The Effects of Sexual Assault on the Identity Development of Black College Women

By Henry, Wilma J. | Michigan Journal of Counseling, Fall-Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Effects of Sexual Assault on the Identity Development of Black College Women


Henry, Wilma J., Michigan Journal of Counseling


Colleges and universities remain settings where women are particularly at risk for experiencing all forms of unwanted sexual activity, namely, sexual assault (Cass, 2007). While there are different types of sexual assault--acquaintance rape, date rape, stranger rape, party rape, and gang rape, most rape occurs with individuals who have had some form of association or contact with the perpetrator prior to the incident of assault (Armstrong, Hamilton, Sweeney, 2006; Morway, 2006). Research indicates that there are factors influencing the risks for sexual assault among college women (Cass). Close quarters in residence halls, as well as the social interaction created from involvement in student organizations, such as Greek life, may further contribute to sexual pressure, which has been referred to as "a common element of college life" (Adams-Curtis & Forbes, 2004, p. 94). Young college-aged women may also find themselves at a greater risk for sexual assault than older or married female college students given the fact the former group is typically single, often new to the university environment and adjusting to college life (Fisher, Daigle, Cullen & Turner, 2003).

It is uncertain whether women of color are more or less vulnerable than White women to experiencing sexual assault during their college years (Cass; Fisher et al.; Gross, Winslett, Roberts, & Gohm, 2006). It is clear however, that a void exists in the literature regarding sexual assault incidents suffered by Black women as a specific population (Long, Ullman, Starzynski, Long, & Mason, 2007; West & Rose, 2000). According to a longitudinal study of a mostly White survey sample by Smith, White, and Holland (2003), 88% of women were sexually assaulted at one point from early adolescence through the end of college. Most sexual assault studies focus on White women and most rape incidents are intraracial (George & Martinez, 2002; West & Rose, 2000). Consequently, the effects of sexual assault on the identity development of Black female victims in the general population, as well as those in college, are largely unknown.

The compounding and devastating effects of racism, sexism, and sexual assault, which Black female rape victims encounter, are particularly damaging to their identity development. The purpose of this article is to explore the psychosocial effects of sexual assault and its impact on the identity development of Black college women. Helms' (1990) Womanist Identity Development theory and Cross' (1978) Black Racial Identity Development theory are used as the theoretical framework in contextualizing the influence of race and gender on the formation of self-identity among Black victims of sexual abuse.

Theoretical Framework

Cross' (1978) Black Racial Identity Development model illuminates the process by which Black women progress from a stereotypical, externally based identity to an internally based racial identity. In other words, Blacks move through a series of stages whereby they increasingly understand and positively embrace their race. The individual begins in the Pre-encounter stage, in which she does not call racist attitudes into question, but instead accepts negative social stereotypes. The initial questioning occurs during Encounter, which is the second stage. The Immersion-Emersion stage initially marks the critical reevaluation of Eurocentrism and the strong preference for anything representative of Black culture. The later part of this stage (Emersion) is not as "reactionary" as the first part (Immersion), yet it maintains the strong appreciation of all that Black culture entails (Cross). Once Black women enter the Internalization stage they begin to interpret the world in a broader way; they embrace, rather than idealize their racial identity (Cross). During this final stage, reaching out to the Black community is actively valued along with embracing an appreciation for Black culture in the larger society (Boisnier, 2003). …

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