Unpacking Rape Culture and the Impact on Women’s Mental Health
Black and white photo of a woman with her hand raised to stop

Interpersonal relationships, societal attitudes and institutional structures all influence one another and feed into rape culture

9 May 2023

By Hannah Uguru

TW: sexual assault, rape 

Following the disturbing news about David Carrick, a Metropolitan police officer who abused his position of power to sexually assault and harass countless women over a 16-year-period, we put out a statement calling attention to the pervasive nature of violence against women and girls (VAWG) on interpersonal, societal and institutional levels. We want to continue this conversation with a deeper enquiry into how this incident feeds into a wider rape culture, the ways in which this affects women’s mental health, and how we’re working to support women – especially those who are minoritised – through this kind of trauma. 

Rape culture is a term used to describe a society where sexual violence is normalised, excused, and even glorified. It is a culture where survivors of sexual violence are often blamed for their own victimisation while the perpetrators act with impunity. We can attribute a lot of our current understanding of the diverse ways in which sexual violence against women and girls manifests to the #MeToo movement, which was started in 2006 by Tarana Burke and gained mainstream traction in October 2017 following a wave of sexual assault and harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. As touched on, rape culture occurs within interpersonal relationships, collective social settings like online and in the media, and institutions – including the criminal justice system. Though sexual violence can happen to anyone, its victims are overwhelmingly female, and we aim to highlight and challenge this. At The Maya Centre, we are acutely aware of the mental health implications of rape culture and how it affects the diverse women who come to us seeking support.

Victims of interpersonal sexual violence report mental or emotional problems as the most common outcome 

Interpersonal sexual violence against women refers to any unwanted sexual behaviour or act perpetrated by an individual, whether it be a partner, family member, friend, acquaintance or a complete stranger. These incidents include rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. Approximately 1 in 4 women in the UK have experienced some form of sexual assault in adulthood, with 1 in 3 adults who are raped encountering this in their own home.  

The mental health ramifications of interpersonal sexual violence against women can be severe and long-lasting. According to the 2021 Crime Survey for England and Wales, 63% of women who have been victims of sexual assault by rape or penetration (including attempts) disclosed mental health issues as a result. This data shows that mental health suffers the most due to sexual violence, even superseding the reported physical and social ramifications. Nonetheless, these effects all interplay, with outcomes such as social distrust (50% of women), physical injury (36%) and social isolation (29%) all impacting women’s emotional wellbeing. 

Building upon these findings is evidence that survivors of sexual violence are more likely to experience mental health issues than those who have not experienced this. For example, research from National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center Medical University of South Carolina shows that women who had been raped were more likely to have symptoms of PTSD and depression than those who had not. Women who have experienced sexual violence are also at a higher risk of self-harm and suicide. 

A major reason why the experience of interpersonal sexual violence may be so detrimental to women’s mental health is the prevailing social stigma around female sexuality, leading to instances of victim-blaming, silencing, and minimisation of the impact and severity of such trauma. 

We are living in an era of #MeToo pushback

It’s been almost five and a half years since #MeToo developed into a worldwide movement of solidarity for survivors of sexual harassment and abuse, largely platforming the narrative of women who’ve experienced gender-based sexual violence. #MeToo also marked the beginning of ‘hashtag activism’, a term used to describe the use of hashtags on social media to raise awareness around a particular issue. Since 2017, we’ve seen other campaigns against female violence go viral through the same method, such as #SayHerName in reference to police murders of Black women and #AmINext concerning South Africa’s rape crisis.

Overall, we’ve made great strides when it comes to raising awareness on rape culture’s impact on society in the last few years, but this has not come without stagnation and even backlash. For example, a 2018 YouGov survey on attitudes to sexual consent, featuring almost 4000 respondents, produced some shocking results: 

  • 36% of men and 31% of women asked think it isn’t usually or is never rape if a woman is pressured into having sex, but there is no physical violence.
  • 33% of men and 21% of women don’t think it could usually be considered rape if the woman had flirted on a date then changed her mind.
  • 34% of men and 23% of women believe it’s not rape if a woman withdraws consent during sex and sex continues.  
  • 29% of men and 19% of women don’t think, in most or all cases, sex without consent in long-term relationships is rape (despite laws against rape in marriage being in place since 1991). 
  • People believe the more sexual partners a woman has, the less harm they experience from rape, with 14% of men and 9% of women believing that a woman who’s had lots of sexual partners would suffer less harm than any other woman.

Moreover, we can look at the development of ‘the manosphere’ – a loosely organised online subculture promoting traditional masculinity, misogyny and anti-feminist values – as a response to heightened accountability discourse and action concerning consent and women’s bodily autonomy. Communities within the manosphere include men’s rights activists (MRAs), incels (involuntary celibates), Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), pick-up artists (PUA), and fathers’ rights groups. The manosphere overlaps with the far-right and alt-right groups and functions as a substantial contributor to cyber-VAWG.

Indeed, such a phenomenon is having a direct impact on the mental health of women (and girls), with a respondent from a 2020 report from End Violence Against Women Coalition and Glitch saying: “Nothing ever changes. I report lots of violent images and sexist abuse. It feels like the moderators are sexist too, as they allow it. People are cloning profiles and being abusive but write ‘parody’ in them so get away with it. There’s so much porn and violence against women and girls that it feels like a place where women aren’t treated as humans. We’re guests in a male space.” 

Findings from that same investigation also indicate that cases of online violence are more common among Black and other racially minoritised women (52%) compared to white women (42%).

In light of all this, it’s pertinent to analyse and evaluate how institutional structures uphold these harmful social dynamics and further rape culture, as well as think of ways to dismantle this. 

The government, the police, the justice system, and community organisations need to work cohesively to support survivors of sexual abuse

The environment in the UK for women and girls concerning sexual violence is currently not conducive to a harm-free reality: last year, the government issued an online safety bill that failed to specify violence against women and/or girls or even make mention of gender, demonstrating a missed opportunity to highlight gender-based violence as a cause for concern; long-standing police corruption has enabled abuse both within and outside of the force; there is a clear gap in knowledge when it comes to understanding what and what doesn’t constitute as consent among jurors, contributing to the UK having one of the lowest rape conviction and summons rates in Europe at just 1.6% as of 2020; services and establishments designed to support survivors continue to face budget cuts.

In order to better combat VAWG, particularly sexual VAWG, there needs to be a concerted effort across the government, the police, the justice system and community organisations. For example, the government needs to be more specific in the language used when addressing forms of violence in campaigns and bills so affected groups feel prioritised. Independent investigations into police conduct need to occur on a rolling basis to inhibit the emboldened nature of this abuse of power. Moreover, the police need to be better trained in how to handle reports of sexual assault, with a particular emphasis on understanding the experiences of minoritised groups. Similarly, jurors should be given more extensive training on consent before being tasked with making life-changing decisions concerning survivors.

Between 2019 and 2022, The Maya Centre experienced a two-fold increase in referrals relating to sexual abuse (257 vs 530), including a nearly five-fold rise in referrals involving an experience of rape (22 vs 106). These figures can be interpreted in various ways — either women’s safety in the UK is increasingly at risk, women are feeling more empowered to get professional help for their trauma than in the past, or a combination of both. In any respect, referral rates for sexual VAWG are on the rise for specialist charities like ours, so it’s critical that we continue providing a safe space for women to unpack and work through their trauma as well as educating survivors and their supporters on the nuances of VAWG. 

The Maya Centre’s impact

The shortcomings of statutory institutions are particularly influential as they often compound negative feelings for survivors. Many of our staff have witnessed the ramifications of this, including Ayan Abdi, a Maya Centre counsellor focusing on domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape crime, and childhood sexual abuse. “A key theme I notice among my clients is a fundamental failing in the justice system and its legal proceedings, which I’ve seen to exacerbate victims’ mental health; there’s no support in place.” Within this context, Abdi often works at the intersections of Black and Muslim identities, underscoring the idea that the police and the courts are particularly unreceptive to minoritised women’s stories.  

Speaking on the distinct challenges faced when working with these kinds of women, she says, “There have been safeguarding concerns for African and Asian young women regarding an aggravated risk of female genital mutilation (FGM), forced and arranged marriages abroad and being trafficked into the UK. We had a case of a young woman aged 19 who was ‘gifted’ to her father’s elderly friend as a marriage proposal to build strong family relations. She was brought to the UK from rural Somalia and suffered psychological, emotional and physical abuse upon her arrival. She only spoke Somali, which contributed hugely to her sense of vulnerability and isolation, as she relied on her husband to translate everything for her. She eventually ran away and took refuge after first being deceived into undergoing IVF. As an ethnic Somali and Somali-speaking therapist, I had a shared cultural background with this client, which aided me in understanding the nuances of her situation and building a bridge between our organisation and this young woman.”

Along with cultural details, The Maya Centre is uniquely placed to deal with women facing sexual trauma and other forms of VAWG and mental health issues, as many of our practitioners are survivors themselves. Emilie Le Pessec is a Holistic Massage Therapist who’s been working with us since 2015 to deliver trauma-informed care to a range of women; she believes that her lived experience of sexual abuse has helped her relate to clients and offers more intimate support. “I am a survivor of sexual abuse, and I believe this has been an experience which, in the process of post-traumatic growth, has allowed me to genuinely comprehend the reality and multitude of ways in which sexual violence impacts the lives of survivors. It’s also given me a greater awareness of what healing looks and feels like — everyone’s journey is different,” she shares.

Our specialist counselling work encompasses integrative therapies (including motivational interviewing and relaxation techniques), narrative therapy, psychodynamic therapies, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), solution focused-therapies, and psychoeducation. We do our best using these approaches to have the most extensive reach of women possible, offering them both shorter and longer-term counselling, holistic mind-body therapies and wider advocacy depending on where they are on their recovery journey. 

We are reliant on the generosity of our funders and donors to continue making this offer: if you would like to contribute to the interpersonal, societal and institutional change we’re aiming for, please donate here.