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The Ripple Effect of Rape & The Collective Denial
February 5, 2002
by Diana Goss

Statistics clearly indicate the downfalls for women and men when they do actually report a rape. It is already well documented that the probability of rapist conviction is relatively low. Apart from a 'felt' sense of responsibility for this crime, threats to the victims life, fear of attack on other members of their family, (maybe the younger ones), or fear that the rapist might return to repeat the whole ordeal again, are just some of the reasons that prevent the victim from reporting. What then, is there left in terms of resolution for the majority of victims who choose not to report? If justice is psychologically wholesome, then feelings of 'getting ones own back', and 'regaining that lost power' are raised when justice cannot be rightfully claimed.


This loss of 'an essential part of their own being' (Walker, 1990) and subsequent anger can increase to intolerable levels for 'non-reporters'. Murderous fantasies intrude into everyday thought processes and in particular the dream world. They might also be acted out in a dangerous mission for revenge. For non-reporters there may be no resolution or closure. In not reporting they allow their rapist to continue to have power over them indefinitely or at least until they can gain the courage to report, but as time advances the value of any remaining evidence diminishes. Rape frequently results in long-term psychological and physical damage to the victim (Ussher, 1991). They may try to hide or forget what occurred, as they may not be able to obtain help or even know where to seek it.

Limited Options

A remaining option for victims might be to 'work through' it in therapy. I feel uncomfortable with that we as a collective gather to support the victim but there is no 'witch hunt' for the rapist. If a study of 140 psychiatric outpatients reveals that 64 had a history of sexual assault and/or abuse does this make neurosis a symptom of a patriarchal society (Surrey, et al., 1990)? Other unpalatable estimates indicate that 1 in 4 women have been raped. These estimates become difficult to validate when many rapes are not reported (Baker-Miller, 1986). Koss puts forward the prospect that only 5% - 8% of adult sexual assaults are reported compared to 61% of robberies and 82.5% of burglaries.

As a therapist, I am questioning the validity of 'working though' in therapy when, by not reporting, the victim allows the control to continue and we, as helpers, collude with that. Are we, then, as professionals able to provide the support so desperately needed (Wheeler and Berliner, 1988)?


Violence against women is not a rare event (Walker, 1990), and we can postulate how rape might change the victim but as a female therapist working with victims of sexual violence it also affects me when working towards some resolution where neither of us knows what that resolution might be. It greatly angers me to be colluding with the rapist in that I too, am terrified of being raped when I learn about the violent vagaries of life, not always through my own experience but through that of others.


There is no protection from this heinous crime; it cuts across culture, class, age, gender, and power. There is no hiding place for any of us. Darkened alleyways may be deemed unsafe, but with rape, so might our own homes, our own families and our own friendships and marriages become just as dangerous a place to be. I feel chilled that I too am as vulnerable as the people that I work with. I share the same world as my clients, I may have a similar background, same gender, same orientation, be a mother, be married like many of them too. I wonder, then, how I would get resolution or closure?

Deconstructing rape

The ripple effect as to who this crime affects: partners, families, friends, work colleagues, neighbours and the public at large; is distinctly apparent, but through some sort of osmotic process we tend to deny this. This is evidenced by terminology that softens us from the blows our client has received when we use words such as 'survivors' when some victims do not survive at all (Scully, 1990), 'perpetrator' when the correct term is, 'rapist' and when referring to the rape itself we use terms such as 'critical incident' or 'traumatic event' when we should say 'the rape'.

Sexual arousal

Some feminists argue that rape is the violent expression of sex. This for me makes it sound like something that is done together, and clearly, it is not a mutually shared experience. Further deconstruction is necessary. For the victim it is a defilement of their civil rights and therefore acutely violent. However, it may be sex for the man. For full penetration to take place he needs an erection. Arousal is mediated though the brain by internal (fantasy) and external sexual stimuli and in this way it becomes a blood lust, a joy in violation and destruction, he becomes sexually aroused by power and violence, brutal, and often mutilating, whether inflicted on a male or female victim (Paglia, 1990, Ussher, 1991).


When clients weigh up the pros and cons of reporting, like 'will my partner leave me', 'who will tolerate the barbarity of my story', 'will I become tainted not only with the act of rape but with my story going public', 'Can I tolerate any more shame and humiliation' and so on… then one has to consider the validity of these decisions. Non-reporters continue to have a deep inner secret and because of the privileges of client confidentiality, so do we, continuing to be a party to a crime and obliged to withhold information about that.

A mutual process of discovery

I was asked by one female client to help her write her story who, for many of the reasons above, did not report her rape to the police. As a social research scientist, in principle I agreed, perhaps because as Devereaux (1967) suggests all research topics are chosen because they have an unconscious meaning for the researcher. Clearly researcher objectivity becomes an issue! In writing her story I could explore how the act of sexual violence against women affects client and helper alike. In order to undertake this kind of enquiry I had to acknowledge my own position as a research tool in this investigation and the bias this is likely to create, because in my view a 'judgement neutral' study cannot exist when the researcher/practitioner is also 'historically positioned and locally situated as an observer of the human condition' (Denzin and Lincoln, 1998:52).


All the intentions for reporting her story in this way were wholesome and therapeutic both for her and indeed myself. I considered this be an important and significant part of her healing, a space for reflection for me and an opportunity for others to consider the covert horrors of this crime. The recording of the rape held therapeutic potential for her. To experience and re-experience the pain; to work through the progression of events that led up to the rape; to be able to re-read it time and time again in an attempt to desensitise herself to the horrendous event which left her battered, kicked and bruised, lying catatonic in her own blood, urine and vomit, in her own home until the morning light broke.


This idea of therapeutic resolution is not dissimilar to the 12-step programme for AA, which involves telling the story and experiencing the emotions attached to it. For all this to be achieved I thought perhaps an in depth case study would be appropriate. Both my client's intentions and mine were robust and there is nothing unusual about in-depth case study research methodology. She fantasised about the writing developing into a book. She hoped that one day others could find the book that she was looking for on the library shelves when she was in an endless search to understand why it happened? How? What was it that she was experiencing? How long would it take to 'recover'? The funding was even considered, and any potential revenue generated by its possible publication was destined for a charity that supports rape victims.


I further examined the validity of counselling research and found that I was in agreement with John Mcleod (1994) when he quotes some realistic criticisms of therapy research made by practitioners:

  • Studies designed to incorporate the complexities of psychotherapy are rarely done.
  • …Important variables may be ignored,
  • 'Often researchers focus on specific techniques while ignoring the importance of the relationship between therapist and client' (McLeod p183, source: Morrow, Bradley & Elliot, 1986).

Every case that we as helpers work with must bring something up in the therapist… but some cases bring up more than others. The therapist also has a story to tell and for generations, story telling continues to be one of the most crucial ways in which we learn. Wanting to downplay the expert/subject imbalance I had to avoid the traditional androcentric scientific research methodologies where the researcher examines the subject. It was important to include the client rather than to examine her, and then to reflect and report on the significant changes that it has brought about in her and in me. Within this project I could discuss the therapeutic relationship and how such disturbing material can affect it. I continued to examine this style of research and found that Yin's criteria for a 'good case study' require five main considerations:

  1. Significance -…case study that is unusual or revelatory will have more impact…
  2. Completeness - to give the reader an understanding of the whole of the case, given sufficient contextual information, and ensuring that all relevant information has been collected
  3. Consideration of alternative perspectives - weighing up the merits and values and alternative explanations and interpretations
  4. Sufficient evidence - must be provided so that the reader can make their own judgements
  5. Effective writing - written in an engaging manner which should entice or seduce the reader

(Source: McLeod 1994)


I am familiar with writing counselling research and the ethical considerations of maintaining client anonymity through the narrative, but then the parallel process struck me. I too began to feel frightened. I had to seriously consider maintaining rapist anonymity also. It was now affecting me to a very acute degree. I was now powerless to report. If the rapist could be identified through the narrative then both client and therapist might be at risk.


If it were not examined contextually, then as a researcher I would not be doing the 'research work'. I could certainly meet Yin's criteria, but even with client/participant consent I might render myself at the mercy of an ethical tribunal. To pursue it from a researcher/practitioner perspective would require me to 'soften' the event, even 'hide' fundamental aspects of it. That is not doing justice to my client, to myself, to research and to the readers of counselling research, [who are often neophyte counsellors who might benefit from hearing about the brash realities of the work we as professional helpers undertake.]

Paucity of research on rape

The counselling research movement is growing and I am comforted that practitioners are telling the stories that are told within our consulting rooms, that we analyse and examine efficient practice, what works and what does not, and how and why it works. In this way we hope to improve the quality of our work for the benefit of client and helper alike. However, there will always be blind spots and I believe one of them is the issue of rape. These well-founded intentions cannot be realised when the rapist is still at large. Given these difficulties it is not surprising then, that many researchers have ignored the whole issue of sexual abuse in the past (Jacobsen and Richardson, 1987; Koss, 1988).

There may be no such thing as a victimless crime, but rape is a 'victimfull' crime where not just the victim, but many other individuals experience not only the savage cruelty of the rape but also the silencing of telling the story.

Collective denial

Perhaps a 'collective' denial is experienced in that, we, as a cohort of therapists, come to experience the parallel process that may be likely to occur (Troiden, 1987), where the silencing of the client in turn silences us. We take on a professional responsibility to secretise it. Kirby and Corzine (1981) identify this as a 'stigma contagion' where the researcher who researches sensitive topics comes to share the stigma of those being researched. If this is not brought to consciousness then, because we exist within the same world as our clients, a countertransference can be activated where the client's material ignites something in the helper's internal world or external life (Racker, 1968). Then practitioners may 'act as if' we are the victim and become 'powerless' to help our client, we may not 'report' it in supervision, or we might even 'become' the rapist by our use of penetrating interventions.

Parallel process

My argument here is that these notions are not necessarily specific to me but may affect many therapists. Therefore it might become a 'collective defence' of denial and common characteristics of countertransference may emerge. I believe that raising these concerns to a conscious level makes any likely countertransference conscious. If the researcher could get past the anonymity hurdles there may be hope for a real difference to made in our profession, but there may also be an 'occupational stigma' that may affect the presenting of findings to groups who may stereotype research on sensitive issues, such as rape, and this may be why it is such an under researched topic, however, this cannot presently be known (Lee, 1993).

Red Herrings!

It is no longer necessary to reiterate the rapist profile, to endlessly argue the nature-nurture debate of rapists, or to discuss whether all men are potential rapists. These are all red herrings and only continue to deny how much rape causes real anguish for the victim. Camille Paglia (1990) argues that society should be women's protection against rape, not be in collusion with it, but she continues, 'The rapist is a man with too little socialisation'. If this is so, we do a disservice to the victim and to ourselves. Not all men rape, but all women are at risk. This leaves me wondering if rape is an example of mans ownership over women (Ussher, 1991), and how do men who do not rape feel about this?


I believe it is now necessary to explore, and to make known the affect of rape on the whole of society, men and women alike, how rape affects us all because no one is allowed to scream RAPE. The question I raise here is, if we constitute society, then are we all potential victims of rape? How can potential victims also be the protectors? It pains me to allow this crime to go unspoken. As long as the rapist is at large I would posit that the rapist has power and control over all of us: victims, helpers and researchers alike.

Diana Goss is a UKCP registered psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist and registered BACP practitioner and social research scientist. She currently works in private practice with individuals and couples experiencing sexual and relationship concerns. She consults for EAP companies, lectures on counselling skills at the university of Portsmouth and is a trainee supervisor to voluntary counsellors at Portsmouth counselling service.

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