Crime is underreported. Sexual crimes are the most underreported offenses, though more individuals reported their victimization to the police in 2000 than in any year of the previous decade ( Hart & Rennison, 2003 ). In order to understand how accurate statistics are on sexual offending, it is important to understand who reports, why, after how long, and with what accuracy.
The NCVS shows the following about individuals over the age of 12 who reported their sexual assaults to the police from 1992 to 2000 ( Hart & Rennison, 2003 , p. 5):
· ▪ Gender Victims were more likely to report sexual offenses to the police if the offender was male (32 percent) than female (13 percent).
· ▪ Race Victims were more likely to report sexual offenses if the offender was Black (39 percent) than White (29 percent).
· ▪ Age Victims reported sexual offenses to the police 40 percent of the time when the perpetrator was 12–14 years of age, the highest percentage of reporting in any age category.
· ▪ Number of Perpetrators Victims were more likely to report the sexual abuse to police if there were two perpetrators (44 percent) rather than one perpetrator (33 percent).
· ▪ Victim-Offender Relationship Victims were more likely to report sexual offenses committed by strangers (41 percent) than nonstrangers (27 percent).
· ▪ Use of Weapons Victims were more likely to report a sexual offense if the perpetrator had a weapon present during the offense (49 percent), particularly a firearm (62 percent), than if no weapon was present (28 percent).
· ▪ Reasons for Reporting The most common reason for victims to report sexual offenses to the police was to prevent future violence. The most common reason for victims not to report sexual offenses to the police was because of privacy issues.
Empirical research supports the findings in the NCVS, though the benefit of such studies is that they can also include victims under the age of 12. Child sexual abuse is the least reported of sexual offenses. Studies that analyze reporting trends of child sexual abuse all indicate that a high percentage of victims who report their abuse to authorities do so many years after the abuse occurred, and many do not ever disclose. The most common studies conducted to analyze reporting trends on child sexual abuse are adult retrospective studies. Like the NCVS, these studies found that the process of disclosing childhood sexual abuse depends on numerous variables. Of note:
· ▪ Only one-third of the victims reported the abuse to authorities before age 18, and the average age of disclosure was 25.9 ( Roesler & Weissmann-Wind, 1994 , in a study of 228 adult female victims of child sexual abuse by adult—primarily male—family members).
· ▪ The average age of child sexual abuse victims was just over 8, and approximately 41 percent of victims disclosed the abuse at the time it occurred ( Arata, 1998 , in a study of 204 female victims of child sexual abuse).
· ▪ The average age at the time of the child sexual abuse was 10, and 64 percent of the victims disclosed the abuse as adults ( Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994 , in a study of 45 adult female and 12 adult male child sexual abuse victims).
· ▪ The majority of victims waited more than eight years to report their childhood sexual abuse ( Smith, Letourneau, & Saunders, 2000 , in a study assessing disclosure rates of females raped when they were children).
· ▪ Disclosure of child sexual abuse by minors may be spontaneous or prompted, and many children and adolescents need assistance with disclosure ( DeVoe & Coulborn-Faller, 1999 ).
· ▪ Disclosure of childhood sexual abuse may be purposeful or accidental, with accidental disclosure more common in preschool-aged children and purposeful disclosure more common in adolescents ( Sorenson & Snow, 1991 ).
A significant factor in whether a child reports sexual abuse and the manner in which the abuse is reported is the potential for the person to whom the child is disclosing to believe his or her report on the abuse, especially law enforcement ( Campbell, 2005 ). Approximately half of the children who recant their reports of childhood sexual abuse do so under pressure from their guardians ( Bradley & Wood, 1996 ). The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome, a model of reporting outlined by Summit ( 1983 ) that consists of five components, suggests reasons why child sexual abuse victims delay disclosure. First, the abuse is usually carried out in privacy, and the abuser encourages secrecy. Second, because children are obedient to adults, they are helpless and maintain the secrecy that the adult encourages. Third, the child becomes entrenched in the abusive situation, begins to feel guilt and responsibility for the abuse, and continues to accommodate the perpetrator. Fourth, the victim delays disclosure because of the promise of secrecy and feelings of guilt and shame. Finally, after delayed disclosure, the victim often retracts the report due to disbelief about the abuse by those trusted by the victim.
In addition to a general delay in disclosure of child sexual abuse, many victims report the abuse in stages. Sorenson and Snow ( 1991 ) identified four stages of disclosure in their study of 630 victims of child sexual abuse: denial (experienced by 72 percent of the victims in their sample), disclosure (78 percent of the victims progressed from tentative to active disclosure), recantation (experienced by 22 percent of the victims), and reaffirmation (93 percent of those who recanted later confirmed their original reports).
Adult retroactive studies not only help us to understand the process of disclosure, but also explain the reasons that victims disclose. The most significant variables that seem to hinder disclosure of abuse are the age of the victim at the time the abuse occurred, the victim-perpetrator relationship, the gender and cognitive or developmental abilities of the victim, the type of sexual abuse that occurred, and the chance of negative consequences related to disclosure.
The gender of the victim has an impact on the disclosure of sexual abuse, as females are more likely both as children and as adults to report sexual abuse than are males ( DeVoe & Coulborn-Faller, 1999 ; Gries, Goh, & Cavanaugh, 1996 ; Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994 ; Walrath, Ybarra, & Holden, 2003 ). Paine and Hansen ( 2002 ) do show, however, that although gender is an important factor in the decision to report abuse, victim-perpetrator relationship is the most important factor in determining whether a victim of child sexual abuse will eventually disclose.
Several studies indicate that a victim is less likely to report or delay the report of child sexual abuse if the perpetrator is well known to the child ( Arata, 1998 ; Hanson, Saunders, Saunders, Kilpatrick, & Best, 1999 ; Smith et al., 2000 ; Wyatt & Newcomb, 1990 ). This relationship is most significant if the perpetrator is a relative or stepparent. Arata ( 1998 ) showed that 73 percent of victims did not disclose the abuse in such a situation; when the perpetrator was an acquaintance 70 percent of the victims did not report. The desire not to report familial sexual abuse is compounded if the victim feels responsible for the abuse, and in such cases the victim often waits longer to disclose the abuse ( Goodman-Brown, Edelstein et al., 2003 ; Roesler & Weissmann-Wind, 1994 ).
The gender of the perpetrator also seems to be an important factor in reporting, as offenses by female offenders are reported less often than those by male offenders ( Righthand & Welch, 2001 ). There are several reasons why victims may not report sexual abuse by females. Many female-perpetrated offenses are within the family and, as indicated earlier, intrafamilial acts of abuse are the least-reported sexual offenses. Also, women are traditionally seen as caregivers, nonviolent nurturers who are either not willing or not capable of harming children. Many adult and adolescent males are also reluctant to report abuse because of the shame of being a victim. Alternatively, they may not view the actions against them as abuse ( Elliot & Briere, 1994 ). Kasl ( 1990 ) states that underreporting is the result of a social taboo, and that the stigma caused by female sexual abuse must be abolished.
In order to report the abuse in a timely manner, it appears that children need to feel as though they will be supported by the person to whom they disclose the abuse. Children who believe that they will not be supported when they disclose abuse will wait longer to report, often until adulthood when they can choose a person they trust to support them ( Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994 ). Shame and guilt also appear to play a role in the decision about disclosure. Older children who are able to understand and anticipate social consequences of sexual abuse are less likely to report the abuse than are younger children ( Campis, Hebden-Curtis, & DeMaso, 1993 ; Keary & Fitzpatrick, 1994 ).
Some researchers have found that children are less likely to report sexual abuse if the abuse is severe ( Arata, 1998 ; DiPietro et al., 1997 ; Gries, Goh, & Cavanaugh, 1996 ) or they fear further harm as a result of their disclosure ( Berliner & Conte, 1995 ; Roesler & Weissmann-Wind, 1994 ; Sorenson & Snow, 1991 ). Sorenson and Snow ( 1991 ) found that victims who fear further reprisals will not report the abuse if the perpetrator is present or the disclosure could lead to further abuse, and Roesler and Weissmann-Wind ( 1994 ) found that one-third of the victims they spoke to delayed reporting until adulthood because they feared for their safety. Hanson et al. ( 1999 ), on the other hand, found the inverse relationship true of severity of abuse and disclosure. They discovered that in a sample of women who were raped when they were children, the more severe the sexual abuse the more likely the victims were to report the abuse sooner.