Secondary Victimization of Rape Victims: Insights from Mental Health Professionals Who Treat Survivors of Violence

By Campbell, Rebecca; Raja, Sheela | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Secondary Victimization of Rape Victims: Insights from Mental Health Professionals Who Treat Survivors of Violence


Campbell, Rebecca, Raja, Sheela, Violence and Victims


Rape victims may turn to the legal, medical, and mental health systems for assistance, but there is a growing body of literature indicating that many survivors are denied help by these agencies. What help victims do receive often leaves them feeling revictimized. These negative experiences have been termed "the second rape" or "secondary victimization." If indeed secondary victimization occurs, then these issues may be raised in rape survivors' mental health treatment. In the current study, probability sampling was used to survey a representative sample of licensed mental health professionals about the extent to which they believe rape victims are "re-raped" in their interactions with social system personnel. Most therapists believed that some community professionals engage in harmful behaviors that are detrimental to rape survivors' psychological well-being. Implications for future research on secondary victimization are discussed.

Sexual assault has widespread effects on women's psychological and physical health (see Koss, 1993), and as a result, rape victims may contact several community agencies for assistance, such as the legal, medical, and mental health systems (Campbell, 1998). Although a number of agencies offer rape-related services, previous research suggests that rape victims are often denied help, and what help they do receive, often leaves them feeling re-victimized (Campbell, 1998; Campbell & Bybee, 1997; Cluss, Boughton, Frank, Stewart, & West, 1983; Frohmann, 1991, 1997a, 1997b; Heilbrun & Heilbrun, 1986; Konradi 1996; Madigan & Gamble, 1991; Martin, 1997; Martin & DiNitto, 1987; Martin, DiNitto, Maxwell, & Norton, 1985; Martin & Powell, 1994; Matoesian, 1993; McGaughey & Stiles, 1983; Sloan, 1995; Spencer, 1987; Williams, 1984; Williams & Holmes, 1981;Wmkel&Koppelaar, 1991). These negative experiences have been termed "the second rape" (Madigan & Gamble, 1991), "the second assault" (Martin & Powell, 1994), or "secondary victimization" (Williams, 1984). Analysis of these interactions between victims and social systems may uncover ways to promote a community response to rape that is psychologically beneficial to victimized women. Therefore, the focus of this study is to assess the scope and impact of secondary victimization. A state-wide survey of mental health professionals was conducted to ascertain the extent to which secondary victimization is a salient clinical issue for rape survivors.

The Problem of Secondary Victimization

Despite the promise of rape legislative reform in the 1970s and 1980s (see Berger, Searles, & Neuman, 1988), rape victims continue to face difficulties accessing community resources (Campbell, 1998; Martin & Powell, 1994). Using an organizational theoretical framework, Martin and Powell (1994) differentiated between "responsive" and "unresponsive" rape processing. Responsive processing is "practices that prioritize rape victims' well-being in legal (and allied) organizations" (p. 862). Victims' needs are paramount, and every effort is made to avoid victim-blaming and promote recovery. Unfortunately, this model of service delivery is rarely practiced, and instead unresponsive processing is normative. Unresponsive processing places emphasis on the needs of the organization-the police, the prosecutor's office, the hospital. Police and prosecutors are preoccupied with "case wins," so only the rape cases they perceive as likely convictions are actually prosecuted (Frohmann, 1991, 1997a, 1997b). Hospital staff are focused on processing patients quickly, so rape victims receive, at best, bare minimum services (Campbell & Bybee, 1997). In such an unresponsive model of case processing, victims are often blamed for the assault and denied help, which further traumatizes survivors and slows recovery. Martin and Powell (1994) demonstrated that unresponsive treatment stems from institutional practices that orient service organizations to ignore victims' needs. …

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