Victim-Offender Relationship and Sexual Assault

By Ullman, Sarah E.; Siegel, Judith M. | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1993 | Go to article overview

Victim-Offender Relationship and Sexual Assault


Ullman, Sarah E., Siegel, Judith M., Violence and Victims


The effect of the victim-offender sexual assault relationship on women's psychological symptomatology was examined in a randomized community survey. Fourteen and one-half percent of women (N = 240) experienced a sexual assault in adulthood. Assaults committed by strangers, acquaintances, and intimates were compared using both chi-square and two-way analyses of variance. Few differences were found in sexual assault experiences according to the victim-offender relationship. Offender use of violence showed a curvilinear relationship with degree of closeness of the victim-offender relationship, whereas victim resistance did not vary according to the victim-offender relationship. Analyses of psychological symptom measures showed that sexual distress was more common for women attacked by intimates, fear/anxiety was more common for women assaulted by strangers, and depression did not vary according to the victim-offender relationship.

Recent research from college student populations and community surveys shows that approximately two-thirds to 80% of all rapes are committed by assailants known to their victims (Koss, Dinero, Seibel, & Cox, 1988; Russell, 1984). An important and understudied question concerns whether the sexual assault outcome and post-assault symptoms experienced by victims vary according to the victim-offender relationship. Some past studies have indicated that post-rape symptoms do differ according to the victim's relationship to the offender. Stranger rape has been found to be related to greater depression and fear than is rape by known offenders (Ellis, Atkeson, & Calhoun, 1981). Attack by a known assailant has been shown to be related to sexual dysfunction (Becker, Skinner, Abel, Axelrod, & Cichon, 1984).

Most of the previous studies of the victim-offender relationship have compared assaults by strangers to those by known offenders, without investigating differences among known offenders (e.g., acquaintances, intimates). In the only large-scale study to date that has systematically explored the psychological effects of women's sexual assault experiences by different perpetrators, Koss et al. (1988) reported few differences in college women's sexual assault experiences according to their relationship to the offender. Women reported that attacks by strangers and intimates were more violent than those by acquaintances. The likelihood of women's resistance did not differ as a function of their relationship to the offender, but women who knew their assailants were less likely to yell or flee. Victims of strangers were more likely to tell someone about the assault, seek crisis services, and talk to the police. Rape survivors showed no differences, however, in psychological symptoms of depression or state anxiety according to their relationship to the offender, although all victims were elevated on these measures compared to population norms for non-sexually assaulted women.

The present study examined data on the sexual assault victim-offender relationship from a community-based sample of adult women. The reliance of previous research on samples of help-seeking individuals or on assaults reported to either the police or rape crisis centers (Becker et al., 1984; Ellis et al., 1981; Sales, Baum, & Shore, 1984) has oversampled from assaults by strangers, since these are the assaults most likely to be reported. Studies of college women have eliminated some of the oversampling concerns, but have introduced other biases in terms of restricted age and educational characteristics of the sample. Our data allowed an exploration of whether characteristics of the victim, circumstances of the assault, or the assault outcome varied as a function of the victim-offender relationship in a sample of community-dwelling women who were not selected on the basis of seeking assault-related services or reporting assaults to the police.

The purpose of the present study was to determine whether distinct psychological symptoms are reported by women sexually assaulted by different perpetrators in a representative community sample. …

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