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«Thomas J. Charron President Roger Floren Chief of Staff Jennifer Gentile Long Director, National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women ...»

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National District Attorneys Association

American Prosecutors Research Institute

99 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 510

Alexandria,VA 22314


Thomas J. Charron


Roger Floren

Chief of Staff

Jennifer Gentile Long

Director, National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women

David LaBahn

Director, NDAA Research and Development Division

2007 by the American Prosecutors Research Institute, the research and development division of

the National District Attorneys Association.

This project was supported by Grant No. 2004-WT-AX-K047, awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, Office of Justice Programs, United States Department of Justice.This information is offered for educational purposes only and is not legal advice.The points of view, opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Office on Violence Against Women, the U.S.

Department of Justice, or the National District Attorneys Association and the American Prosecutors Research Institute.


Victim Responses

to Sexual Assault:

Counterintuitive or Simply Adaptive?

August 2007 Patricia L. Fanflik


OF 1 Introduction 3 Coping with Sexual Victimization Physical Reactions Emotional Reactions 7 Explaining Variability in Victim Responses Macro Level Influences on Coping Micro Level Influences on Coping Internalization/Externalization: Psychological/ Behavioral Reactions and the Effects on Coping Coping Strategies after Sexual Victimization 17 Rape Myth Acceptance 21 Conclusion 23 References 28 About the Author iii N DA A


Rape and other forms of sexual victimization are considered among the most severe and underreported crimes in the United States (Layman, Gidycz, & Lynn, 1996; Lee, Pomeroy, & Rheinboldt, 2005; Sable, Danis, Mavzy, & Gallagher, 2006).The occurrence of rape is a pervasive social problem with lasting effects for victims (Castello, Coomer, Stillwell, & Cate, 2006; Jimenez & Abreu, 2003; Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994; McMullin & White, 2006). Griffin (1971) distinguished rape as the “all-American crime,” positing “forcible rape is the most frequently committed violent crime in America…” (p. 27). Unfortunately, there is statistical evidence to suggest that most rapes in the United States go unpunished (Sinclair & Bourne, 1998).According to the National Violence Against Women Survey, 17.6 percent of adult women experienced a completed or attempted rape during a lifetime (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).As victims often do not report sexual assaults, there is no accurate method to identify the number of rapes or other sexual offenses occurring each year (McGregor, 2005).Among the first to examine victim behavior following an assault, Burt (1980) contends that the underreporting of these crimes is not surprising given that victims are often re-victimized when they are forced to endure the investigation of allegations and subsequent prosecution of the perpetrator. Societal attitudes toward sexual violence and victims of sexual assault may also influence not only reporting of such crimes but may have an impact on victims’ psychological states after the sexual assaults (Lee et al., 2005;Withey, 2007).

Despite legal reform, educational efforts, and the increased public attention sexual violence has garnered in the last three decades, little is known regarding the initial and possible lasting effects rape and other forms of sexual violence can have on a woman’s psychological adjustment to the experience (Sable et al., 2006;Wyatt, Notgrass, & Newcomb, 1990).There is research to suggest that the effects of sexual violence differ from other violent crimes in terms of psychological impact on a victim and societal reactions to the event (Frese, Moya, & Megias, 2004; Meyer & Taylor, 1986; Starzynski, Ullman, Filipas, & Townsend, 2005). Sexual victimization,“unlike other crimes, involves not only victimization but also attitudes toward sex-role behavior and sexuality.Therefore, … attitudes N DA A


TO toward traditional sex roles might influence … perceptions and attitudes about the crime of rape” (Olsen-Fulero & Fulero, 1997, p. 407).The victim’s personal characteristics coupled with multiple external factors make it virtually impossible to predict how an individual might react following a sexual assault. As such, this monograph will explore different psychological (e.g., depression, anger, or anxiety) and behavioral responses (e.g., not fighting back during a rape, continuing to date an assailant, or not reporting the sexual assault until months later) to sexual violence and why these responses appear to be “counterintuitive” to the general public.The term “counterintuitive” is used to explain how a juror may perceive a victim’s behavior and not the behavior itself. For local and state prosecutors involved in sexual assault cases, it is important to remember that labeling these certain victim behaviors for members of a jury as “counterintuitive” reinforces the notion that there is an appropriate or “normal” way to behave after a sexual assault and that anything outside the realm of a presupposed reaction is somehow inappropriate or abnormal.

2 N A T I O N A L D I S T R I C T AT T O R N E Y S A S S O C I A T I O N



Sexual assault victims frequently experience negative and often longterm psychological and physical consequences following the event (Castello et al., 2006; Kaltman, Krupnick, Stockton, Hooper, & Green, 2005;White Kress,Trippany, & Nolan, 2003; Littleton & Radecki Breitkopf, 2006; Meyer & Taylor, 1986; Sturza & Campbell, 2005).

McGregor (2005) contends that women often try to cope with sexual assault without assistance out of fear that the criminal justice system will not believe the victim or blame the victim for the assault (i.e., she was responsible for what happened and therefore could have controlled it). In the last three decades, an emphasis on legal reform has helped to reduce psychological and system barriers that traditionally discouraged victims of sexual assault from reporting (Sable et al., 2006). Public education focusing on rape awareness assisted victims by highlighting the perpetrator’s behavior and not the behavior of the victim.The movement in supporting victims of sexual victimization was also strengthened by legal reform to extend the definitions of rape and sexual assault. In most states, sexual victimization laws are now gender and relationship neutral (Sable et al., 2006). Despite changes in public attitudes and legal reform, victims still face obstacles in coming forward to report crimes of sexual victimization. Gaines (1997) notes, it is easier to augment or change laws than it is to change prejudices. Studies exploring the dynamics surrounding sexual assault victims suggest that “something unique about how society perceives sexual assault may lead people to make negative responses to women disclosing these experiences” (Starzynski et al., 2005, p. 418).The intensity of psychological trauma for a victim may vary according to how society reacts to the victim (Lee et al., 2005). As a result, victims often strive to cope with the experience of sexual victimization without legal, medical, or mental health support (Wyatt, et al., 1990).

Although many victims report distinctive psychological post-rape responses such as heightened fear, avoidance, re-experiencing the traumatic event, and anxious arousal, not all victims will have these specific post-rape reactions. Of those that do experience these reactions the frequency and duration may vary considerably from victim to victim (Foa & Riggs, 1995;



TO Frazier, 1990;Valentiner, Foa, Riggs, Gershuny, 1996;Wyatt, et al., 1990).

However,White Kress and colleagues (2003) argue that it is important to identify and assess the severity of reactions to sexual victimization as this process can ultimately assist in determining an appropriate intervention path toward recovery for victims. As a result, Levin (2004) compiled a list of common physical and emotional responses to trauma.These physical

and emotional reactions include:

Physical Reactions

• Aches and pains like head, back, and/or stomach aches

• Sudden sweating and/or heart palpitations (fluttering)

• Changes in sleep patterns, appetite, interest in sex

• Constipation or diarrhea

• Easily startled by noises or unexpected touch

• More susceptible to colds or illnesses

• Increased use in alcohol or other drugs and/or overeating

Emotional Reactions

• Shock and/or disbelief

• Fear and/or anxiety

• Grief, disorientation, denial

• Hyper-alertness or vigilance

• Irritability, restlessness, outbursts of anger or rage

• Emotional mood swings (e.g., crying then laughing)

• Worrying or ruminating (i.e., intrusive thoughts of the trauma)

• Nightmares

• Flashbacks (i.e., feeling as if the trauma is currently happening)

• Feelings of helplessness, panic, feeling out of control

• Increased need to control everyday experiences

• Minimizing the experience

• Attempts to avoid anything associated with the trauma

• Tendency to isolate oneself

• Feelings of detachment

• Concern with burdening others with problems

• Emotional numbing or restricted range of feelings

4 N A T I O N A L D I S T R I C T AT T O R N E Y S A S S O C I A T I O N



• Difficulty trusting and/or feelings of betrayal

• Difficulty concentrating or remembering

• Feelings of self-blame and/or guilt

• Shame

• Diminished interest in everyday activities or depression

• Unpleasant past memories resurfacing

• Loss of a sense of order or fairness in the world; expectation of doom and fear of the future Although it is important to identify common reactions to a traumatic event, “there is tremendous variability in the extent to which women are affected” (Frazier, 2000, p. 204). Different psychological responses manifest different behavioral patterns or coping strategies for each survivor of sexual assault. In addition, external factors such as victim social support network, severity of the assault, or a victim’s relationship to the assailant may also have an impact on a victim’s psychological functioning after a sexual assault (Littleton & Radecki Breitkopf, 2006;Wyatt, et al., 1990).

A complex combination of individual characteristics and external factors influence how a woman will react to sexual victimization.




Littleton and colleagues (2006) report that sexual assault victims engage in “fairly extensive coping efforts in managing the assault” (p. 770).Yet, there is a paucity of research that explores what factors curtail or intensify the most traumatic aspects of sexual victimization (Koss & Burkhart, 1989). Given the number of potential influences on a victim’s response following a sexual assault, no comprehensive model of coping among sexual assault victims exists (Littleton & Radecki Breitkopf, 2006). Frazier and Burnett (1994) surmise that the most common coping strategies for victims are difficult to assess because researchers define and measure “coping” differently across studies.

Factors such as past life experiences, developmental level, spiritual beliefs, social support systems, content and intensity of the event and genetic predisposition may all influence a victim’s reaction to sexual assault (James & Gilliland, 2001; Regehr, Cadell, & Jansen, 1999 as cited in White Kress et al., 2003). In addition, Starzynski and colleagues (2005) found that “women who felt their lives were in danger often developed more severe psychological symptomology like post-traumatic stress disorder…” (p.

429). Figure 1 below represents the multiple factors that can effect how a sexual assault survivor may react or cope with the victimization.

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