the concept of rape remain largely unchanged. Law Definition

In traditional definitions, rape was defined as the forcible carnal knowledge of a female against her will and was generally restricted to vaginal-penile penetration (American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, 1992, p. 3184). Legal definitions of rape have undergone extensive revisions. Many statutes now define rape as the non-consensual sexual penetration of an adolescent or adult obtained by physical force, by threat of bodily harm, or when the victim is incapable of giving consent by virtue of mental illness, mental retardation, or intoxication. These definitions typically include other types of sexual penetration as well as attempts to commit rape. Extent/Data

According to Federal Bureau of Investigation crime reports, 92,486 rapes of women were reported to police in 1988 (American Medical Association council on Scientific Affairs, 1992, p. 3185). Law enforcement agents reported 102,555 forcible rapes during 1990, generating 80 rapes per 100,000 American females (Boxley, Lawrance, & Gruchow, 1995, p. 96). In the United States in 1993, there were 38.6 reported forcible rapes per each 100 thousand inhabitants. Estimates based on the National Crime Survey, which includes incidents not necessarily reported to the police, are nearly twice as high. An aggregate of data proposes that rape incidence may be six-to-10 times greater than that measured by the National Crime Survey.

Prevalence studies using epidemiological methods indicate that at least 20 percent of adult women, 15 percent of college women, and 12 percent of adolescent girls have experienced sexual abuse and assault during their lifetimes. Estimates for African American women are even higher. Children are most at risk from assaults by family members and other caretakers, while adolescents and young adult women are most at risk for acquaintance and date rape and least at risk from someone unknown to them. Both young adult and older women are more vulnerable to sexual assaults by marital or ex-marital partners than to rape by acquaintances, other family members, or strangers combined. Impacts

Initial reactions to sexual assault include shock, numbness, withdrawal, and denial (American medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, 1992, p. 3186). Victims of stranger attacks typically fear their assailant will return and further harm them. In initial presentations to police or medical staff, victims may appear unnaturally calm and detached (although some physical signs such as shaking or lowered skin temperature are usually present); or they may be crying or angry. Typically, there is a lessening of initial symptoms after the first two weeks, and the victim may enter a denial phase in which there is an outward appearance of adjustment (American medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, 1992, p. 3186). Studies indicate, however, that from two weeks to several months post-assault, symptomatology returns and may intensify.

Research documents that after-effects of rape are persistent and long lasting (American medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, 1992, p. 3186). Victims often react with chronic anxiety and feelings of vulnerability, loss of control, and self-blame long after the assault. Long-term reactions include anxiety, nightmares, catastrophic fantasies, feelings of alienation and isolation, sexual dysfunctions, and physical distress. Other long-term effects include mistrust of others, phobias, depression, hostility, and somatic symptoms. Suicidal thoughts are reported in between one-third and one-half of rape victims. The complex of effects in the aftermath of rape often meets the criteria for the diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder—PTSD (American medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, 1992, p. 3186). Hallmarks of PTSD include psychic numbing, intrusive re-experiencing of the trauma, avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, and intense psychological distress. Women with prior victimization histories evidence especially severe after-effects.

Although it is often assumed that women who are the victims of stranger rapes are more severely traumatized than those victimized by persons they know, in comparing victims on measures of depression and anxiety, women assaulted by family members or dates experience as severe levels of distress as women assaulted-by acquaintances or strangers. Physical effects of rape trauma may include soreness, bruising, and rectal bleeding (American medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, 1992, p. 3186). Gastrointestinal irritability, fatigue, tension headaches, intense startle reactions, and disturbed sleeping and eating patterns also often occur. Ongoing health concerns include gynecological trauma, risk of pregnancy, and the potential for contracting infections or sexually transmitted diseases (American medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, 1992, p. 3186). The risk of human immune-deficiency virus (HIV) infection is of increasing concern to rape victims.

Victims also may seek to escape the pain of rape’s after-effects through alcohol and drugs, further disrupting physical and psychological well-being. Sexual violence victimizes not only those women who are directly attacked but all women (Brison, 1994, p. 21). The fear of rape has long functioned to keep women in their place. Whether or not one agrees with the claims of those who argue that rape is a means by which all men keep all women subordinate, the fact that all women’s lives are restricted by sexual violence is indisputable. The fear of rape prevents women from enjoying what men consider their birthright. Fifty percent of women never use public transportation after dark because of fear of rape. Women are eight times more likely than men to avoid walking in their own neighborhoods after dark, for the same reason. Criminal Motivation

Sex-role stereotyping may explain why acquaintance rape is seen as less severe and more attributed to the behavior of the survivor than stranger rape (Boxley, Lawrance, & Gruchow, 1995, p. 98). This response is attributed to the concept of “sexual terrorism,” because sex-role stereotyping is preserved by instructing men to be “terrorists” as part of their masculine role and women, “victims” as their feminine role (p. 98). Many people believe in rape myths and their rape perspectives are strongly entwined with sex-role stereotyping. If adults who are more accepting of sex-role stereotyping support rape myths, it is likely that the same relationship would be found in adolescent populations. As an example, a survey found that 79 percent of both females and males adolescents believed it was acceptable for males to use coercive measures to obtain sexual intercourse under particular circumstances.

The data suggested male adolescents considered sexual coercion toward women as ubiquitous and even acceptable in sexual relationships. Adolescent males often were supported in their coercive behavior by their male contemporaries. Companions of coercive adolescent males usually overwhelmingly sanctioned the aggressive behavior. Data from the National Youth Survey indicated males perceived the capabilities and character of the genders in a more stereotyped perspective when compared to females. Women are disproportionately the targets of sexual violence (Betz & Fitzgerald, 1993, p. 350). Studies have found that as many as one-third to one-half of all men report that they would rape if they could be assured that no one would know.

Radical feminists have brought focus on the issue of how public discourse on sexuality is closely, and disturbingly, tied to violence and death (A feminist . . ., 1994, p. 1045). This focus on the naming and renaming experiences of sexual harassment, rape, and incest has explained how these phenomena are connected, and has pushed for a recognition and acceptance of the position that rape is a violation of women, as opposed to being a violation of another man’s property. Criminal Justice System Effectiveness

Feminists and criminal justice professionals supported one another in the mid-1970s to obtain the enactment of new federal and state laws to broaden the definition of rape and to change rape trial procedures that treated female victims of rape as perpetrators (Goldberg-Ambrose, 1992, p. 173). Many feminists contend that the changes in the law have been less than what is required to rectify the situation. Most criminal justice professionals, however, tend to view the change as positive steps. Nevertheless, while significant changes to rape law has occurred in the United States at both the federal-level of government and in most states, advocates of equal rights and social justice, most sociologists, and influential criminal justice critics contend that even in the 1990s rape victims are not treated with either sensitivity or fairness in many American court rooms.

The pursuit of justice for women upon whom rape has been perpetrated has been characterized by objectives related to changes in how rape victims are treated by law, changes in the concept and definition of rape, and changes in how rape victims are perceived by society. While the act of rape traditionally has been an offense under state laws in the United States, the rape victim was treated, also traditionally, as if she were the major part of the problem. As a consequence, a rape trial typically was a much greater ordeal for the victim than for the perpetrator. No real changes in the treatment of women rape victims occurred until the 1960s. Since that time, changes have occurred that prevent defense attorneys from grilling rape victims on the witness stand in attempts to portray their behaviors—recent or past—as the cause of the rapes.

In all too many instances, these witness stand grilling constituted a second rape of the victim. In the 1970s, prostitution and easy virtue began to be curtailed as a defense against the charge of rape. Beginning in the 1980s, the concept of spousal rape began to be incorporated into state laws on a broader scale. These transformations, however, are far from complete. In state-level actions, it is often difficult for a woman to persuade a prosecutor to file charges against a rapist. Many women do not report their being raped because of a belief that police will not help. Police officers exert a substantial influence on an eventual decision to prosecute.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to assuring justice for women as rape victims has been public perception. Even in the 1990s, a substantial proportion of the American population continues to suspect that rape victims somehow “asked for it.” Further, a large segment of the population continues to place an unsavory societal label on women victims of rape. The transformation of perception will likely require decades. Counselors can tell a rape victim that “it is not your fault,” but they cannot assure that the family members and friends of rape victims will accept such a reasonable and justified conclusion. Conclusion

Many people seeking justice for women who are the victims of rape long have contended that rape is not a crime of sex, but rather is a crime of power. This contention has been extended to develop the concept of “the rapist style,” wherein unacceptable non sexual behaviors by men toward women are termed as a form of rape when men are able to exert their will over women by virtue of disproportionate levels of situational power. The condemnation of such behavior is valid. Describing such behavior as a form of rape, however, likely will dilute public support for victims of physical rape while not attaining any meaningful reformation of non-sexual situational behavior.


A feminist regrounding of sexuality and intimacy. (1994, August). American Behavioral Scientist, 37(8), 1042-1057. American Academy of Family Physicians Commission on Special Issues and Clinical Interests. (1994, December). Family violence: An AAFP white paper. American Family Physician, 50(8), 1636-1641. American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs. Violence against women: Relevance for medical practitioners. (1992, 17 June). Journal of the American Medical Association, 267(23), 3184-3189. Betz, N. E., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (1993). Individuality and diversity: Theory and research in counseling psychology. Annual Review of Psychology, 44, 343-382. Boxley, J., Lawrance, L., & Gruchow, H. (1995, March). A preliminary study of eighth grade students’ attitudes toward rape myths and women’s roles. Journal of School Health, 65(3), 96-100. Brison, S. J. (1994, October). Surviving sexual violence. Second Opinion, 20(2), 10-23.
Goldberg-Ambrose, C. (1992). Unfinished business in rape law reform. Journal of Social Issues, 48(1), 173-185.

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