There has been much wringing of hands about the damage done to American men by accusations of sexual assault, as brilliantly chronicled this week by The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa.
But any fretting on behalf of those accused of assault should take into account research that shows that millions of victims of sexual assault have paid a serious, measurable price, physically and mentally.
Less than a third of rape incidents are reported to the police, according to an analysis by the nonprofit advocacy group RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), which combined Justice Department National Crime Victimization Surveys from 2010 to 2014 with other federal data to track what happened to perpetrators.
Just 5.7 percent of incidents end in arrest, 0.7 percent result in a felony conviction and 0.6 percent result in incarceration, RAINN found. The organization’s website notes these figures are approximations, not scientific estimates, because their analysis “combines data from studies with different methodologies.”
The specter of false accusation looms large in the backlash chronicled by Rucker and Costa, but a 2009 review of research from around the world, based on credible sources, indicates only between 2 and 8 percent of all sexual assault reports were false. Again, the research looks only at reported incidents. Most incidents aren’t reported.
Not only do rape and sexual assault typically go unreported, but definitions also vary, and many of the mental and physical effects are slow to manifest and challenging to detect. Survey findings vary based on how questions are phrased and what population is surveyed.
Almost 9 out of every 10 sexual assault victims experience some level of distress, with 46 percent experiencing severe distress — a higher number than we see among victims of robbery or aggravated assault, according to an analysis by Justice Department statisticians Lynn Langton and Jennifer Truman of 2009-2012 figures from the massive annual crime victimization survey mentioned above. Other sources place the figure even higher.
Three-quarters of victims experience significant social and emotional problems in the wake of assault — at work or school and with friends and family. About 58 percent of victims are injured in the assault, suffering some combination of cuts, bruises, broken bones, gunshot wounds, internal injuries and rape injuries. More than a third of victims are injured badly enough to require treatment, typically in a hospital.
A 2009 literature review in the journal Trauma, Violence & Abuse by Rebecca Campbell, Emily Dworkin and Giannina Cabral found “rape is one of the most severe of all traumas, causing multiple, long-term negative outcomes.” Patterns remained consistent over time, which allowed them to include more than two decades of research.
The relevant studies found between 17 and 65 percent of women (they specify gender in this specific case) who have been assaulted develop PTSD. It is later noted that the 17 percent is an outlier on the low end. Most studies find somewhere between 33 and 45 percent.
As many as 82 percent of victims experience fear and anxiety, and between 12 and 40 percent are diagnosed with generalized anxiety, depending on the study.
Between 13 and 51 percent of victims are diagnosed with depression, and between 2 and 19 percent attempt suicide, depending on the study.
Even with the dozens of studies cited by Campbell and her colleagues, we still don’t have a full picture of just how deeply sexual assault, or any type of sexual harassment, harms its victims.
Earlier this year, The Post’s William Wan chronicled the emergence of a body of research on these issues, focusing on a study that found women who experienced traumatic sexual harassment or assault had impaired cardiovascular function. Other studies, Wan reported, have found similar results for sleep, headaches, gastrointestinal issues and eating disorders.