The results of this study suggest that female crime victims display a range of emotional, cognitive, and behavioral peritraumatic responses. The majority of women in both the rape and R/A groups reported peritraumatic emotional responses that reflect distress and negative arousal (e.g., confusion, anxiety, anger) as well as the perception of imminent harm or death. Approximately one-third of women reported behaviors traditionally viewed as comprising active physical resistance (i.e., biting, cursing, kicking). Despite some commonalties in response patterns, women’s peritraumatic responses tended to vary with the type of crime experienced. Compared to robbery and assault victims, a higher percentage of rape victims reported behavioral responses that were relatively non-active and characterized by strategies that seem to reflect attempts at negotiation (e.g., begged, reasoned). Rape victims displayed a concomitant set of emotional responses that reflect fear, emotional detachment, and shame (e.g., afraid, betrayal, detached, numb, humiliation, guilty). In addition, the results of a regression analysis indicated that perceived threat of imminent harm is related to only one crime variable (i.e., crime duration), three peritraumatic emotions (i.e., feeling afraid, numb, and less calm), and two peritraumatic behaviors (i.e., begging, pleading, or crying and trying to reason with the perpetrator) across all three types of crimes. Interestingly, none of the other crime variables examined (e.g., injury, weapon) were associated with perceived threat nor was the type of crime, once peritraumatic responses were entered into the equation.
In this sample, high percentages of victims reported peritraumatic distress and concerns that they would be harmed or killed and low percentages reported having engaged in active physical resistance. All of the crimes investigated in this study are violent by definition, and these findings suggest that women share some fundamental responses to such crimes. However, rape and robbery/assault victims differed in terms of how often they reported experiencing several peritraumatic responses. Although emotions reflecting general distress were common to both groups, rape victims were more apt to describe emotions that reflect fear and detachment and that seem to connote a sense of personal responsibility or shame felt by the victim. The differences in peritraumatic responses between rape and non-rape victims suggests that crimes that involve rape may elicit different responses than other crimes
The finding that only one-third of rape victims physically fought with the assailant is different from other reports including Koss’ (1988)
finding that 70% of date rape victims attempted to fight back physically. However, this difference may be accounted for by sampling. Koss’ study was restricted to perpetrations by known assailants and the sample was exclusively college students. In the current study, the majority of assailants were strangers and the sample was more heterogenous. Rape victims in the current study were also highly likely to use non-active resistance methods, including begging, crying, and pleading and trying to reason with the assailant. These results also highlight the discrepancy between actual behavior during a rape and findings that resistance during a sexual assault may have a positive effect on the outcome. That is, previous research has found that many women report that they believe an attempt to fight off a rapist would not work; rather, it would make things worse (Gordon & Riger, 1989
; Furby, Fischhoff, & Morgan, 1989
; Norris, Nurius, & Dimeff, 1996
). This is in spite of the fact that the research literature documents a consistent finding that resistance may prevent rape and does not pose an additional risk of injury (see reviews by Rozee & Koss, 2001
, and Ullman, 1997
). This discrepancy highlights a need for better education and rape prevention strategies.
The different response patterns of rape and non-rape victims have implications in terms of how they are judged by others. As previously noted, rape victims who do not physically resist their attackers are more likely to be blamed than are women who do physically resist (Branscombe & Weir, 1992
; Estrich, 1987
; Krulewitz & Nash, 1979
; Langley et al., 1991
; Shotland & Goodstein, 1992
; Wyer et al., 1985
). Used as a means by which to measure the violence and severity of the crime, victim resistance may be conceptualized as a means by which observers determine whether or what occurred was a rape. Such judgments may influence jurors’ verdicts and judges’ decisions regarding punishment (Langley et al., 1991
), as well as police decisions regarding whether or not a case should be investigated or deemed “unfound”.
Clearly, the findings of this study are not congruent with cultural myths about how “real rape victims” respond. A common rape myth is that “any healthy women can resist a rapist if she really wants to” (Burt, 1991
, p. 31). The corollary is that if she got raped, she must not have resisted enough, and therefore must have wanted it or consented (Burt, 1991
). Judging from the high percentages of rape victims who thought that they would be harmed or killed, it is clear that these women were not consenting. Rather, they were afraid and concerned about being seriously harmed or killed. In short, the findings of this study indicate that little or no active resistance on the part of a rape victim should not be interpreted as consent.
Previous findings indicate that perceived threat is related to other peritraumatic responses (Gershuny et al., 2003
; Griffin et al., 1997
) and crime variables (Kilpatrick et al., 1989
). The findings of this study provide additional insight into variables that are related to perceived threat. Perceived threat was predicted by three peritraumatic emotions: feeling afraid, numb, and less calm. These results support previous findings that perceived threat is related to peritraumatic emotions (Bernat et al., 1998
; Griffin et al., 1997
). As noted, Gershuny and colleagues (2003)
found that perceived threat mediated the relationship between dissociation and PTSD. The authors hypothesized that trauma-related fears of death might be conceptualized as an element of panic, which leads to dissociation in the absence of an opportunity for physical escape. The findings in the current study are consistent with Gershuny's findings. Although there was no measure of temporal sequence in this study, it may be that the perception of threat functioned as a cue for feeling afraid and numb.
Regarding the relationship between duration and victim perception of imminent harm, it may be that the longer the crime, the more time a victim has to consider the possibility that she will be seriously injured or killed. Although the number of assailant threats and violent acts were not measured in this study, it may be that longer crimes were characterized by more threats or physical violence on the part of the assailant. It is interesting to note that none of the other crime variables included in the regression (e.g., injury, weapon, restraint) were associated with victims’ perception of imminent harm. Several of these severity indices have been examined in past research as predictors of post-crime distress, reflecting the assumption that the level of violence (e.g., penetration, injury) in a crime can adequately capture the victim’s emotional or cognitive reaction to it. The findings of this study suggest that traditional measures of actual violence and other crime variables (e.g., acquaintance status) may not be related to the victim’s perception of imminent harm. It is worth noting that when only crime variables had been entered into the regression, rape was a significant predictor of perceived threat. Once peritraumatic emotions were entered, rape was no longer significant. Thus, it appears that peritraumatic emotions were better than sexual assault in explaining the variance in perceived threat.
Two of the peritraumatic behavioral responses predicted perceived threat, begged, pleaded, and cried and tried to reason with him. Some researchers (e.g., Bart & O'Brien, 1985
) have theorized that women's perceptions that they will be killed versus raped may elicit different behavioral responses during a rape. Specifically, women who are concerned about being killed or seriously injured are hypothesized to be more likely to respond passively (e.g., remain quiet and motionless, do as told). Women whose primary concern is not about being killed are hypothesized to be more likely to respond in a more active fashion (e.g., kicking, screaming). These findings suggest that women may be more likely to attempt to negotiate rather than to either respond passively or to physically resist, when women perceive increased threat of harm or death.
The findings of this study represent an important step toward understanding the pattern of peritraumatic responses experienced by female victims of both sexual and non-sexual violent crimes. This study and future efforts to identify normative peritraumatic responses should inform the work of legal, medical, and mental health professions who work with female crime victims. For example, normative data on rape victim responses might be used revise stereotyped notions that victim resistance is a means by which to determine the legitimacy of a rape. In addition, such data also may help therapists educate clients and challenge their self-blame more effectively.
This study is characterized by certain conditions that may limit the generalizability of the conclusions. Specifically, the sample consisted of crime victims who reported their experiences to police or other authorities. Thus, this sample overrepresented severe crimes, those that involved assaults by strangers, and the presence of a weapon. Given the severity of the crimes it is not surprising that nearly 90% of the total sample endorsed worrying to some extent that they might be killed or injured during the event. In addition, the rape sample included only completed rapes which prevents us from examining situations where women may have avoided an assault or the “near misses” (Testa, VanZile-Tamsen, Livingston, & Koss, 2004
). All of these factors relating to increased severity of the crimes may have decreased the degree to which women engaged in active resistance strategies.
Furthermore, this study did not take into consideration previous trauma history which may have influenced peritraumatic responses to the current crime. Prior trauma history has been associated with increased risk of future victimization (Arata, 2000
; Nishith, Mechanic, & Resick, 2000
). However, the aim of this study was to examine how peritraumatic responses are related to perceived threat in a recent crime. Future research should attend to the relationship between prior trauma history and peritraumatic responses to examine whether this may help to explain whether prior trauma history peritraumatic responses are a mediator between prior trauma history and the associated increased risk of future victimization.
Despite these limitations, this study represents a important departure from previous research in this area in that it examines a broad range of specific peritraumatic responses. This study also used responses collected within one month of the crime thereby reducing the risk of errors associated with retrospective reporting. Few other studies have looked at these variables within such a short period of time after the crime. Future research on peritraumatic responses should include victims of completed and non-completed crimes, as well as victims who either did not report their crimes or who do not acknowledge that they were victimized (e.g., the unacknowledged rape victims described by Koss, 1985
). Research on the temporal relationship of perception of imminent harm and other peritraumatic responses would also add to our current understanding of how and why female crime victims respond as they do. Moreover, the relationship between peritraumatic responses and the development of subsequent PTSD warrants examination. Although a number of studies have documented a relationship between peritraumatic dissociation and PTSD (e.g., Bernat et al., 1998
; Gershuny et al., 2003
; Marmar et al., 1994
), less is known about how other peritraumatic responses affect the development of PTSD. Finally, in light of the greater scrutiny experienced by rape victims, research focusing on patterns among rape victims’ peritraumatic responses would be of particular value in efforts to educate women, helping-professionals, and the legal community about how “real rape victims” respond.