New directions for researching the rape acknowledgment process

Ms Kelsey Adams1

1Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia

Rape is common, both in Australia and internationally. The majority of rape survivors are unacknowledged; they do not refer to their experience of assault as ‘rape’. While rape survivors are at increased risk of physical and mental illness compared with the general population, unacknowledged survivors are less likely to disclose their assault to others, seek support services, or report to authorities.

This paper reviews the current literature on rape acknowledgment and critiques the lack of longitudinal inquiry into the process by which survivors of sexual assault come to label their experiences. Acknowledged rape survivors self-report that acknowledgment is a process that takes time. However, no research to date has observed or measured this process using a follow-up or longitudinal design. Acknowledgment is commonly measured at a single point in time using the Sexual Experiences Survey (SES; Koss et al., 2007) which produces a binary (yes/no) status of acknowledgment for each participant. This limits conceptualisation of rape acknowledgment in two crucial ways. First, while informative about the participant’s current state, the SES does not measure changes in acknowledgment status over time. Consequently, there is minimal information in the literature describing the features of this process. Second, the binary nature of this survey’s output does not capture the complexity, nuance or ambivalence that survivors often report in interview studies on acknowledgment.

Better understanding the process of rape acknowledgement may further illuminate the relationship between acknowledgment and other post-assault outcomes, such as negative health impacts, disclosure, and reporting. This could inform improved strategies for support services, healthcare, education, and policing. Understanding this process is therefore critical to improving the care and support of rape survivors.


Kelsey Adams is a PhD candidate in the School of Justice at the Queensland University of Technology. She graduated with a Bachelor of Psychological Science (Hons I) from the University of Queensland in 2016. The findings from her honours project were published in the journal Perception in 2018, co-authored with Associate Professor Philip Grove. Her current research explores rape acknowledgment, the process by which rape survivors come to understand and label their experience of sexual assault.


Dec 08 2021