Secondary victimization refers to the trauma that victims experience following rape as a result of blame, stigmatizing responses, and general negative treatment. Although it is possible that victims experience secondary victimization due to the reactions of friends, family, medical and mental health personnel, and other members of society, it is often a result of their interaction with police and courts.
Although rape is one of the most underreported crimes, victims sometimes turn to the police for assistance and protection. Police may cause secondary victimization when they ask victims questions that imply that they are blameworthy or when they explicitly state to victims that their actions contributed to the rape. This implication includes but is not limited to questions or statements pertaining to a victim’s dress, use of alcohol or drugs, the victim’s reason for being at a certain location at the time of the rape, degree of resistance, prior sexual encounters with the alleged assailant, whether the victim “led on” the alleged assailant, and whether the victim responded sexually to the incident. Police may show less compassion when interviewing victims who do not fit the stereotypical image of a “real” rape victim, who is someone who was raped by a stranger, raped by an assailant with a weapon, sustained obvious physical injuries, reported the crime immediately, and appeared distraught during questioning. Police may not initiate an investigation or an arrest based on their perception of the alleged victim as someone truly harmed and blameless, a reaction which contributes to victims’ secondary victimization. Despite the trauma of secondary victimization by the police, it is important to recognize that police must establish probable cause before making an arrest and must gather sufficient evidence before turning the case over to prosecutors. This need may contribute to their engagement in what the victim may perceive as forceful and hostile questioning. Police officers’ duty to establish a good case may contribute to victims’ secondary victimization.
Victims may experience secondary victimization at the hands of the court when they must sit in the same courtroom as the rapist, when they must reveal the details of the rape to a room of strangers, and when they must endure cross-examination by defense attorneys who attack their credibility and character and question their behavior in order to convince the judge or jury that if a sexual act took place, the woman consented or “asked for it.” Secondary victimization may result when prosecutors drop the case or agree to drop more serious charges if the defendant pleads guilty, contributing to victims’ feeling the legal system failed them. Additionally, rape victims may feel revictimized when staff of the prosecutors’ offices does not make them privy to general information about the case, the progress of the case, and dates of pretrial and trial proceedings. Lastly, victims may experience secondary victimization when their hope of seeing their rapist punished is destroyed with an acquittal or not guilty verdict.
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