The popularity of online social movements such as #MeToo has demonstrated both the pervasiveness of sexual assault and decreased public willingness to tolerate it. One of the most effective ways to prevent sexual assault is to acknowledge its existence, increase positive police responses, and support victims. The application of victimology research has proven essential to this mission. Victimology is considered a subfield of criminology that encompasses the etiology, consequences, and extent of victimization, as well as its interaction with the criminal justice system and society at large (Daigle, 2018). Victimology is essential to crime reduction, especially in instances of sexual assault.
Definition and Prevalence
The victimology of sexual assault is a widely studied topic because of its pervasiveness and negative effects. According to the FBI, rape is qualified as penetration of the vagina or anus without the victim’s consent (Clevenger et al., 2018). In contrast, sexual assault encapsulates any attempted acts of unwanted sexual contact, including fondling, kissing, touching, and verbal threats (Clevenger et al., 2018). The National Crime Victimization Survey is a self-reported database that documented 431,840 instances of rape and sexual assault in 2016 in the United States (as cited in Daigle, 2018). Sexual assault is legally defined as unwanted sexual contact, and approximately 1.6 per 1,000 males and females self-report experiencing sexual victimization a year.
Theoretical Framework and Risk Factors
The most dominant theoretical framework for understanding the occurrence of sexual assault is the lifestyles/routine activities theory. According to this theory, victimization occurs when a motivated offender finds a suitable target without any physical or social protection (Daigle, 2018). Sexual assault can occur at a party, or a bar—alcohol and drugs have been substantially linked to sexual victimization (Daigle, 2018). However, offenders may use drugs to purposefully incapacitate victims and wait until the victim is unable to resist or give consent (Clevenger et al., 2018). Women are more likely to be sexually victimized at all stages of life, with increased risk from their late teens to early 20s. Therefore, a “suitable” target would be a female that is alone and visibly intoxicated (Daigle, 2018). Due to the combination of age and the significance of alcohol in college, women studying in college are considered particularly susceptible to becoming victims. Although anyone can become the victim of sexual assault, visibly intoxicated young women without accompaniment are at increased risk.
Characteristics of Sexual Assault
In addition to understanding the risk factors for sexual assault, victimologists study what a “typical” instance of sexual assault looks like to identify commonalities. Most sexual assault is perpetrated by people known to the victim (Daigle, 2018). A third of rape and sexual assault is executed by a partner, and a second third by a well-known or casual acquaintance (Daigle, 2018). Offenders usually do not inflict serious physical injury or use a weapon (Daigle, 2018). Although most people believe that sexual assault consists of violent attacks in dark alleyways, it is usually perpetrated by an acquaintance without a firearm.
Victim Response and Impact
Sexual assault goes unreported in most cases, and even fewer result in charges and prosecution. Firstly, victims may be unwilling to acknowledge that they experienced sexual victimization. They might feel a sense of shame, embarrassment, or fear that they will be blamed for the event (Clevenger et al., 2018). Approximately 75% of women reported receiving a negative response after disclosure (Daigle, 2018). Factors such as being Black or Hispanic, bisexual, or with a lower level of educational attainment are more likely to elicit a negative social reaction (Ullman, 2021). Secondly, sexual assault has a severe physical and psychological impact on victims. The response varies according to age, cultural beliefs regarding sexual assault, and relationship to the offender (Daigle, 2018). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may occur, manifesting as nightmares, flashbacks, and difficulty concentrating. Some victims cope through substance abuse, social isolation, or self-mutilating behavior (Daigle, 2018). Sexual assault is rarely reported by victims and is likely to have long-lasting psychological effects, such as mood disorders, substance abuse, and PTSD.
Criminal Justice Response
One of the reasons victims hesitate to report sexual assault is the failure of law enforcement to take the incident seriously. Police departments are often suspicious of victims making false allegations and dismiss complaints. They commonly subscribe to rape myths such as that women precipitate assault by dressing provocatively or consuming alcohol (Doerner & Lab, 2017). As a result, if the victim has been drinking, the likelihood of arrest decreases even though a person cannot legally provide consent under the influence of alcohol or drugs (Venema et al., 2019). Prosecutors tend to avoid trying rape and sexual assault cases because there is often a lack of concrete proof such as eyewitness testimony or physical evidence (Daigle, 2018). Furthermore, prosecutors are unlikely to charge if the victim’s character or reputation might be negatively evaluated by the jury (Daigle, 2018). Sexual assault is a severely underreported crime because of institutional indifference and insensitivity toward victims.
Forensic victimology consists of examining the victim in order to address investigative or legal issues. It is considered an essential aspect of crime scene analysis since it allows the investigator to understand the nature of the relationship between the victim and offender, develop a timeline, and define the suspect pool (Petherick, 2020). The issue of victim targeting is extremely salient in cases of sexual assault, considering that the offender is usually known to the victim (Daigle, 2018). Therefore, victimology is especially relevant in sexual assault offenses because the cases mostly depend on “he said, she said” allegations without any hard evidence. The crime of sexual assault cannot be solved without victimology because its resolution mostly depends on how police, prosecutors, and jurors perceive the offense.
Victimology is a vital component of the holistic criminological approach that can aid in preventing sexual assault. By identifying the risk factors of sexual assault and its impact on the victim, victimologists seek to prevent victimization from occurring in the first place and minimize the harmful effects of post-victimization by reconfiguring how crime is understood and responded to on an individual and societal level (Clevenger et al., 2018). For example, raising awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses teaches women to assess dangerous situations and protect themselves properly. Combatting stereotypes about what constitutes an “ideal victim” of sexual assault might influence whether a police officer chooses to pursue or dismiss a report (Christie, 2018). Dispelling rape myths that justify male sexual aggression impacts how a juror evaluates trial evidence and decides guilt (Daigle, 2018). Victimology aims to develop sound scientific theories that lead to the development of effective risk-reduction and prevention strategies.
In conclusion, victimology is an integral aspect of conducting criminal investigations and implementing prevention strategies concerning sexual assault. It is defined as any unwanted sexual contact and is usually perpetrated by someone known to the victim. The group most vulnerable to experiencing sexual victimization are intoxicated women aged 18-23 on a college campus. It remains a severely underreported crime due to victim-blaming and the unwillingness of police departments and prosecutors to pursue sexual assault allegations. Victimology dispels popular myths about what constitutes as “real” sexual victimization and ensures positive responses of the police, persecutors, and the jury.
Christie, N. (2018). The ideal victim. In M. Duggan (Ed.), Revisiting the ‘ideal victim’: Development in critical victimology (pp. 11-24). Policy Press.
Clevenger, S., Navarro, J. N., Marcum, C. D., & Higgins, G. E. (2018). Understanding victimology: An active-learning approach. Routledge.
Daigle, L. E. (2018). Victimology (2nd ed.). Sage.
Doerner, W. G., & Lab, S. P. (2017). Victimology (8th ed.). Routledge.
Petherick, W. (2020). Forensic victimology in child sexual abuse. In I. Bryce & W. Petherick (Eds.), Child sexual abuse (pp. 161–178). Academic Press.
Ullman, S. E. (2021). Correlates of social reactions to victims’ disclosures of sexual assault and intimate partner violence: A systematic review. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 1-15.
Venema, R. M., Lorenz, K., & Sweda, N. (2019). Unfounded, cleared, or cleared by exceptional means: Sexual assault case outcomes from 1999 to 2014. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1-32.