The Media’s Impact on Rape Survivors Conceptualize their Victimization
Rebekah Kanefsky, Amie Newins, and Laura Wilson
February 16, 2021
The viral #MeToo movement and public allegations of sexual misconduct against men in Hollywood (e.g., Harvey Weinstein), have increased public awareness of the widespread problem of sexual assault (Bogen et al., 2019). For example, more than 19 million tweets (i.e., Twitter posts) included the hashtag #MeToo between October 2017 and September 2018 (Anderson & Toor, 2018), demonstrating the high level of engagement in this social media campaign. Importantly, the majority of these tweets either shared survivors’ own experiences of sexual assault or were supportive of survivors of sexual assault (Schneider & Carpenter, 2019).
Characteristics of a sexual assault (e.g., the relationship between the perpetrator and victim, whether the perpetrator used physical force, how the victim responded during the assault) can influence how a survivor conceptualizes their experience. Survivors who label their rape experience as a “rape” are considered to have acknowledged the experience; in contrast, survivors who do not label their experience a “rape” (e.g., they may use non-victimizing language, such as a “miscommunication,” to describe their experience) are considered to not have acknowledged their experience (Koss, 1989). Overall, research suggests that beliefs that survivors hold about sexual assault (e.g., stereotyped ideas about what a rape does or does not look like) and the characteristics of the assault (e.g., who the perpetrator was, the level of physical force used) contribute to how a survivor labels their experience (Anderson, 2007; Cleere & Lynn, 2013; Wilson & Newins, 2020). As a result, it is also possible that the recent media attention focused on sexual assault may have influenced survivors’ acknowledgment of their own sexual assault.
This study examined the effect of the viral #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein allegations on how survivors of sexual assault label their ow experience by comparing participants who completed the study before the start of the viral #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein allegations with those who completed the study after. The relationships between sexual assault characteristics and the labels survivors use for their sexual assault were also examined, and we looked at whether these relationships were impacted by when participants completed the study.
The sample for the current study consisted of 207 female college students who experienced a rape since age 14. Participants provided information about the characteristics of the sexual assault and how they label their sexual assault via an online survey.
In this study, likelihood of acknowledgment did not differ when comparing pre #MeToo to post #MeToo (ORs = 0.61–3.92, ps = .127-.604). However, how survivors label their sexual assault experiences can evolve over time, and it is possible this study did not assess participants long enough after the start of the viral #MeToo movement to capture an effect.
Among survivors who completed the survey prior to the start of the viral #MeToo movement, those who indicated the perpetrator used physical force were more likely to have labeled their experience a rape than those who indicated the perpetrator did not use physical force (OR = 3.21, p < .001). However, use of force by the perpetrator did not influence how survivors labeled their experience following the viral #MeToo movement (OR = 0.77, p = .666). These results suggest that the #MeToo movement may have influenced how certain sexual assault characteristics influence how survivors label their sexual assault experience.
Additionally, some characteristics of the assault were associated with increased likelihood of the survivor labeling their sexual assault a rape, regardless of whether participants completed the survey before the viral #MeToo movement or after. Survivors who indicated they used resistance strategies (both verbal and assertive) were more likely to label their experience a rape than survivors who indicated they did not use resistance strategies (OR = 2.63, p = .001 and OR = 3.05, p < .001, respectively). Whereas there was no difference in how survivors labeled their experience based on whether they experienced immobility during the assault regardless of whether they completed the study before or after the viral #MeToo movement (ORs = 2.07 and 0.22, respectively, ps > .075).
The findings from this study suggest that media attention focused on sexual assault (e.g., the viral #MeToo movement, media coverage of the Harvey Weinstein allegations) can influence how survivors label their own unwanted sexual experience by influencing the effect of sexual assault characteristics (i.e., perpetrator use of physical force) on survivor labels. This study provides further evidence to support the use of social media as a tool for widespread dissemination of educational and public health content. Exposure to validating and empathetic messaging geared toward sexual assault survivors, such as delivered through the #MeToo movement, could influence survivors’ perception of their unwanted sexual experience.
Newins, A. R., Wilson, L. C., & Kanefsky, R. Z. (2020). What’s in a label? The impact of media and sexual assault characteristics on survivor rape acknowledgment. Journal of Traumatic Stress. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.22626
- The media (both the press and social media) has a powerful influence on many people. How might media be used to help support survivors of sexual assault? In what ways might it be harmful to survivors of sexual assault? What can be done to reduce the negative effects of media on survivors of sexual assault?
- What other factors might influence how survivors label their unwanted sexual experience? Would you expect these factors to increase or decrease the likelihood that a survivor would label their experience a rape?
- If you were to design a social media campaign to support survivors of sexual assault, what would it include?
About the Authors
Rebekah Z. Kanefsky, B.S., is a doctoral student in the clinical psychology program at the University of Central Florida. Ms. Kanefsky’s research focuses on disclosure of sexual assault, particularly among individuals who identify as sexual minorities.
Amie R. Newins, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Central Florida. She also serves as the Director of the Center for Research and Education on Sexual Trauma at UCF RESTORES and the Director of Clinical Operations for the Rosengren Trauma Clinic at UCF RESTORES. Dr. Newins conducts research on the relationship between anxiety and health risk. Additionally, she conducts research to identify ways to improve and enhance treatments for PTSD.
Laura C. Wilson, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Science at the University of Mary Washington, as well as the Director of Safe Zone. Her expertise focuses on post-trauma functioning, particularly in survivors of sexual violence or mass trauma (e.g., terrorism, mass shootings). Her research interests focus on the sociocultural influences on and psychosocial outcomes among survivors of sexual violence, indicators of PTSD following mass trauma, and the compounding impact of minority stress on particular populations (e.g., LGBTQ+ community). She is a co-chair of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity Special Interest Group of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.
Anderson, I. (2007). What is a typical rape? Effects of victim and participant gender in female and male rape perception. British Journal of Social Psychology, 46(1), 225–245. https://doi.org/10.1348/014466606X101780
Anderson, M., & Toor, S. (2018, October 11). How social media users have discussed sexual harassment since #MeToo went viral. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/11/how-social-media-users-have-discussed-sexual-harassment-since-metoo-went-viral/
Bogen, K. W., Bleiweiss, K. K., Leach, N. R., & Orchowski, L. M. (2019). #MeToo: Disclosure and response to sexual victimization on Twitter. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260519851211
Cleere, C., & Lynn, S. J. (2013). Acknowledged versus unacknowledged sexual assault among college women. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 28(12), 2593–2611. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260513479033
Koss, M. P. (1989). Hidden rape: Sexual aggression and victimization in a national sample of students in higher education. In M. A. Pirog-Good & J. E. Stets (Eds.), Violence in dating relationships: Emerging social issues (pp. 145–184). Praeger.
Schneider, K. T., & Carpenter, N. J. (2019). Sharing #MeToo on Twitter: Incidents, coping responses, and social reactions. Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion, 39(1), 87–100. https://doi.org/10.1108/EDI-09-2018-0161
Wilson, L. C., & Newins, A. R. (2020). Attitudes toward men and rejection of rape myths: The impact on survivor rape acknowledgment. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260520933268
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