Traditional Gender Roles and Recovering From Rape

I wrote this for a class in Spring 2012. I’ve posted it here in support of #WhyWomenDontReport and #WhyMenDontReport.

Rape is a traumatic incident that has a great negative impact on the victim. After being assaulted, the recovery process begins with the victim’s decision to either avoid thinking about what just happened to him or her, or by seeking help. Recovering from rape is not something that is simply attained after a series of steps; instead, it is a process of coming to terms with the assault and how it impacts his or her life. Meanwhile, gender roles have played a large part in societies for thousands of years. Stemming from both the physical differences between men and women, as well as the mental constructs imposed by society and religion, gender roles have shaped what it means to be a man or a woman, masculine or feminine. Gender roles can vary with ethnicity, race, religion, and socio-economic status. Traditional gender roles are typically marked by an inequality between what is allowed and expected of men and women; the greater the divide, the more “traditional” the gender role. As some societies have progressed towards allowing fewer differences between men and women, traditional gender roles have generally subsided and become less pronounced. Since recovering from rape is such an arduous and difficult process, the victim’s environment has a large impact on how he or she copes with the sexual assault. In particular, how peers react and perceive a rape victim has a large impact on his or her ability to recover from the sexual assault. In general, traditional gender roles have a negative impact on how men and women recover from rape.

An Overview of Rape and Recovery

Rape has a surprisingly large number of definitions, so for the purposes of this article, the term “rape” will be used with the definition of Non-Volitional Sex (NVS) in mind: “sexual behaviour that violates a person’s right to choose when and with whom to have sex and what sexual behaviours to engage in” (Kalmuss, 2004, p. 197). Rape comes in numerous different forms, depending on whether the assailant and victim knew each other (stranger versus acquaintance rape), to the context of their relationship (e.g. prison rape), to Intimate Partner Violence, or the “physical, psychological, or sexual harm committed by a current or former partner, spouse, boy/girlfriend” (Sormanti, & Smith, 2010, p. 22). A rape victim can be any age, from being a child (Child Sexual Abuse, or CSA), to a grown adult, to an elderly person.

Rape has an incredibly negative impact on the victim and is rarely something that a victim can absolutely recover from. While every victim generally copes and recovers in their own way, rape victims frequently use either approach coping and avoidance coping (Littleton & Breitkopf, 2006, p. 106). Approach coping is marked by the victim reaching out to others in hope to deal with their situation, while victims that “choose” avoidance coping tend to avoid both thinking about the incident and seeking any help.

Regardless of how a rape victim copes, they often suffer from “posttraumatic stress, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, relationship problems, and sexual problems” (Polusney & Follette, 1995, p. 143). Similar to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS) “is the acute phase and long-term reorganization process that occurs as the result of forcible rape or attempted forcible rape” (Burgess & Holmstrom, 1974, p. 981). Researchers did not recognize RTS until 1974 when Burgess & Holmstrom realized that many rape victims suffer from similar stress patterns at PTSD patients.

For victims that use approach coping and decide to reach out to others, the reactions that others have can have a negative impact on their recovery process; this “secondary victimization” occurs when authorities or members of the victim’s social group holds negative attitudes towards the victim (Nagel, Matsuo, McIntyre, & Morrison, 2005, p. 726). These negative attitudes range from “those that blame the victim, question the victim’s credibility, imply that the victim deserved being raped, denigrate the victim, and trivialize the rape experience” (Nagel et al, 2005, p. 726). The negative attitudes are harmful to the recovery process, often making the victim question whether they were at fault for what happened to him or her.

The framework of “reaching out, reframing the rape, and redefining self” provides a fairly strong basis for analyzing the victim’s recovery process (Smith & Kelly, 2011, p. 343). While the study was specifically about American women, the findings and first-hand accounts in the study are consistent with what has been found in other groups around the world.

The beginning of the recovery process begins with reaching out, or “getting back to normal routines, talking without crying, being in control of obsessive thoughts, and gaining the ability to move about freely in her environment” (Smith & Kelly, 2011, p. 344). Once a victim is able to recognize what has happened, he or she can start to get back to the “regular” life they once had (or in some cases, start to build a new life). This stage is largely affected by the people the victim is willing to share information about the rape with. Supportive reactions to the victim allow the victim to feel safer and as if they are going to be able to recover from the incident.

Reframing the rape requires the victim to “see the positives of recovering from the trauma, gain a new perspective on life, and no longer need people to believe what she says regarding her rape experience” (Smith & Kelly, 2011, p. 344). This stage is helpful in having the victim make sense of the rape (in as much as one can make sense of rape). Many victims find a purpose for the rape, such as how it has improved their ability to cope with trauma or how it might bring them closer with their family and/or friends. This part of the recovery process helps the victim start to feel peace and work towards the next step.

Women in the study talked about redefining self as “self-love, forgiveness of self and the rapist, and inner peace” (Smith & Kelly, 2011, p. 344). This part of the recovery process involves the victim getting back the self-identity they once had, hopefully with an improved self-image and the ability to grow as a person again (in addition to recovering from the rape). This stage is marked with the victim beginning to move on to bigger and better achievements in their life, without the weight of the rape dragging them down and bringing self-doubt to their decisions and actions.

Overall, the victim’s progress in the coping and recovering process can be determined by how well the victim is able to function, both in terms of their day-to-day actions and how they are progressing towards a life where the rape has as little of a negative impact as possible.

A Quick Look at Gender Roles

Gender roles (sometimes referred to as gender norms) are “the attitudes and behaviours that are deemed appropriate for women and men’s social and sexual interactions” (Nguyen, Clark, Hood, Corneille, Fitzgerald, & Belgrave, 2010, p. 603). Gender roles help define society’s expectations of men and women. Gender roles can be detected in a society by examining the separation between what is acceptable for men and women.

Gender roles are not necessarily negative, but do sometimes unnecessarily segregate men and women.

People learn how their gender is supposed to behave through their parents, teachers, peers, and the media. Attributes and behaviors are assigned either masculine or feminine roles in society. Gender schema, or the “cognitive structures that organize an individual’s gender- related knowledge, preferences, beliefs and attitudes” (Cherney, 2005, p. 12), plays into how people learn what is expected of them. Gender roles are often created based on gender stereotypes. The effect that these stereotypes have can be harmful. Society typically starts off with more traditional gender role ideas (boys want to be doctors while girls want to be nurses); over time, as kids learn that violations of typical gender role norms are okay, these tend to fade away.

Stereotyped gender roles include the need for men to be responsible for the well-being of their family by providing for their needs. For example, “traditional Asian values… typically place the male higher in the family hierarchy and emphasize among men and women his position as economic provider” (Chang & Subramaniam, 2008, p. 125). Men might be thought of as instrumental characters that should not express their feelings. Men are generally required to be more aggressive and in charge of situations. It is stereotypical to think of men as always wanting sex. Men also have a slightly harder time deviating from their masculine gender role; it is more frowned upon for men to take up female roles than for women to take on male roles.

Women, on the other hand, are thought of as nurturers who are responsible for raising children. Women are thought of as expressive creatures, except when it comes to sex; it is considered that sex is something that a woman should provide to men but not something they should seek out on their own.

Traditional Gender Roles

Gender roles can be seen on a continuum of less to more traditional, with no precise or distinct grouping of traditional gender roles versus non-traditional gender roles. Traditional gender roles are typically marked by a great inequality between what is allowed and expected of men and women; the greater the divide, the more “traditional” the gender role.

Traditional gender roles include some of the roles listed above, but for the purposes of this discussion, it is not the actual roles themselves that are of importance, but instead the presence of the great divide in what constitutes a male role versus a female role. This distinction is important because gender roles vary with ethnicity, race, religion, and socio-economic status. In looking at how traditional gender roles can vary from ethnicity to ethnicity, Nguyen et al. found that “traditional conceptualisations of gender roles would be inappropriate for an African-American sample” (2010, p. 612), in as much as the gender role of “caretaker” is much more associated with a masculine gender role in African-American societies (whereas caretaker is often prescribed as a feminine gender role in other ethnicities).

The Positive Impacts of Traditional Gender Roles

Before examining how traditional gender roles have a negative impact on the recovery process of rape victims, the positive aspects of traditional gender roles should be mentioned. While the helpfulness of traditional gender roles on the recovery process for a male rape victim is not something that can be easily argued, there are opportunities for making the case that traditional gender roles have a positive impact on female rape victims.

It could be argued that the traditional gender stereotype of women being the weaker sex has a positive impact on women who are raped. Since rape blame has a large impact on the rape recovery process, alleviating blame by pinning the rape on the woman’s inability to defend herself (since she is weaker) could helpful.

Likewise, one may argue that, in societies that value a woman’s subservient sexual position to men, female rape victims might benefit from the existence of traditional gender roles. This “sexually subservient” position could be used to explain that it is a woman’s job to please men, and thus the “rape” was simply a function of their role in society.

The Negative Impacts of Traditional Gender Roles

Despite the potential positive benefits mentioned above, traditional gender roles are much more harmful to the rape recovery process than they are positive. Traditional gender roles have a negative affect on the entire rape coping and recovery process.

As discussed above, victims almost always have the choice to avoid dealing with what happened to them or to seek help, either from an actual rape recovery clinic or from their close confidants (avoidance versus approach coping). Increased avoidance coping is more evident in societies with more traditional gender roles. Chang and Subramaniam found that men who accept masculine gender roles (such as white men or Asian and Pacific Islander Americans) are “less likely to seek mental health services because doing so could be viewed as a sign of femininity” (2008, p. 125). Dumond and Dumond found that “traditional gender role stereotypes contribute to lack of responsiveness toward male rape victims, and gaps in services often prevent men from getting the services they need” (2002, p. 73). As shown above, increased avoidance coping has a detrimental effect on the coping and recovery process

The reactions of others have a sizable impact on the rape recovery process. It has been found that disclosing sexual assault can be a harmful “when victims receive negative responses from others” (Ullman, 2011, p. 148). The victim is usually concerned with whether or not others will believe what happened to them—believe that the situation happened, and believe that it was unwanted and against his or her will. Societies with more traditional gender roles are less likely to believe that the situation occurred in the manner that the victim describes because, in general, it is perceived that women are “inferior” and less trustworthy. Kanekar found that, when looking at Indian versus Western blame assignment, the more traditional Indian society had “a much stronger bias against female victims of male sexual aggression” (2007, p. 126).

If society does accept a woman’s story about the sexual encounter, then there is another lingering question: was it a wanted encounter or undesired? Societies with more traditional gender roles are more likely to believe that a woman did want the encounter because it would be fulfilling their role as a woman to have sex with men at the man’s desire. This has a negative impact because it reinforces (in the victim’s mind) the idea that they should not perceive the sexual assault as rape, making it more difficult for them to accept what happened to them and move on from the situation.

For men, the situation is a bit different. If it is assumed that society will believe that the rape occurred, they then question the man’s ability to fit within the masculine gender role. Rape can be emasculating to men and harm their self-esteem, thus hurting the rape recovery process.

Homosexuality also comes into play. Male victims of rape who identify themselves as heterosexual are worried that their admittance of being raped will make others perceive them as homosexual. With regard to rape blame, recent experimental studies have suggested that “male victims of rape are often blamed significantly more than female victims” (Sleath & Bull, 2010, p. 970).

Rape blame responsibility has a huge impact on the recovery process. Blame responsibility is how much it is believed that the victim was to blame for the rape, versus how much of the responsibility lies with the perpetrator. More conservative societies tend to place more blame on the victim than places in which traditional gender roles are less accepted and prevalent (Kanekar, 2007, p. 126).

Continual self-blame hinders the recovery process, and can be more difficult to get over in a society with more traditional gender roles. Self-blame is almost always a factor in a rape victim’s mind: whether there was something he or she could have done to escape, and perhaps even whether or not telling someone could have saved another future victim. This is exacerbated by the blame that society puts on the victim; essentially, they might start to believe that they were to blame for the rape, and thus are more responsible.

Rape myths “are stereotyped, prejudicial, or faulty beliefs about the rape itself, the victim, or the perpetrator of the rape” (Rusinko, Bradley, & Miller, 2010, p. 360) and usually “are biased against victims [and] favor… perpetrators” (Süssenbach & Bohner, 2011, p. 374) Rape myths are more widely accepted in countries with more traditional gender roles, and thus has a negative impact on rape survivors.


It can thus be concluded that traditional gender roles generally have a negative impact on male and female rape victims. Men and women alike have a very hard time recovering from rape. The rape recovery process requires the victim to first acknowledge what happened to him or her, and then decide to seek help and not avoid facing the ugly truth of his or her new reality. Women are less likely to seek help because of the shameful stigma attached to being a rape victim. Men are much more likely to avoid talking to anyone about the incident for fear of being labeled homosexual and bringing the shame upon them that, in the eyes of a more society with more traditional gender roles, they are on equal inferiority with women. Furthermore, because societies in which traditional gender roles are more present tend to place more blame on the victim than other societies, a rape victim may get a negative reaction from whomever they speak with about their rape, whether they speak with someone with authority or a close confidant; the higher amount of blame in those societies make it more likely for the rape victim to continue to blame themselves. Recovering from rape is a difficult process regardless of environmental influences, and traditional gender roles make the coping and recovery process even more strenuous.


The above evidence presents unusual opportunities for improvement within a society. While the prevalence of traditional gender roles are not something that can be easily removed from a society, there is an opportunity for education and rape recovery centers to use this information to better assist rape victims. First, rape recovery centers should be prepared to help both men and women alike. Second, mindful educators can take into account the more traditional gender roles that are present within a society and encourage students to not pass judgment and blame on a rape victim. Third, rape recovery centers can use the above information to encourage rape victims to be conscious of the blame and judgment they place on themselves. If rape victims are encouraged to not look at themselves through society’s eyes, they might be more capable of avoiding the guilt and shame that comes with being raped, and thus have an easier time coping and recovering from the sexual assault.


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