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Changing Perceptions of Sexual Violence Over Time

The author reviews available research on perceptions held by the general public about sexual violence and how they have changed over time. She also makes recommendations for future practice, which include discussing the root causes of sexual violence and addressing subtle victim blaming.

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VAWnet Summary:

Changing Perceptions of Sexual Violence Over Time by Sarah McMahon in consultation with Karen Baker (October 2011).

In Brief:

Despite a rich history of advocacy for legal reform, community education, the rights of victims, and a notable body of research, many people still hold on to stereotypes about stranger rapes in dark alleys. These ideas have become more subtle over time, but there is still work to do to improve public understanding.

We’ve moved to an understanding of sexual violence as a continuum. Laws have changed in a way that recognizes a continuum of acts and behaviors as sexually violent (Spohn & Horney, 1992). Laws now recognize a range of acts, from completed rape to unwanted touching or sexual harassment (Centers for Disease Control, 2009). Degrading language or pornography, which are more common, also contribute to the continuum (Kelly, 1987; McMahon, Postmus & Koenick, 2011; Stout, 1991). The general public is still most likely to call something sexual violence if force is involved (McMahon et al, 2011).

Perceptions about perpetrators can reinforce rape myths. Research over time revealed that many rapists are actually “everyday” type men. Studies on college campuses suggested that many men (6-14%) report sexually violent behaviors (Lisak & Miller, 2002). Despite this, many people still believe that a perpetrator is sick or disturbed (O’Neil & Morgan, 2010). Racism also plays a role in how the public perceives a perpetrator. Black men are often viewed as more blameworthy than white men (Donovan, 2007; George & Martinez, 2006; Varelas & Foley, 1998). Outdated beliefs about who commits sexual violence still influence perceptions. These beliefs also impact the way we understand the causes of sexual violence.

Many people still blame the victim. The way that the public perceives a victim of sexual violence often involves victim-blaming (Maurer & Robinson, 2008). Blame for sexual violence has become more subtle over time (Ferro, Cermele, & Saltzman, 2008). Blatant blame may be socially unacceptable, but many attitudes remain the same.

Sexual violence is connected to all forms of oppression. There are also many attitudes and beliefs about who can be a victim of sexual violence. Most research focuses on women. Research with male victims has found that gay victims are judged more harshly (Davies & Rogers, 2006). Homophobic attitudes are correlated with whether or not a person will blame the victim for their experience (Davies & Rogers, 2006). Racism has played a role in how the public perceived victims in the past, and still plays a part in attitudes today (West, 2006; Donovan, 2007). Cultural norms and public perceptions may actually keep many people from accessing services or reporting sexual violence.

Taking steps towards changing perceptions in the future. The current research available may help to guide the efforts of advocates and practitioners. The four main areas discussed include: 1) shifting educational efforts to the causes of sexual violence, 2) addressing subtle victim blaming, 3) finding ways to engage communities, and 4) developing culturally-specific interventions.

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