A Model of Vulnerability for Adult Sexual Victimization: The Impact of Attachment, Child Maltreatment, and Scarred Sexuality

Article excerpt

Extending previous research, this study utilized structural equation modeling to examine the effects of poor mother/child attachment, child neglect, juvenile sexual victimization (JSV), and Finkelhor and Browne's (1985) proposed construct of traumatic sexualization on vulnerability to adult sexual victimization. The proposed model was assessed using data drawn from a sample of African American females involved in a prospective study of child sexual abuse survivors. This group was matched to similar others without such history. Findings suggest that child neglect worsens with poor mother/child attachment, resulting in a greater likelihood of JSV. Both neglect and JSV impact shaming sexual beliefs and behaviors, contributing to the risk for adult sexual victimization. This set of variables accounted for 27% of variance in adult sexual victimization.

Keywords: sexual abuse; traumatic sexualization; shame; revictimization

Sexual victimization has one of the highest repeat victimization rates of all types of crime, with a history of juvenile sexual victimization (JSV) placing individuals at higher risk for adult sexual victimization relative to nonvictims (for review, see Classen, Palesh, & Aggarwal, 2005). The current study explores the mechanisms driving this elevated risk of sexual revictimization. Assessing the dynamics that lead to heightened vulnerability is an important precursor to providing effective interventions to avert further victimization. The present study uses structural equation modeling (SEM) to extend previous research by examining the effects of familial risk factors, JSV, and Finkelhor and Browne's (1985) construct of traumatic sexualization on vulnerability for adult sexual victimization. The use of SEM rather than a single equation model makes it possible to provide extended specification of key mechanisms by not only identifying key risk markers but also by examining their antecedent and consequent interrelations.


The underlying mechanism, whether psychological, ecological, or behavioral, that aligns against victims to elevate their risk for further harm is not sufficiently understood (for reviews, see Arata, 2002; Classen et al., 2005; Messman-Moore & Long, 2003). The damage of revictimization, however, has been empirically documented. It is frequently associated with increased posttraumatic stress symptoms, greater shame and self-blame for the abuse, using drugs and alcohol to cope, sexually acting out, isolating from others, and difficulty with affect regulation (Classen et al., 2005; Filipas & Ullman, 2006; Messman-Moore, Long, & Siegfried, 2000; Miner, Klotz-Flitter, & Robinson, 2006). Classen et al. (2005) concluded that cumulative trauma (e.g., physical abuse, witnessing domestic violence, or emotional abuse coupled with childhood sexual abuse [CSA]) increases the likelihood of sexual revictimization. Based on information gathered with the Juvenile Victimization Questionnaire, Finkelhor, Ormrod, Turner, and Hamby (2005) found that experiencing multiple victimizations within one year is the norm for victimized children. According to Finkelhor, Ormond, and Turner (2007), the clustering of juvenile victimizations most likely has multiple explanations, including the impact of prior victimizations on later vulnerability. Findings from Finkelhor et al. (2007) suggest that child maltreatment and sexual abuse could serve as "gateway" victimizations, leaving a child highly susceptible to similar future experiences.

Family Functioning

Theorists and empirical researchers, seeking to identify risk factors for sexual abuse, have examined the effects of family functioning to determine which conditions result in greater maladjustment in victims of abuse and/or lead to increased rates of revictimization (for review, see Merrill, Thomsen, Sinclair, Gold, & Milner, 2001). Researchers have found that the long-term detrimental effects of sexual abuse are better explained by familyrelated conflict, decreased cohesion, and reduced family support than by the severity of the sexual abuse (Classen et al. …