Rape is a sexual assault on any unwilling victim. The term has been used in conjunction with both heterosexual and homosexual assaults. People often talkabout sexual assaults in prisons as rapes, for instance. But the most commonlegal definition is "carnal knowledge without consent." This appears to applyexclusively to male assaults on females.

Under that definition, rape is a very serious crime. In most states the possible penalty is approximately the same as that for premeditated murder.

Let's examine that definition further:

  • "Carnal knowledge" consists ofcontact with the female genitalia. While that contact is almost always with the penis, that organ need not always be involved. In one case the female organ was penetrated with the neck of a bottle, for instance. Perhaps more to thepoint, there is no need to prove completion of the sexual act. Rape can certainly have occurred without semen being deposited.
  • "Without consent"normally means that vigorous efforts were made to avoid sexual contact. Unfortunately mild verbal protests have sometimes actually been (and frequently been interpreted as) part of sexual byplay. Saying "no"or "please don't" once has not generally seemed adequate denial of consent when the issue involves apossible life sentence in prison. This interpretation can be challenged, since some women have been paralyzed by terror and unable to offer resistance. But the charge of rape is much more likely to be sustained if there is evidenceof both verbal and physical resistence.
  • On the other hand, neither verbal nor physical resistence is necessary if the victim is unable to give consent. This situation exists if the victim is "below the age of consent," so-called statutory rape. Determination of the age of consent is a function of state governments, but 18 seems to be most common. People with sufficient degree of mental retardation can also be deemed unable to give consent. Anyone who is unconscious, from illness, from drugs or from alcohol may also be considered unable to give consent. A woman threatened with serious body harm, as with a knife at her throat, is deemed not to have given consent even if she (asauthorities generally advise) makes no effort to resist.


Only a tiny proportion of rapes come to the attention of authorities. This istrue for several reasons:

  • Let's look first at "statutory rape." Thisassumes that if a girl below the age of consent has intercourse she was unable to give consent, and thus was raped. Since a great many girls lose their virginity before age 18, this number is obviously huge.
  • Part of this problem relates to differences among our various subcultures. In particular, itrelates to the likely events at the time of a child's first interest in reproduction and sex, which generally occurs at about age six. In the householdsof lawyers, doctors and social workers -- the people who write the laws -- the child might ask: "If I wanted a baby how would I go about it?" After moments of embarrassed fumbling, a parent would probably explain the basic facts. The child would probably accept the explanation as impersonal knowledge, not relating it to present activities, and that would be that until the next period of sexual interest, at puberty.
  • Not so in a deprived subculture! Lack of privacy and crowding which makes even the youngest child privy to the talk and activities of both teenagers and adults give much earthier information. Even if no one forces sex on the child, either through incest or domination by a male, sexual activity quite commonly starts at the time of primary inquiry. (One investigation of the source of acquired syphilis in a child tracedthat patient's sexual contacts, then each of those people's contacts and soon. By the end of the investigation over 70 sexually active people were identified. Only one was over age twelve.)
  • In this framework, almost noneof these girls cry rape. If they did it is doubtful that the authorities would treat the matter seriously enough for it to become a statistic.
  • Look next at "date rape". It seems probable that about 80% of adult women who are actually raped knew the raper beforehand. Such assaults are grossly under-reported by victims due to feelings of embarrassment, fear of further injury and fear of court procedures. Women might not want others to know that they have voluntarily associated with a potential rapist. They often feel foolish for having gotten into a vulnerable position. They don't want others to know that they have been violated. In some instances they fear reprisal. And they fear that if the rapist goes to trial they will have to related details of theevent to the public in court.
  • A much higher proportion of rapes committed by violence or threat of violence are probably reported. The victims have no guilt associated with the event: nothing they could have done would haveprevented it. The rapist isn't part of their own set. But the other factorsdiscussed above still apply. Particularly if they are members of subcultureswhich feel that the police will not treat them fairly, victims often figure that the embarrassment, discomfort (from physical examination) and time consumed in making a complaint isn't worthwhile.

Thus almost all rapes go unreported. This is unfortunate, since greater awareness of the extent of the problem seems the first step in encouraging both public and private countermeasures.

Rape in Marriage

At one time marriage legally was defined as including perpetual consent. Husbands had an inviolable right to sexual satisfaction from the wife, not necessarily at the instant he desired it, but often enough to fulfill his sexual needs.

The emergence of women's rights has changed all that. The present position invirtually all administrations is that rape can occur within the cycle of domestic violence in a marital relationship.

Forcible sexual penetration occurs fairly often as part of a pattern of marital abuse. (This differs from the "kiss and make up" sex which is an almost constant feature of abusive relationships.)

Actually most psychologists think that rape isn't actually as much about sexas it is about power. Domination of the other person, particularly of a person in a category the rapist is jealous or hateful of, seems the rapist's actual goal. In an abusive marital relationship the main issue seems to be exerting mastery over the other person, treating her as a possession. Often the mechanism seems to be extreme possessiveness associated with often-irrational jealousy, leading to physical abuse terminating in violently demanding sex.

This may happen in the framework of a surviving marriage. It also often carries over into periods of legal separation and even after divorce. Some men seem psychologically unable to accept the rejection implied in marital breakup.They attempt to "get back what is really mine" (quoting one such person) by physical dominance, including sex.

This psychologic mechanism is often so strong that even a court order fails to restrain it. Women escaping from a relationship featuring physical abuse often need to take refuge in battered woman facilities or to seek other means of physical rather than legal restraint.

Avoiding Date Rape

One significant factor in date rape is the use of drugs and/or alcohol, leading to diminished judgment and self control on the part of either the victim and/or the assailant. The old saw "candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker" seemed aimed at gaining consent. But some men have carried it a step further andtry to get their "date" sufficiently impaired to be unable rather than just unwilling to resist.

Women must be particularly careful in dealing with men who assume that sex will be the quid pro quo for entertainment expense. In many of our subcultures,men expect that if they buy a few drinks, or especially a dinner, they can expect sex in return. One way for a woman to avoid problems of this sort is toalways pay her share until she gets to know the man's views on this matter.

One of the best features of woman's lib is its effect on communications. In today's framework, a woman can usually state her positions clearly and positively without offending the man. Perhaps the phrasing must be carefully chosento keep the other person from feeling belittled or rejected. Few men will beoffended by phrasing like "You're a very appealing man, but I feel that I have to get to know you better before we can go all the way." Certainly such a statement will make it less likely that later pushing the man away will be interpreted as part of sex play. Certainly clear communication about sexual limits from the onset of a relationship will eliminate misinterpretation of nonverbal communication.

Still, it makes sense to avoid places or situations that make you especiallyvulnerable. There's a big difference between having a drink together in a singles bar and kissing goodnight at your front door and going to a man's bachelor pad for a nightcap. No matter what you say beforehand, the latter will seem to many men an open invitation.

If Rape Happens

Prompt medical attention following sexual assault is important. Before showering or cleansing the genital area, the victim should be examined and treatedfor any injuries or possible venereal disease. Physical specimens will be collected as evidence for charges against the assailant.

If semen has been discharged, it is extremely important that it be collectedand preserved. Semen is actual tissue from the rapist's body. DNA studies canlater show with great accuracy whether a given suspect is or is not the rapist. In some states and foreign countries, DNA taken from previous sex offenders is kept on file. (Such records are also available for many other people, including many members of the armed forces. Although taken mainly to aid identification in case or combat death, these records could be used for identifying offenders. Laws regarding privacy strictly limit access to this data at themoment, but it is a potential later resource.)

There are several highly valid reasons for reporting the rape to police. First, many if not most rapists repeat such assaults over and over. Anything youdo to contribute to a rapist's apprehension helps keep other women from enduring this disastrous experience. Second, contributing to the statistics -- making others aware of the frequency of rape occurrence -- will help establish both public and potential-victim actions to prevent future rapes. Third, and probably most important for the victim, acknowledging the assault is the onlyway to get help with its aftereffects.

Effects on the Victim

Most medical students taking a course in anatomy note a disparity between male and female organs. The average length of the penis substantially exceeds that of the vagina, making it seem that sexual intercourse would not work out very well.

That disparity in size usually disappears during sexual excitement. The vagina not only secretes lubricants, it also substantially stretches and expands.

Exactly the opposite occurs as a result of fear. The vagina actually contracts, making the disparity of its size with the penis extreme. In one of history's most famous rapes, occurring during a Hollywood orgy, the penis actually tore through the fear-shrunken vagina and the victim bled to death. Lesser tears often require surgical repair, and painful bruising is almost inevitable.

Thus the advice often attributed to Confucius that "if rape is inevitable relax and enjoy it" is offensive nonsense. Rape sets off inevitable reflexes over which the victim has absolutely no control. Victims experience intense pain, and the pain itself causes further vaginal spasm and sets up an extremely vicious pain-spasm-more pain cycle.

An additional element is the intense psychologic reaction people experience from any threat to the genitals. Deep-seated primitive response patterns are involved in any threat to the genital area. Just think of the body position one automatically assumes with any physical threat: curled up with arms shielding the groin. Or consider the incidence of mental breakdown following surgeryor severe injury: much higher for the genital area than any other except theeyes.

(Note that most of these changes do not apply to those cases of statutory rape in which the victim, although unable to give legal consent, is a willing and appropriately stimulated subject. Actually the problems involved in that situation are quite different from those in violent sexual assault. Presumablythe varieties of support and help available should also be different.)

Psychologic residuals of rape often last lifelong. Victims almost always haveanxiety attacks in certain situations for months or years after the incident. Even if the rape occurred elsewhere, they usually install extra security locks or chains and alarms in their homes. Sometimes there is also agoraphobia-- unbearable anxiety associated with leaving the secure household. Sometimeseven if the rape occurred in daytime anxiety keeps the victim from going outat night (apparently due to association of night with sexual activity). Difficulty with sleep and nightmares almost always occur. Patients often have crying jags -- abrupt teary breakdowns in the midst of ordinary daily activity,with no identifiable trigger or source.

Effects on relationships with males also are almost universal. Young rape victims often have great difficulty returning to dating. They often lean towardmen substantially older than they are as if seeking a protective, parent-likefigure. Return to sexual activity may prove difficult, with vaginal spasm (vaginismus) making all but the most patient and gentle sexual contact painful.

Older rape victims seem to have less difficulty returning to sexual activity,but greater difficulty with general anxiety and insecurity. Psychological reactions tend to take the form of frank depression, often requiring long-termmedication, or intense agoraphobia.


Most communities and college campuses offer rape or crisis hotlines. The victim who has counseling to assist them in dealing with the trauma of rape willhave fewer lasting effects than those who get no help in dealing with the situation and their feelings. If the rape is reported to the police or if the victim goes to a hospital emergency room, she will almost always be offered these services.

Even if a rape victim chooses not to report the incident, she would be well advised to contact the available counseling services. Many of these operate ona community-sponsored basis without cost to the victim. They are usually listed in the telephone book under some such heading as "Rape Trauma Center" or"Rape Crisis Intervention." (These listings are often in commercial listings,but not in the Classified Directory, which generally has no heading for "Rape." You may need to get the number from directory services by dialing 411.)

In some cities rape counseling is done along with family and marital counseling by associations like the Jewish Community Center, or Family &Children's Service. These agencies may charge a fee, but usually one based on abilityto pay. They may be listed under "Human Service Organizations" or "Mental Health Services."

Professional counseling service is also available at somewhat less cost thanprivate psychiatric care. The Yellow Pages category is usually "Counselors-Human Relations." Some health insurance policies cover these services.

If the victim can afford full professional fees or if her health insurance covers such things, she may want care from a psychiatrist. Psychiatric serviceshave one advantage over other counseling sources: they can prescribe medications. This may be especially useful in older victims, whose reaction often takes the form of depression. Currently available anti-depressants are very effective. (They do take effect rather slowly at times, and up to three weeks may be required to get full effect.) Tranquilizers sometimes prove useful in short-range treatment of rape-related anxiety, although they should not be considered a replacement for counseling.

Support Groups

Support groups for rape victims sometime consist only of victims, sometime ofvictims plus a professional group therapy leader. Generally one gets in touch with support groups through the counselor who handled the situation immediately after the rape.

Rape support groups often continue over a period of many years. Most of themcontinue to accept new members as older ones drop out. Recent rape victims often find the support of women who have survived the incident especially helpful, while victims who have finally made reasonable recovery often find that helping recent victims is very fulfilling.

Remedying "Statutory" Rape

Finally, let's consider ways of handling the various situations which arise with juvenile sexual activity.

If an underage girl has been sexually exploited by a mature man, counseling at a Rape Crisis Center of Family Counseling Center may be the best first step. In many cases the exploiter will be found to be a family member (often a step-father or uncle). This makes for a very complex situation, poorly suited to rigid justice system rules. In general, the program should aim primarily atrestoring the child's physical, emotional and social health and assuring that the sexual abuse will not be repeated. Although reporting the incident to the police is the "proper" option, practical considerations often lead to other choices, including intensive treatment for the offender.

If the sexual activity of an underage girl has involved males in her own agegroup family counseling is almost always the best step. This is particularlytrue of very young children. It hardly seems rational to brand a ten year oldboy as a sex offender if he engages in mutually desired (if not legally "consensual") sex with a contemporary, especially if both belong to a cultural subgroup in which such behavior is common. The physical injuries related to fear- induced vaginal spasm will not have occurred, and the problem is entirelydifferent from that of violent rape.

User Contributions:

Are there any online support groups or chat lines for rape victims that suffer severe agoraphobia? I have been housebound for three years since my assault and thought finding a support group online would be beneficial.

Thank you,

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