Impaired and Incapacitated Rape Victims: Assault Characteristics and Post-Assault Experiences

By Littleton, Heather; Grills-Taquechel, Amie et al. | Violence and Victims, July 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Impaired and Incapacitated Rape Victims: Assault Characteristics and Post-Assault Experiences


Littleton, Heather, Grills-Taquechel, Amie, Axsom, Danny, Violence and Victims


Alcohol is the most common "rape drug," with up to two-thirds of victims consuming alcohol prior to the assault. Surprisingly, little research has examined the assault and postassault experiences of victims who were impaired or incapacitated as a result of substance use, including alcohol, during a rape. Thus, the current study evaluated the assault and postassault experiences of a sample of 340 nonimpaired, impaired, and incapacitated college rape victims. Results supported that these three groups differed in several assault characteristics, including threats by the assailant, resistance by the victim, and relationship with the assailant. In addition, impairment and incapacitation were associated with several postassault factors, including self-blame, stigma, and problematic alcohol use. Results also highlighted similarities in victims' experiences, including levels of postassault distress. Implications of the findings for future research investigating impaired and incapacitated sexual assault victims are discussed.

Keywords: sexual assault; alcohol use; self-blame; stigma; substance use

One of the most understudied areas in sexual assault research concerns the impact substance-induced impairment (e.g., from alcohol use) can have on women's sexual assault experiences and recovery. Substance-induced impairment is common in sexual assault, with one recent study finding that 37% of rape victims reported that they were impaired in some way during the assault (Littleton, Radecki Breitkopf, & Berenson, 2008). Alcohol use, in particular, appears to be a common factor in sexual assaults, with an estimated one-half to two-thirds of victims and assailants consuming alcohol prior to the assault (Ullman, 2003). While all U.S. states now recognize that a woman who has consumed alcohol or other drugs may be unable to consent to sexual activity (Cole, 2006), little research has examined the assault and postassault experiences of victims who were impaired or incapacitated during the assault as a result of alcohol or other substance use.

Much of the extant research evaluating substance use and sexual assault has focused on comparing the characteristics of assaults that involved and did not involve alcohol. These studies have found that alcohol use by the assailant is associated with greater violence in the assault, injury to the victim, and likelihood of rape completion (Abbey, Zawacki, et al., 2002; Martin & Bachman, 1998; Ullman, 2003; Ullman & Brecklin, 2000; Ullman, Karabatsos, & Koss, 1999). In addition, assaults involving alcohol use by the victim or assailant have been found to be less likely to occur among individuals who are romantically involved (Abbey, Zawacki, et al., 2002; Cleveland, Koss, & Lyons, 1999; Ullman & Brecklin, 2000). Finally, alcohol use by the victim and assailant has been found to frequently co-occur (Zawacki, Abbey, Buck, McAuslan, & Clinton-Sherrod, 2003). However, evaluation of the amount of drinking and degree of victim impairment or incapacitation as a result of substance use is largely missing from prior studies (Abbey, Zawacki, Buck, Clinton, & McAuslan, 2001; Ullman, 2003). Thus, assaults classified as alcohol involved in past studies likely included those that involved severe levels of intoxication /incapacitation by the victim (e.g., losing consciousness as a result of alcohol use) as well as victims who were minimally or not at all impaired as a result of alcohol use.

Nonetheless, there is some evidence for differential assault characteristics by level of alcohol use by the victim and /or assailant. For example, Abbey, Clinton, McAuslan, Zawacki, and Buck (2002) evaluated the relationship between assault violence and alcohol use and found that level of drinking by victims was linearly associated with decreased resistance during the assault. Further, a curvilinear relationship was found between assailant drinking and force such that assaults with the lowest and highest levels of alcohol use by the assailant were the most violent. …

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