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Acquaintance rape: the trauma and shame of a hidden crime

The vast majority of serious sexual assaults are by people known to the victims. Social taboos and the lack of an adequate legal framework mean that this crime all too often goes unpunished.


“When I realised what he was going to do, I froze and the panic immobilized my body. I realised I couldn’t fight back. I am 48 kilos; he was 1.90 meters tall and very strong. I tried to scream but my voice wouldn’t come out, who could come rescue me? I suddenly saw myself floating above the room out of my body.”

These are the words of Silvia (which is not her real name), who was raped by a man she had been dating for two months when she told him she wanted to break up. Besides the trauma of the experience itself, she then found herself in a quandary when it came to reporting the crime.

“I thought about going to the police but would they believe me? He raped my in my own house, used a condom, I had no injures as he wasn’t particularly well endowed, so how could I prove it?”

In 2007, 6,845 rapes were reported in Spain, a shocking figure, but nonetheless a relatively low one for a country with 45 million inhabitants, (Sweden, with just nine million inhabitants, saw 3,500 rapes). Ninety percent of these reported attacks were committed by strangers, and yet, while the chances of getting raped in Spain on your way home late at night may be low, there is another type of sexual assault that for the most part goes unreported and unpunished: acquaintance rape. CAVAS, the Centre of Assistance for Victims of Rape and Sexual Assault, estimates that of all rapes committed (as opposed to just reported), 21 percent are by strangers. The other nearly 80 percent are committed by people the victim knows, whether that be a partner, a friend, work colleague, relative or recent acquaintance, and the wounds are just as deep as those that stranger rape leaves.

Two-thirds of the victims CAVAS assisted last year were raped by an acquaintance. Forty percent of acquaintance rapes are committed in the victim’s house. Another 40 percent are committed in the rapist’s house. It is difficult to offer hard figures regarding the number of women that are being raped in Spain by people they know as, contrary to society’s myths about rape, only nine percent of the attacks leave physical wounds, meaning the victim has little evidence to prove the attack and report it.

“We can’t give an exact figure of how many women are raped by acquaintances as most of them decide to hide it, forget it, not report it and move on and, therefore do not seek psychological assistance” says Maria Angeles, a CAVAS psychologist.

No proof, no crime?

Rapists know full well that a large percentage of women react to rape by freezing and numbing out, thus rendering them unable to defend themselves. This reaction leaves the victim with a sense of guilt and shame that will all too often prevent her from reporting it.

Silvia, like most women raped by someone they know, eventually decided try to forget about it, but two weeks after the rape she started to realise she couldn’t.

“I was mad, very mad; the nightmare kept repeating in my head, I couldn’t work,” she says. In CAVAS she found help, psychological assistance and realised she was not alone. Eventually she decided to report the rape even if she knew the chances of getting it punished were low: “I realised that the only way to protect myself against him doing it again was by reporting it. He kept calling and calling and calling and I was scared he would attack me again.” Three years later, her lawyer told her that the judge had decided that it was her assailant’s word against hers and therefore no judiciary procedure would even take place. No forensics ever called to examine her. She was in therapy for almost two years. Her rapist declared that she forced him to have sex.

“I guess my only conclusion is that my word is worth half of his. I wasn’t even called for a psychological analysis or anything. If it’s my word against his, then clearly, for the judge, mine is worth less or at least they would have cared to at least examine me. My only consolation is that if he ever tries to rape a woman again, I hope he will think about it twice. I feel that at least it is not my fault that a rapist is free out there.”

Blaming the victim

The scars that acquaintance rape leaves are deep but the secondary trauma caused by people’s reactions to the assault can significantly disrupt a survivor’s healing. “When I told my friends, they treated me as if I was crazy and had made it up. They didn’t believe me. He was in our group of friends and was successful, good-looking and from a good family. I had dated him for two months and had previously had consensual sex with him. I was suddenly left out of the group, feeling abandoned and isolated and realised that it was a stigma that I would have to keep secret for the rest of my life.”

Some people don’t want to believe that men they know would rape somebody. Others can’t believe that an intelligent woman would be assaulted by a friend, partner, or colleague, or think that it’s not as bad as if he were a stranger. Blaming the victim is common: “You should have called the police,” one friend told Silvia.

If rape myths continue, that is, if most people keep believing that only a rape committed by a stranger is a real rape, nearly 80 percent of these attacks will remain, as they do now: silenced, unreported and unpunished. According to United Nations agency UNIFEM, it is estimated that one out of three women are raped in their lifetime. A country like Spain, with modern and revolutionary laws to protect women against gender violence, should take the lead in adapting rape laws so that the victims of acquaintance rape won’t feel left out of the system.

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Published: Sep 24 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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1 Comment for “Acquaintance rape: the trauma and shame of a hidden crime”

  1. Great article, thanks for high lighting the issues surrounding this very important, but frequently overlooked form of sexual assault.

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