When female victims of sexual assault seek help, negative social reactions may increase the psychological effects of the crime , according to a University of Illinois at Chicago study.
The study, published in the March issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly, found negative reactions that victims experience when seeking support could lead to avoidance coping, self-blame and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
The findings suggest further public education and professional training are needed to help sexual assault survivors, according to the study's lead researcher.
"Focused interventions with formal support providers and public awareness campaigns may help to change professional responses and community norms to enhance women's recovery from sexual assault," said Sarah Ullman, UIC professor of criminal justice.
Ullman and her colleagues surveyed a diverse group of women age 18 and older who had been sexually assaulted after age 14. The sample of respondents included only women who disclosed the experience to at least one person.
The study indicates that severe sexual assault victims may receive more negative reactions overall when compared to victims of less severe assaults, due to a greater likelihood of disclosure.
Examples of negative reactions to sexual assault victims:
• Questioning the survivor about her behavior prior to or during the assault. Criticizing what she did or how she is coping is also harmful and should be avoided.
• Attempting to distract the survivor (e.g., telling her to get over it or get on with her life).
• Treating the victim differently or acting like she is "damaged goods," ignoring her disclosure, or minimizing the experience.
• Overreacting, or focusing on how the victim's disclosure or the assault is affecting the support provider instead of attending to its impact on the victim.
Ullman says these reactions can be avoided.
"Realize that victims need to be listened to, validated and believed. There is no perfect one right thing to say, but showing caring and concern, offering help if or when needed, and avoiding negative reactions is the best thing to do."