In a society where the subject of rape is still taboo, the idea of even one attack is hard to grasp. The idea of multiple attacks seems far beyond probability.
This makes it unimaginably hard for the considerable number of victims who do undergo multiple sexual assaults.
It’s not an unusual phenomenon. A little known fact is that being sexually assaulted puts you at a much higher risk of being assaulted again in the future, as does childhood sexual abuse.
Sometimes referred to as revictimization, it is not exclusive to sexual assault. Victims of domestic violence are more likely to undergo it a second time. Even robberies and burglaries seem to be self-propogating (and significantly so. Being robbed once places you at a nine times higher risk of being robbed again, and being burgled means you have four times more reason to lock up your house.)
Being sexually assaulted greatly increased the risk of future assaults, with one study purporting that being sexually assaulted once meant a woman was 35 times more likely than others to be revictimized.
“The percentage of women who were raped as children or adolescents and also raped as adults was more than two times higher than the percentage among women without an early rape history.”
– National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2010, CDC
What contributes to this devastating, but common pattern?
There are several theories, and it varies from woman to woman. Women who were sexually abused as children have learned silence, and may be unable to enforce appropriate boundaries, given their childhood experiences. Some theorize that it is a way of attempting to master anxiety or trauma. Some suggest that traumatization may cause some to revert to familiar patterns, despite whatever pain it may cause. And some others suggest that women who have been assaulted early learn to associate sex with pain and trauma, and therefore are less likely to be able to distinguish between consent or coercion.
Despite the relative devastation of each crime, we’re far more likely to offer sympathy to repeat victims of a burglary. It is easier to imagine being appalled when someone, once again, comes home to a broken window. Yet, we’d be more skeptical if someone claimed that they’d been raped a second time.
With rape, it can be more difficult to grasp in part because of the culture surrounding sexual assault. A victim is very often disbelieved once. After multiple instances, a forced sexual encounter is seen as their fault, be it the way they dress, the way they conduct themselves or how much they drank. An easy answer is to assume they are trying to cover up regretted sexual encounters, or that they misunderstand the concept of rape.
The stigma against rape contributes to women’s compulsion to repeat their traumas. Chris O’Sullivan, Senior Research Associate at Safe Horizon, explained that one recurring theme throughout his research in the area was that women were likely to take responsibility for the original assault.
“They were so full of self-blame and shame from the original assault that they felt unable to act on their own behalf during the later sexual assault victimization.”
Sullivan also emphasized that revictimization, despite its nature, was never the victim’s fault.
Women may take years to recover from a sexual assault. Being assaulted multiple times can compound the trauma. Sexual assault victims are much more likely to suffer from depression, attempt suicide, develop PTSD, self-harm or use maladaptive coping strategies such as eating disorders or substance abuse. The repetition compulsion is a phenomenon that still confounds researchers in terms of successful interventions, but that doesn’t mean that informal, but steady support from friends or family won’t be effective in any victim’s recovery process.
To learn how to support a rape victim, or to get help yourself:
- RAINN offers a hotline for victims or friends & family, resources on how to seek help and a list of international organizations.
- Pandora’s Project is an online network for survivors of sexual violence.
- Take Back The Night has online resources and communities, and organizes events internationally for survivors and advocates.