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Sexual Assault and the Politics of Power

Updated January 28, 2022

For centuries, survivors of sexual assault weren’t able to speak out. The people in power in the dominant culture shamed victims of these violent acts into silence and, perversely, even blamed them.

Today, women and other disenfranchised groups have gained access to stronger human, financial and political rights and are speaking out. Over the past century, women acquired an array of legally binding equal rights. Women having such legally acknowledged rights as voting, property and credit rights shifted the balance of power in society. The stigma of higher education for women was also slowly lifted. The first female Supreme Court judge, Sandra Day O’Connor, was appointed in 1984. Currently, women hold influential positions in corporations and in politics. This shift in the balance of power gives women a larger voice and influenced society’s attitudes about sexual assault. But even today, many are afraid to speak out. Only 19% of the 535 seats of the US Congress are held by women, while the women comprise 50.8% of the US population.

Remember that rape is a crime, where, unlike robbery, the victim needs to prove that he or she was not a willing accomplice.

In 2017, the dominant culture is still intact with unspoken assumptions in place to protect the prevailing power constructs (“the bro code”), so blaming the victim is common. And people still cling to the implicit belief that the victim is somehow to blame.

Dr. Courtney E. Ahrens at California State University at Long Beach has spent her professional life researching the topic of silence and sexual assault. Dr. Ahrens (2006) has consistently found that a diverse set of persons who have been sexually assaulted are still reluctant to speak out as the existing social power structures invalidates and intimidates those who are outside of the power structure.

What this means is that privileged classes of people are allowed to have a voice and their world view is validated, but other (the un-privileged) voices are excluded from speaking out and their world view is invalidated.

Decades of research corroborates the idea that existing power classes, in order to perpetuate their dominance psychologically and practically, want victims to be silenced in order to maintain their dominance (Blazer, 1992; Koss, 1985; McAuslan, 1998 as cited in Ahrens, 2006).

Rape has long been known to be a crime of power and control and serves an active function of reinforcing women’s powerlessness and men’s power, as feminist scholars have long demonstrated (Brownmiller, 1975; MacKinnon, 1987; as cited in Ahrens, 2006).

And how common is sexual assault? According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National network (RAINN) about 20% of the population experiences sexual assault in their lifetime. This includes the statistics from all age groups, both male and female. 1 in 6 women experience attempted or completed rape and 1 in 33 men experience attempted or completed rape.

With these statistics, chances are you might know someone who is being, or has been, sexually assaulted.

What if he or she comes to you first? Will your reactions compassionately empower the individual or will you inadvertently reinforce the prevailing power structure?

Did you know that your initial reaction has the potential to affect their long-term mental health?

Let’s take a look at Dr. Sarah E. Ullman’s work, among others. In 2014, Dr. Ullman and her colleague, Liana Peter-Hagen, Ph.D., at the University of Illinois at Chicago, examined how a positive or negative social reaction impacted the long term mental health of sexual assault victims. This research was published in the Journal of Community Psychology.

The researchers found that, yes, how the receiver of the disclosure reacts impacted the victim’s path to recovery. A positive and supportive reaction enhanced mental heath recovery, the use of coping strategies and mitigated post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

They found that negative reactions to the disclosure were damaging to the person’s long term mental heath and recovery. In fact, a negative reaction hindered recovery, caused maladaptive coping and caused and exacerbated symptoms of PTSD (Ullman and Peter-Hagen, 2011). In addition, negative reactions reinforced survivor self-blame (…”I feel like a whore”…) and caused the survivor to critically examine if what he or she experienced was actually rape (Ahrens, 2006).

So, then, not only is the person coping with the violent act itself, but also with secondary feelings of shame, after disclosing to someone who seems to be disbelieving or judgmental.

Even in today’s more supposedly enlightened society, numerous research studies show that disclosure of sexual assault is often received negatively.

Negative reactions are received from both informal social networks and formal reporting networks, such as police and medical personnel.

Remember that rape is a crime, where, unlike robbery, the victim needs to prove that he or she was not a willing accomplice.

Negative reactions take the form of blaming the victim, holding the victim responsible in some way, doubt, patronizing (“…but you wanted it…”), telling the person to maintain secrecy, minimizing the seriousness of the crime (“…at least you weren’t really hurt…”), outright disbelief, laughing (“…when I told the police officer, he laughed at me”…), piety (“..when I told my priest, he said God was punishing me …”), insensitivity and denying the victim medical or psychological treatment .

These negative reactions reflect and perpetuate societal power structures (Ahrens, 2006).

In light of all the negative reactions, many victims choose to not re-disclose for years, if not for decades. A lonely place.

What can be done to help stop this perpetual abuse? Here’s a list of some positive solutions.

Positive responses on the individual level:

  • Responding with empathy, open-ended questions and non-judgmental words.

  • Asking if he or she would like to report it formally.

  • Going with the person to report it formally, so there is a witness to the behavior of the professional personnel.

Positive responses on the societal level:

  • Education for and training of first responders in positive emotional reactions and positive policing of perpetrator and victims.

  • Enacting educational programs that bust rape myths, that bring to consciousness the implicit bias we all carry as we absorb and subconsciously defend the hidden (not so hidden) agenda of the society’s status quo power brokers.

Fortunately, as more and more people are able to obtain and use human, voting and financial rights, there is a positive movement towards change. This is seen in the grassroots development of mental health blogs created and maintained by survivors of sexual assault.

Here are some citizen crowd-sourced blogs for sexual assault survivors


Ahrens, C.E. (2006). Being Silenced: The Impact of Negative Social Reactions on the Disclosure of Rape. American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol 38, p. 263–274

Ullman, Se.E. &Liana Peter-Hagene (2014). Social Reactions to Sexual Assault Disclosure Coping, Perceived Control, and PTSD Symptoms in Sexual Assault Victims. Journal of Community Psychology, Vol 42(4), p. 495-508.


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