Unacknowledged Rape

Unacknowledged rape is defined as a sexual experience that meets the legal requirements of rape, but is not labeled as rape by the victim.[1] Instead, the victim may label the experience as “bad sex”, a “miscommunication”,[2] or a regrettable “hook up.” This response is more frequently recognized amongst victims of acquaintance rape or date rape.

It has been found that the majority of unacknowledged rape victims are college aged females.[4] Additionally, of rape victims in this population at least 1/4 are unacknowledged victims. Some studies report that, out of all individuals who meet the requirements for rape, nearly 60% are unacknowledged victims.[5] The percentage of individuals who are unacknowledged rape victims increases exponentially when several factors are considered: If the victim knows her assailant (i.e. date/acquaintance rape) she is less likely to acknowledge herself as a rape victim. She is also less likely if the incident occurred while she was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If the incident involved oral sex or non-penetrative sex, the individual is less likely to acknowledge themselves as a rape victim.

Rape myths

Rape myths are defined by Martha Burt as “prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists.” Frequently, these rape myths are perpetuated by rape scripts: an individuals cognitive schema about what typically happens during a rape.[6] Most women have a stranger rape script as opposed to an acquaintance rape script- if asked to picture a sexual assault, most women picture a violent attack that occurs outdoors by a stranger who is yielding some sort of weapon. If there is a discrepancy between a woman’s internalized rape script and her rape experience, she is less likely to acknowledge herself as a rape victim.[1] This discrepancy is one of the main reasons why women do not acknowledge their sexual assault experience.[citation needed]

The myth of the perfect victim is another causal factor for unacknowledged victims.

Nature of assault

Another influence on acknowledgement status that is related to the victim’s internalized rape scripts lies in the nature of the assault itself. Specifically, the levels of force used by the attacker and resistance used by the victim are two major factors related to acknowledgement status.[2] Due to this, these victims are less likely to be physically injured during the assault. This decrease in force and resistance is potentially due to an incapacitation of the victim, through alcohol, drugs, or other means.

Counterfactual thinking

Counterfactual thinking occurs when an individual mentally morphs, restructures, or changes events. It is possible that unacknowledged rape vitims use counterfactual thinking to cognitively reorganize the experience into something other than rape.[1] Victims that exhibit counterfactual thinking typically reorganize their thought patterns by thinking of ways the situation could have been worse. Others think about ways they could have prevented the situation from occurring instead of thinking about the experience itself. Both of these thought patterns are clearly related to a lack of acknowledgment.[7]

Relationship to perpetrator

Individuals who are raped by strangers are more likely to acknowledge their status as a rape victim. Conversely, individuals who are raped by acquaintances,[8] friends, or significant others are more likely to be unacknowledged rape victims. Approximately 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone who knows the victim and 38% of assaults are committed by a friend of the victim.[9] Acquaintance rape is highly prevalent and represents the majority of sexual assault cases. Therefore,a majority of victims are at an increased likelihood of being unacknowledged.

Drug and alcohol use

If an individual was willingly under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they are less likely to acknowledge the event as a rape.[1] This changes if the individual was unwillingly under the influence of drugs during the event- more popularly known as date rape. One study found that less than 10% of women who were intoxicated acknowledged their experience as rape. Another study found that over 50% of unacknowledged victims report being under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the event while only approximately 25% of acknowledged victims report being impaired by a substance.[1]


Acknowledged rape itself is greatly under-reported – approximately 60% of rapes are never reported.[9] Other studies have found that the number is even smaller, with approximately 16% of rapes being reported to the police.[4] It has been found that individuals who are unacknowledged rape victims are substantially less likely to report the incident to the proper authorities. They have conceptualized the event as a non-crime and therefore the perpetrator is unlikely to receive the necessary punishment for the incident overall.

Even when the perpetrator is reported, it is likely that the case will not be prosecuted, as date rapes tend to lack physical evidence. The culture of skepticism towards women rape complainants further ensures perpetrators will commit similar sexual assaults in the future. By understanding the acknowledgement process further researchers and clinicians may be able to ensure that assailants of all types of sexual assault are being reported and receiving the necessary punishments.[1]


Some individuals argue that changes in the conceptualization of rape, such as the consideration of acknowledgment status, blurs the line between rape and consensual sex. Determining if a rape has occurred is difficult for many victims. This distinction becomes even less clear when considering the fact that every state has differing laws pertaining to what constitutes rape and sexual assault. However, it should be noted that institutions like WHO, the FBI, the CDC, etc use equivalent definitions of rape.

Like their acknowledged counterparts, unacknowledged victims experience similar amounts of trauma and psychological harm.[10] Despite this, research is unclear as to whether these difficulties are more, less, or the same as those of acknowledged victims.[2] There has been significant controversy amongst clinical professionals regarding the helpfulness versus harmfulness of acknowledgment status. Therapists are divided on whether unacknowledged victims fare better or worse with time than acknowledged victims. Women who seek professional help after a traumatic sexual assault or rape typically exhibit PTSD symptomology and frequently label themselves as rape victims. Conversely, unacknowledged rape victims frequently report less negative emotional affect post experience and many experience less feelings of victimization.[1] This troubles many clinicians- it is unclear whether unacknowledged victims are healthier and cope better or are simply in denial.

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