Was that Sexual Assault? Why Legal Definitions Matter // Megan Mansfield, M.A.

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            I didn’t realize that what had happened to me was rape until four years later.  To many, I’d imagine this sounds simply ridiculous.  “How could you have not known you were raped?”  Well, I had to ask myself the same question.  Through months of exploration in therapy, I learned about the various protective defenses I had employed in order to get me through the traumatic event and the few following years, which were filled with transitions and uncertainty.  While the therapeutic process was extremely liberating, empowering, and healing, I still felt as though the question may not have been answered in its entirety.  Feeling as though I had exhausted my internal resources, I began to look to the research. “Have other women experienced this?” “If so, why?” “Why was I exhibiting blatant signs of trauma, yet unable to acknowledge having been traumatized?”
            In my search for the answer, I stumbled upon a surprisingly simple suggestion as to why so many women do not label their traumatic experience as sexual assault.  Several recent studies regarding sexual violence have found that survivors of sexual violence may not report their experience due to a lack of understanding that what had happened to them was a crime or because they did not believe the sexually violent act was serious enough to report (Cantalupo, 2012).  It is important to highlight the difference between self-acknowledging a sexual assault and reporting a sexual assault to others; however, this data influenced me to question what the role of simply knowing the definition of sexual assault, may have on ones ability to acknowledge the event as sexual assault.
            Hull, Sheplavy & Hull (2015) conducted a study which looked at undergraduate participants responses to personal experiences of sexual violence before and after reading legal definitions of the state they were residing in, West Virginia. In privacy, participants were asked to indicate their experiences with different types of sexual violence using a five-point scale.  While females were asked about their experiences as a victim, male participants were asked to indicate their experiences as a perpetrator.  While it is crucial that we acknowledge women can perpetrate and males can be victimized, researchers used this approach to align with the more frequent scenario.  Next, all participants read the legal definitions of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment, according to West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services (as cited in Hull et al., 2015).  Immediately after reading the definitions, participants once again rated their experiences with sexual violence.  Results showed that reading the definitions certainly impacted both female and male participants responses. 
            More specifically, 27% of females either agreed or strongly agreed that they had been sexually assaulted before reading the definitions opposed to 29% after reading the definitions.  While 34% of females either agreed or strongly agreed that they had been sexually abused before reading the definitions, 40% reported sexual abuse after.  Following this trend, 57% of females either agreed or strongly agreed that they had been sexually harassed before reading the definitions opposed to 77% after reading the definitions.  Likewise, the male participants reported having perpetrated either sexual assault, sexual abuse, or sexual harassment more so after reading the definition as opposed to before reading the definition (Hull, Sheplavy, & Hull, 2015).
            Due to several limitations, this study alone is certainly not indicative of how the role of knowledge of the law impacts perceptions of sexual violence in the general public. With that being said, I can relate to the women in this particular study because, in addition to finally feeling safe enough to let my protective defenses relax, I had to complete a formal rape crisis counselor training to truly understand my experience. I’d imagine this is especially true for women whose experiences are not portrayed in media or aligned with the narrative known as “stranger danger.”  What had happened to me would never be made into a Law & Order: SVU episode; my experience did not match my perception of what constitutes as rape at the time.
            As a clinician who aims to specialize in trauma caused by sexual violence, I, of course, wonder about how this information could be utilized in a therapeutic setting.  There are a plethora of reasons which may explain the phenomenon of this delayed acknowledgment, and as a therapist, I believe it is so important to meet survivors where they are and allow survivors to use terminology that feels right to them.  With that being said, I do believe this information may help guide clinicians working with trauma survivors who are minimizing their experience or having difficultly understanding their emotions around a particular potentially traumatizing event.  To me, this phenomenon highlights the importance of properly and thoroughly assessing for trauma and sexual assault/abuse as a clinician because it is evident that these words may take on a different meaning to different individuals at different points in their life.  Perhaps exploring these legal definitions during the therapeutic process may help survivors to acknowledge the violation and feel a sense of validation in their psychological and physiological response to a horrific event.  Of course, clinicians would have to simultaneously remain aware of legal definitions which apply to the state they’re practicing in and the fact that in some cases, legal definitions do not adequately encompass all sexual violations.
            Overall, I found the role of knowledge of the law in acknowledging sexual violence to be fascinating, especially because it seems remarkably simple in comparison to the role of psychological protective/defensive factors.  I want to acknowledge that I recognize this study (Hull, Sheplavy, & Hull, 2015) is only a small glimmer of information on the topic. However, I hope its acknowledgment helps survivors and clinicians to gain clarity on one of the many reasons survivors may not acknowledge having been sexually violated.

Written by Megan Mansfield, M.A.


Cantalupo, N. C. (2012). “Decriminalizingcampus institutional responses to peer                       sexual violence. Journal of College and University Law, 38, 483-526.

Hull, D. B., Sheplavy, E., & Hull, J. H. (2015). The role of knowledge of the law in                                    perceptions of sexual violence. North American Journal Of Psychology, 17(2),                  251-258.

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