Research has shown that sexual assault has a tremendous impact on the victim’s psychological adjustment and well-being over the course of their life. Research has begun to investigate the exact cause of differences between individual victim adjustment. There is a tremendous amount of research that shows that generally, a positive reaction to disclosure predicts a more positive outcome for the victim, and a negative reaction predicts a negative impact. Recent research has suggested, however, that having no reaction or helping behavior whatsoever may be more harmful than having a negative reaction and behavior directed towards the victim (CITE THIS). This study seeks to discover that relationship and find which is truly more harmful to a victim’s psychological well-being.
Sexual assault is similar to other traumas because enduring the trauma of a sexual assault can change a victim’s life and how they think of themselves (Edwards 2007). Their beliefs about themselves and the world can change dramatically. During an assault, the victim may experience immense amounts of fear and terror, as well as dissociation and fears of death (Edwards 2007). These fears can continue to have an impact on the victim and psychological symptoms sometimes begin to appear as a result of the assault. These symptoms include shock, denial, confusion, post traumatic stress, suicidal ideation or attempts, self blame, self harm, and low self-esteem (Edwards 2007). This is related to Stress and Coping Theory, which is defined as the coping and support following a traumatic or stressful life event and how they interact with each other and influence mental health outcomes (Ullman ; Relyea 2016). Kaukinen and DeMaris reported that post traumatic stress symptoms and major depressive episodes are more strongly associated with sexual assault than any other kinds of trauma and victimization (2009). These symptoms can ultimately impact the relationships that the victim has with others, whether it’s their family, friends, a significant other, or the world as a whole (Edwards 2007). If the relationships are impacted negatively, that in turn, can affect the quality of the support provided from those relationships (Billette, Gyay, & Marchand 2008). More specifically, sexual assault committed by a stranger seems to impact the victim in the long term by heightening fear and anxiety associated with strangers and potentially leading to depression (Kaukinen & DeMaris 2009). Sexual violence is also associated with a higher risk of maladaptive behaviors, particularly in minorities. These behaviors include substance abuse, problem drinking, and illegal drug use (Kaukinen & DeMaris 2009).
Even after the assault, victims often cope with the reactions of formal or informal support following disclosure. Victims of sexual assault disclose to an average of three people, and 65%-92% disclose to at least one person (Ahrens & Aldana 2012). Formal support include police, counselors, social services agencies, and clergy (Matthews 2013). Formal support is typically disclosed to when reporting the sexual assault, getting professional help, and receiving medical treatment. The informal support network is disclosed to much more frequently, and most typically, first (Taylor & Norma 2013). The informal support network includes family, significant others, and friends. These people do not work with victims of sexual assault professionally, but are relied on emotionally by the victim. Reactions from the informal support providers can vary, and are difficult to control. Those who haven’t experienced this kind of disclosure may be taken by surprise and unintentionally react in a way that is perceived as negative due to shock or anger. The likelihood of a formal disclosure often depends on the reaction from the informal support network. If a victim receives a negative reaction, reporting is much less likely to occur.
Taylor and Norma examined the barriers to disclosing due to family (2013). In this study, unsympathetic families tended to blame the victim of the assault by claiming that they brought it upon themselves. This had a direct impact on reporting. Unsupportive family can play a “gatekeeping” role in preventing victims from getting mental and medical help, as well as reporting to formal support (Edwards, Higgens, ; Zmijewski 2007). Many of the victims feared causing trouble for their family from reporting, and ultimately receiving rejection by them (Taylor ; Norma 2013). Some experienced outward hostility from their families, especially when the assault was perpetrated by a family member. Disclosing to formal support in this case could even lead to homelessness by family members who support the victim financially and wish to silence the victim (Taylor ; Norma 2013).
Another question that research has attempted to explain is to whom the victim decides to disclose. Orchowski and Gidycz studied a population of college students with this question (2012). College women are at very high risk for sexual victimization, and have been for decades (Orchowski ; Gidycz 2012). Yet, the sexual assault in a college student population is one of the most underreported violent crimes, even when compared to the community population (Orchowski ; Gidycz 2012). Results of this study showed that female college students most often disclosed to a female peer. When the students did disclose to parents, it was found that mothers tended to provide a positive social reaction and made an attempt to offer aid (Morse 2015).
Receiving a negative reaction following a disclosure has been described as a “second injury to victims” by Orchowski and Gidycz (2012). It is important to understand the context in which the victim discloses and receives a response, as different types of responses have been associated with survivor adjustment (Edwards, Higgens, ; Zmijewski 2007). Ahrens and Aldana also claim that research suggests that the type of reactions received by the victim can have a profound impact on their health and well being (2012). Guerette and Caron even report that negative reactions and victim blaming was more harmful than the rape itself (2007). Negative social reactions is defined as assault specific responses to sexual assault disclosure that blame, stigmatize, attempt to control victim, distract, treat differently or demonstrate excessive anger (Orchowski ; Gidycz 2012), (Matthews 2013). These reactions often distract the victim from her own needs, or cause the victim to feel guilt or shame. Even questioning aspects of the assault can imply that the victim should have known better and could have potentially prevented the crime. Questions about whether the victim was drinking and what the victim was wearing can unintentionally provide a negative response (Orchowski ; Gidycz 2012). Friends have been shown to show more positive reactions to disclosure, and family and significant others tend to have a mix of positive and negative reactions (Ahrens ; Aldana 2012). This has been shown to result in worse recovery outcomes (Ahrens ; Aldana 2012).
Not only do negative reactions impact the way a victim feels about the assault and themselves, it has a significant impact on their psychological well-being. Matthews researched the associations between severe symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, problems in adult relationships, and greater somatic and health symptoms (2013). The results demonstrated the relationship between psychological distress experienced by college students as a result of sexual assault and post traumatic psychosocial experiences. These experiences included responses to disclosure and their feelings of shame following the assault (Matthews 2013).
Matthews defines positive support reactions as providing emotional support and tangible aid (2013). Edwards Higgens and Zmijewski also include believing the victim and listening to them (2007). Littleton reports that social support potentially promotes feelings of self-worth, well-being, and efficacy (2010). Research by Littleton has found that how social support was perceived was related to victim’s perceptions of self-worth following a trauma, and is also weakly related to other cognitions (2010). Littleton’s results specifically suggest that there is a possibility that social support may not be directly related to the development of psychological symptoms, but may be mediators and moderators of coping and cognitions related to the sexual assault (2010).
Ahrens and Aldana specifically researched the impact of social relationships and disclosure in friends, family, and significant others (2012). Results of this study indicated that more than half of relationships stayed strong even after disclosure, and in some cases, the relationships were even stronger following the disclosure (Ahrens ; Aldana 2012). Though some relationships had this effect, many others declined or remained poor. The results suggested that victims who received positive reactions almost always already had a close relationship with the support provider before the disclosure occurred, and the reaction to disclosure was also positive (Ahrens ; Aldana 2012). In contrast, those who received negative reactions to disclosure almost always had a friendly or poor relationship with the support provider before the disclosure (Ahrens ; Aldana 2012). Both of these outcomes seemed to be related to the quality of the relationship before the disclosure, and how the victims perceived the reactions to the disclosure (Ahrens ; Aldana 2012).
Another study by O’Callaghan, Lorenz, Ullman, and Kirkner found that 71% of significant others, 44% of family members, and 36% of friends experienced relationship problems following a disclosure (2018). Research also suggests that females who have experienced victimization themselves are more likely to react positively when they are disclosed to (O’Callaghan, Lorenz, Ullman, ; Kirkner 2018). These results indicate that the relationship prior to the disclosure can determine what type of reaction is received and how they are interpreted.
The social negativity hypothesis states that negative interactions have a stronger impact on adjustment than positive interactions because of the tendency for individuals to give negative interactions more weight in their judgements (Littleton 2010). Negative reactions are more likely to cause a strong emotional reaction in the victim, which will have more of an impact that positive reactions would (Littleton 2010). Billette, Gyay, and Marchand conducted a study in which the researchers intentionally improved spousal support in an attempt to decrease maladaptive psychological symptoms (2008). Marriage problems are commonly reported after an assault has occurred, but the relationship with a spouse is one that is relied on heavily for support after a traumatic sexual assault. Symptoms were effectively decreased in the sample as support from the spouse increased (Billette, Gyay, ; Marchand 2008).
Though many reactions are well-intentioned, the way they are perceived by the victim decides whether the reaction was positive or negative. For example, when a informal supporter encourages secrecy or behaves in a patronizing way, the victim may take this negatively even if it wasn’t meant that way (Ahrens & Aldana 2012). Alternatively, if the victim receives a mixture of positive and negative reactions, the negative reactions are typically interpreted as being more positive when they come from support providers whose relationship is described as being close (Ahrens & Aldana 2012). This indicates that reactions may be interpreted differently depending on the relationship between the victim and support provider prior to the disclosure.
It can be extremely stressful for a victim of sexual assault to disclose to informal support provider. Often, anticipating the reactions can delay the disclosure. The prevalence of rape myths are important when disclosing an assault. Unlike in other violent crimes, victims of sexual assault are subject to rape myths and stereotypical beliefs, and blamed if the assault does not fit in with what “real rape” is believed to be (Billette, Gyay, & Marchand 2008). Morse defines the view of “real rape” as a sexual assault by a stranger threatening the victim with a weapon or by brute force (2015). Characteristics of the crime based on the “real rape” belief can impact the disclosure of the assault, as well as the reaction to the disclosure (Morse 2015). One characteristic is the relationship with the assailant (Smith & Cook 2008). Other factors include when the assault resulted in injury or emotional distress, low self blame, and completion of the assault (Smith & Cook 2008). Another characteristic unrelated to the “real rape” myth is prior victimization. If the victim of the assault has been victimized before, they are more likely to report an assault (Morse 2015). Research supports this idea in general, except when the victim engages in problem drinking (Ullman & Starzynski 2008). In the population of problem drinkers who have experienced sexual assault, the more previous assaults, the less likely of formal reporting, possibly as a result of stigmatization (Ullman & Starzynski 2008).
When the assailant is a friend, acquaintance, or family member, the victim is more likely to feel self blame, and believe that the assault wasn’t really an assault (Smith ; Cook 2008). Reports of assaults by someone the victim was dating are even more rare, and in Guerette and Caron’s study, none reported (2007). Further, there are implications that the closer the relationship between the victim and perpetrator, the less likely that the assault will be reported. Even in these cases, victim’s still told an informal support provider about the assault (Guerette ; Caron 2007).
While stereotypical beliefs indicate that sexual assault almost always perpetrated by a stranger, 9 in 10 offenders are known to the victim prior to the assault (Guerette ; Caron 2007). This has negative implications considering most sexual assault victims do not disclose the attack, and many don’t even consider it to be sexual assault. Confusion often occurs in instances of acquaintance rape, and it can be difficult for a victim to perceive themselves in such a way when the perpetrator of the assault acts as if nothing unusual has occurred (Smith & Cook 2008). When victims view what happened as a crime and disclose, informal support providers are less likely to believe and sympathize with the victim when the perpetrator was known to them before the attack occurred (Guerette & Caron 2007).
Confusion about whether the event that occurred was an assault is common. Particularly, women who haven’t had frank discussions about sex and sexuality with parents in their adolescence may not know the boundaries of consensual sex and sexual assault when the line is blurred (Morse 2015). Previous research has suggested that girls who grew up with suppressed messages about sexuality were less likely to disclose to parents (Smith ; Cook 2008). This implies that the treatment of the topic of sex can give an adolescent the impression that it is inappropriate to discuss, and this belief would potentially carry over into the topic of sexual assault as well (Smith ; Cook 2008). High rates of parents report feeling uncomfortable having even the most basic of conversations on the subject of sex with their children, over half report avoiding the topic completely (Smith ; Cook 2008). Other possibilities for avoiding disclosure to parents as well. Adolescents may not feel close to their parents, fear an alarming reaction, fear getting into trouble, other in the family finding out, and wanting to forget that the event even happened (Smith ; Cook 2008). This can be especially detrimental to an adolescent’s psychological well-being, as research indicates that early disclosure of sexual assault is related to a reduction of risk for the development of post traumatic stress symptoms and major depressive symptoms. A decreased risk of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is also related (Matthews 2013).
Previous discussions of college age sexual assault also included a past of adolescent sexual assault. Research shows that, like college students, adolescents tend to disclose the assault to their peers first, and seek emotional support and validation (Fehler-Cabral & Campbell 2013). This is the typically the case, unless the victim sustained an injury from the sexual assault. In this situation, an adolescent is more likely to disclose to an adult (Smith & Cook 2008). Adolescents tend to decide their initial support provider by someone they think has the most experience with their problem (Smith & Cook 2008). Peers often encouraged the adolescent victims to disclose to their parents, so they could get services and medical treatment, and potentially report the assault as well. Having control of the situation is important for survivors in general, but when it comes to adolescent victims, guidance is often necessary from a parent or guardian in order to make difficult decisions (Fehler-Cabral & Campbell 2013). Support from peers in adolescence has been found to be even more critical than in adulthood, especially when risky behaviors occurred before the assault, such as drinking (Fehler-Cabral & Campbell 2013). Even so, disclosure is difficult for adolescent victims because, like women in the community, they also frequently receive both harmful and helpful responses from their support providers. Fortunately, peers serve as a buffer, and pathway, to disclosing the assault to parents and getting formal support as well as informal (Fehler-Cabral & Campbell 2013). Female peers in particular have been shown to be most helpful in providing emotional support in adolescents. Female peers also appear to help the victim maintain daily living activities while coping simultaneously (Orchowski & Gidycz 2012). Alternatively, male peers tended to show more egocentric responses (Orchowski & Gidycz 2012). These responses are typically interpreted as a negative response by the victim.
There are many strengths in this field of research, as well as limitations. The majority of the research is done with very small samples, and is exploratory in nature. The research is also primarily cross-sectional. Few longitudinal studies have been done, and the study by Ullman and Relyea only had a duration of three years (2016). Few of the samples were ethnically diverse, many of the studies’ samples primarily consisted of Euro-Americans (Littleton 2010). Another limitation that greatly affects this area of research is the voluntariness of samples. Victims of sexual assault who have not disclosed to anyone are not included, because they were not willing to come forward and participate. Victims of sexual assault that haven’t come to terms with their assault are also not included, as well as those who do not believe that they were assaulted. Some of those who experienced shame and self-blame would not be willing to come forward and speak out as well. All of the data came directly from the victim of sexual assault, which relies on self-report. All of the information comes from the victim’s point of view, and is also subject to memory bias (Ahrens ; Aldana 2012). There is caution when generalizing these results to the general population of women who have experienced sexual assault. One strength of this area of research is that many of the women that did come forward shared that they were willing to discuss the uncomfortable and traumatizing topic because of their desire to help other women who have experienced the same trauma (Morse 2015).