To Honor and Obey: Perceptions and Disclosure of Sexual Assault Among Honor Ideology Women

Sexual assault affects 1 in 5 women in the United States; yet, the vast majority of those crimes go unreported. Due to the ambiguity of many unwanted sexual experiences, many individuals do not label these situations as rape nor will they disclose them to others. Our research examines how the endorsement of honor values creates a unique set of circumstances that impact rape labeling and disclosing to others. Honor values emphasize a concern with establishing and maintaining favorable social reputations, and, if needed, fending off threats to their reputation with aggression. Honor values also entails adhering to traditional gender roles. Women who endorse honor values are more likely to be concerned with protecting their own reputation as being modest and chaste, as well as protecting the reputation of their family members. Since sexual assault is a threat to reputation, we explored whether women high in honor ideology would be concerned with either being perceived as “damaged goods” or with seeking retribution and getting “payback.” With regard to the “damaged goods” hypothesis, we expected women who strongly endorsed honor values to be less likely to label an unwanted sexual experience as a “rape,” and to recommend disclosing the experience to others. For the “payback” hypothesis, we expected women high in honor ideology to be equally likely to label an unwanted sexual experience as “rape” but more likely to suggest disclosure of the assault in order to punish the perpetrator.

Using vignettes in three studies, we examined whether the closeness of the victim’s relationship with the perpetrator (i.e., stranger, acquaintance, husband) qualified women’s response. Especially, when the perpetrator was the husband, women who endorsed honor values of womanhood were generally less likely to label a forced sexual act as “rape” compared to women lower in honor values. Higher-honor women were also less likely to suggest the victim disclose the assault to others. Though seemingly supportive of a “damaged goods” hypothesis, we argue that this lack of higher-honor women’s willingness to disclose reflects a concern with protecting their family’s reputation. Only when participants responded to all three types of perpetrators in a repeated-measures design, but not in a between-groups design, we found evidence for the “payback” hypothesis with women higher in honor ideology being more likely to recommend that the victim should tell select confidants. Our findings underscore the multifaceted concerns surrounding how women perceive different kinds of sexual assault, and the decision of especially high-honor women to disclose sexual trauma to others.