Do Social Reactions to Sexual Assault Victims Vary by Support Provider?

Article excerpt

The present study investigated whether the type of social reaction(s) experienced by sexual assault victims varies according to the type of social support provider told about the assault in a convenience sample of victims (N = 155) completing a mail survey. Both closed-ended data and open-ended written responses were analyzed to determine the types of social reactions victims experienced from a variety of informal and formal support providers. Tangible aid/information support was reported more often from women disclosing to rape crisis centers, police, and physicians, whereas emotional support/validation was commonly reported by those telling rape crisis centers. Being blamed, treated differently, distracted, and discouraged from talking about the assault were more common responses for women telling physicians or police. Analyses exploring whether the impact of social reactions on victim adjustment varied according to support provider type showed that, as hypothesized, emotional support from friends was related to better recovery than emotional support from other support sources. However, contrary to expectation, the impact of victim blame on adjustment did not vary according to type of support provider. Implications for research on social support and clinical treatment of sexual assault victims are discussed.

Research has consistently shown that negative social interactions are commonly experienced by persons experiencing stressful life events from social network members (Herbert & Dunkel-Schetter, 1992; Lakey, Tardiff, & Drew, 1994). Although experimental studies suggest that disclosing traumatic experiences has beneficial psychological and physical health consequences (Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988), whether disclosure is helpful to people experiencing life events depends on the reactions of recipients to the disclosure. Social support researchers have consistently noted that negative social reactions/ interactions have strong negative effects on psychological symptomatology, whereas supportive responses have either a weak positive or nonsignificant effect on adjustment (Fiore, Becker, & Coppel, 1983; Rook, 1984; Sandier & Barrera, 1984; Schuster, Kessler, & Aseltine, 1990). In order for supportive interventions to effectively assist stressed populations, efforts are also needed to reduce negative social reactions to victims.

Although social reactions may overlap to some extent with supportive or unsupportive behaviors, they also encompass specific behaviors (e.g., distancing oneself from the victim, treating the victim differently) that are not captured in traditional measures of social support and may be event specific. In their review of the literature on social reactions to victims, Herbert and Dunkel-Schetter (1992) explained that negative social reactions toward victims can occur either intentionally (e.g., victim blame) or arise from ineffective support attempts by support providers. Support attempts are actions engaged in by support providers which can be helpful or unhelpful to victims. For instance, a support provider may intend to be helpful to a victim by "trying to cheer her up," however, this support attempt may be perceived as unhelpful if, for instance, the victim is mourning the loss of a spouse (see Wortman and Lehman, 1985, for a review of studies and discussion of ineffective support attempts). Recent research suggests that negative social interactions (which overlap with the present conceptualization of negative social reactions) are unrelated to perceived or enacted social support, but predictive of increased psychological symptomatology (Lakey, Tardiff, & Drew, 1994; Turner, 1994). Therefore, negative social reactions deserve further scrutiny, in addition to presence or absence of social support, in research on recovery from rape.

Researchers have suggested that both the effects of social support and negative social interactions each may depend on the particular support provider making the response (Dunkel- Schetter, 1984; Schwarzer, Dunkel-Schetter, & Kemeny, 1994). …