Date and Acquaintance Sexual Assault

last updated 22 February 2012 

In acquaintance rape, the perpetrator is generally someone that the victim knows by sight or casually, such as a neighbor or coworkers; in "date rape," the attacker is someone the victim knows and has agreed to spend time with. A perpetrator of date or acquaintance sexual assault may use many different tactics—he may take steps to isolate her, by locking the door, or promising to take her home from a party but taking her somewhere else; he may use economic pressure, implying that he is entitled to sexual intimacy because he paid for dinner; he may use emotional pressure, threatening to leave her if she doesn't agree; or he may threaten her with public embarrassment, telling her that he will tell people they were sexually intimate regardless of what might actually happen. From Date and Acquaintance Rape, Sheryl Huff, ed., Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice established “party rape” as a distinct form of rape that falls under the umbrella of acquaintance rape, though the victim need not have had prior contact with the perpetrator. Party rape is distinguished for its occurrence in “an off-campus house or an on- or off-campus fraternity” and its association with “plying a woman with alcohol or targeting an intoxicated woman,” according to the Department of Justice. The prominence of Greek system fraternity partying, in locations and situations controlled by male students, is a major contributing factor to the development of the “party rape” label. From Armstrong, Elizabeth A.; Hamilton, Laura; Sweeney, Brian. (2006). “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Multilevel, Integrative Approach to Party Rape.” Social Problems, 53 (4), 483-499.

Data from the U.S. Department of Justice and Education indicate that campuses are improving on ways to encourage victims to report sexual assault. The number of students that reported incidences of sexual assault on campus rose from 2,605-2,738 between 2005 and 2009 to 2,933 in 2010. Simultaneously, there is an overall decline in U.S. rape according to data from the Bureau of Justice. However, these numbers could possibly represent the worsening problem of campus rape. From Database Spotlights Gaps in Campus Rape Policies, Samantha Kimmey,

Vice President Joe Biden released a letter last spring to universities stating that federal law must be implemented to comply with Title IX. Title IX prohibits schools receiving federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex and has generally been used to ensure equality in sports. But advocates are now encouraging its application to sexual assault as well. From Database Spotlights Gaps in Campus Rape Policies, Samantha Kimmey,

Laws do not generally make formal legal distinctions between assaults committed by strangers and those committed by people known to the victim. In reality, however, date and acquaintance rape are prosecuted less frequently and punished less severely than stranger rape. A study in Great Britain, for example, found that acquaintance rapes were "the most likely to involve withdrawal of the complaint; the most likely to be contested; and the least likely to result in conviction." A 1996 study on violence against women in Russia, reported in an article by Dorothy Thomas and Robin Levi, similarly found that while the formal laws did not distinguish between stranger and acquaintance rape, in reality, acquaintance rape is viewed less seriously. In part, lower prosecution and conviction rates may be a product of the myths associated with rape—namely, the myths that women must take steps to avoid "provoking" men, and that the absence of physical injury indicates that the victim consented. As described in the British report, however, the victim and perpetrator of the acquaintance rape generally know one another, there may have been "some degree of consensual contact leading up to the alleged attack," and there may be "little evidence of any violence or injury." From Jessica Harris & Sharon Grace, "A Question of Evidence? Investigating and Prosecuting Rape in the 1990s, Home Office Research Study" 2, 11 (1999); Dorothy Q. Thomas & Robin S. Levi, Common Abuses Against Women, in 1 Women and International Human Rights Law 139, 149-50 (Kelly D. Askin & Dorean M. Koenig eds. 1999).

A United Nations expert group released model legislation in May 2008 entitled "Good practices in legislation on violence against women," which includes a broad definition of sexual violence in Section 4.C.  For the Russian version of the recommendations to "Good practices in legislation on violence against women," click here.

As with all forms of sexual assault, date and acquaintance rape are associated with significant levels of shame and fear. Women also encounter substantial difficulties in reporting date rape—they are disbelieved, and discouraged from pursuing claims. Those they encounter may believe that because she accepted a ride from him, or went to his apartment, he was entitled to sex; others may believe that she consented but is now accusing him of rape to maintain her honor.

Particularly when the victim knows the assailant, she may not herself define her experience as rape: "Rape victims, like other citizens, share community values and beliefs, and interpret their experience in light of community values and traditions. Tragically, it is therefore probable that widespread and unanalyzed acceptance of rape-supportive beliefs further encourages underreporting by preventing victims from acknowledging their experience as rape." From Sharon Hunter, Gail Burns-Smith, & Carol Walsh, Equal Justice? Not Yet for Victims of Sexual Assault (2000). In part, the self-blame that accompanies internalization of rape-supportive believes is what makes acquaintance rape so psychologically damaging to victims:

Self-blame is higher when a woman is raped by an acquaintance. "Women raped by men they knew attribute more blame for the rape to themselves, see themselves in a less positive light, and tend to have higher levels of psychological distress. Women raped by strangers also appear to feel recovered sooner than women raped by nonstrangers." From Testimony of Professor Michelle J. Anderson before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System, 6 December 2001 (citations omitted).

Advocates who work on issues relating to date and acquaintance rape emphasize the way in which societal expectations and gender roles can complicate communication about sexual intimacy and boundaries in dating relationships:

Gender roles also contribute to an atmosphere where date rape is possible. The traditional role for women is to be passive in romantic and sexual relationships. Thus, men may expect that when a woman says no to sex, she only says it because she's supposed to put up some resistance, but that in fact she does want sex ("no means yes"). This is especially dangerous since men are taught to be sexually aggressive, to compete in sex as in other aspects of their lives, and to expect that women like aggressive men. Male socialization teaches men to objectify women's bodies, and to think that the purpose of dating is to get sex. From Date and Acquaintance Rape, Sheryl Huff, ed., Minnesota Coalition for Sexual Assault.

A prevailing myth about date and acquaintance rape is that alcohol is a major cause of sexual assault in dating relationships. This is a myth. Alcohol and drugs do not "cause" a perpetrator to commit sexual assault. Alcohol may be used as an excuse or justification for inappropriate or violent behavior, and may inhibit clear communication about sexual boundaries. A perpetrator may also use drugs or alcohol to overcome a woman's resistance by pressuring her to drink more or drugging her drink. From Date and Acquaintance Rape, Sheryl Huff, ed., Minnesota Coalition for Sexual Assault.

The Campus Accountability Project is an open-access database designed for college communities to learn about the rape and sexual assault policies on campus. The project, a result of a partnership between Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER) and V-Day, an anti-violence franchise, provides a tool for student activists by highlighting strengths and weaknesses of each school’s policies. According to a 2000 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, ninety five percent of college rapes are not reported and a 2009 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity showed that this may be a result of institutional blocks, such as fear in administrators that strong rape-response will invite negative publicity. The Bureau of Justice Statistics also reported in 2000 that an estimated twenty to twenty-five percent of women are subject to rape or an attempted rape during college. The Campus Accountability project aims to encourage campus safety groups to establish a better system for aiding victims and provides a way to screen schools for a “survivor-friendly” environment. A report on the database is set to be released once the project collects policies for 400 schools. From Database Spotlights Gaps in Campus Rape Policies, Samantha Kimmey,

Over the past year, institutions have begun to amend their sexual assault policies. For example, Yale implemented a mandatory sexual misconduct training program for student organizations and expanded its sexual assault definition to include sexually harassing speech and online communications. From Database Spotlights Gaps in Campus Rape Policies, Samantha Kimmey,

Adapted from Jana L Jasinski, Theoretical Explanations for Violence Against Women, in Sourcebook on Violence Against Women 5, 11 (Claire M. Renzetti et al. eds., 2001); Planned Parenthood of Minnesota/South Dakota; Robin Warshaw, I Never Called It Rape: The Ms. Report on Recognizing, Fighting, and Surviving Date and Acquaintance Rape 43-44 (1988); World Health Organization, First World Report on Violence and Health 159 (2002).

For a collection of research and reports on date and acquaintance sexual assault, click here.