What is 'second rape' and what can we do about it?

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In a recent speech at the White House’s first-ever United State of Women summit, Vice President Joe Biden passionately addressed what he described as the “cause of his life”: ending violence against women. And during his remarks, he used a phrase he seemed to assume the 5,000 attendees would understand but was completely new to me: "second rape."

I took to Google to see what, if any, results came back—and sure enough, I was met with a wealth of scholarly journal articles on the term, which refers to the excruciating series of interrogations rape victims must endure after reporting their crime to authorities. This process reeks of victim-blaming and holds particular relevance at this cultural moment.

It’s been a little more than a month since the survivor of a rape on the Stanford University campus published the letter she read aloud at her attacker’s sentencing hearing. The anonymous victim’s 7,000-word address covered a lot of topics surrounding her sexual assault while unconscious. But a major theme was how, through the criminal proceedings that lasted more than a year, she was forced to relive the hurt and shame of being sexually violated—this, by definition, is second rape.


The first formal use of the term “second rape” can be traced to a 1991 book of the same name, written by psychologists Lee Madigan and Nancy Gamble. In the book, which focused entirely on the phenomenon, they wrote that, often, the second, emotional rape could be “more devastating and despoiling than the first” physical violation. In her statement, the Stanford survivor described, in no uncertain terms, how harrowing it was to be re-victimized in this way.

I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name. After a physical assault, I was assaulted with questions designed to attack me, to say see, her facts don’t line up, she’s out of her mind, she’s practically an alcoholic, she probably wanted to hook up, he’s like an athlete right, they were both drunk, whatever, the hospital stuff she remembers is after the fact, why take it into account, Brock [her attacker] has a lot at stake so he’s having a really hard time right now.

And then it came time for him to testify and I learned what it meant to be revictimized. I want to remind you, the night after it happened he said he never planned to take me back to his dorm. He said he didn’t know why we were behind a dumpster. He got up to leave because he wasn’t feeling well when he was suddenly chased and attacked. Then he learned I could not remember.


On top of everything, she was being forced to relive a trauma that she could not fully recall.

Rebecca Campbell has also been studying the idea of second rape since the 1990s. As a professor of Community Psychology and Program Evaluation at Michigan State University, her current research focuses specifically on the treatment of rape survivors. Before delving into this emotional research, Campbell volunteered as a rape victim advocate and saw firsthand how victims, instead of being handled with TLC, were treated, in some ways, as criminals themselves.


Campbell told me in a phone conversation this week “that the process of seeking help after a sexual assault, in terms of the medical exam, reporting to the police, the steps of prosecution—it was very traumatizing to victims. It was re-traumatizing. And many of the victims I worked with as a volunteer said language similar to this idea of ‘it feels like it’s happening to me all over again,’ ‘it feels like a second rape,’ ‘I feel like the rape just keeps going.’”

She decided to dig in herself, finding that her anecdotal evidence from her volunteer work proved to be much more widespread. And after many replications of her work by other researchers around the country, she realized that the problem was systemic.


“When victims do report to the criminal justice system, the way in which they’re treated is very distressing to [them]," she said. "And they do describe it as a second rape or secondary victimization. Something that exacerbates their post-traumatic stress symptoms above and beyond the rape itself.”

Campbell was one of the main authors of a 1999 research paper titled “Community Services for Rape Survivors: Enhancing Psychological Well-Being or Increasing Trauma?” which surveyed 102 rape survivors about their experiences after reporting their own rape and how secondary victimization led to symptoms of post traumatic stress. The stories some shared are enough to make a victim think twice before coming forward.


"My therapist kept talking about my need for attention,” one told the researchers. “How I made bad choices in life because of my need for attention. How I got myself raped for attention. Those words hurt as much as the rape itself."

The study found that attitudes like this from criminal justice and mental health professionals were pervasive, and that they were particularly bad when the victim reported that the rape was carried out by a nonstranger. They wrote, “Nonstranger rape victims who received minimal help from either the legal or medical system…were nevertheless subjected to a high degree of secondary victimization, [and] experienced significantly elevated PTS scores.” It’s the age-old attitude of how could you by raped by someone you know?


Jennifer Norris, a retired technical sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, reported being raped and sexually assaulted by multiple servicemen in the military during her 15 years of service starting in the mid '90s. She eventually came forward and two of the perpetrators were charged with sexual assault. But back in 2013, she wrote a post on her blog called “Betrayed Again” in which she describes the feeling of the second rape.

In the end, I realized that the original oppression AND retaliation for reporting those violent crimes is what truly damaged me. I was completely taken by surprise. I had no idea that I would ever be scorned and accused of causing a criminal to ‘lose their job’. I just assumed that I would be believed and taken care of. Boy was I wrong.


Arden Greenspan-Goldberg, a New York City-based licensed clinical social worker, has worked with survivors, like Norris, throughout her career. And, like Campbell, she's seen firsthand how the systems seemingly meant to protect women often only exacerbates their trauma.

“You haven’t done anything wrong, but you’re made to feel that because you’re part of that whole system [that you did something wrong],” she told me in a phone conversation. “The whole thing is jarring. Just going into the court, it’s the last place on earth that you think you would ever be, testifying and recounting the experience.”


Greenspan-Goldberg explained how the attorneys defending the alleged perpetrators try their best to throw victims off their game and make them wish they hadn’t reported the crime in the first place. She recalled a patient who was so beaten down by the system “she thought it was not worth it.” That she had to go to the jail, that she had to see a lineup of different men and point out the right one, made it almost unbearable. “You have the initial trauma and then the retraumatization,” Greenspan-Goldberg said.

But she and Campbell both remain hopeful for the future of survivor care. Greenspan-Goldberg pointed to the rape crisis units in many hospitals, which provide support for survivors—someone to talk to and someone to hold their hand through the invasive process. And Campbell is actively working with organizations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police and End Violence Against Women International to educate law enforcement personnel about how to best approach victims.


“Law enforcement are fact finders. They have to investigate the case,” Campbell said. “They have to do it fairly and they have to do it impartially because they have a duty to public safety and a duty to due process. On the other side, they also have a responsibility to protect public citizens and protect victims. So the way in which they do that doesn’t need to be traumatizing. I think for the longest time these have been seen as two competing things, and I don’t think that they need to be.”

The organizations are teaching officials how to engage in “trauma informed interviewing,” which the International Association of Chiefs of Police, according to its website, hopes “will better equip law enforcement to understand the complexities of sexual assault through training centered on the neurobiological impact of trauma, the influence of societal myths and stereotypes, understanding perpetrator behavior, and conducting effective investigations.”


There may be no solution to widespread sexual assault and rape in the near future. But there’s no good reason that a system that is supposed to protect survivors should be making it worse.

Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.