Sexual Aggression by an Acquaintance: Methods of Coping and Later Psychological Adjustment

Article excerpt

The main purpose of the present study was to determine if methods of coping with sexual aggression by acquaintances were associated with psychological adjustment beyond what could be predicted by characteristics of the attack itself and beyond what could be predicted by methods of coping used to deal with other stressors. Out of 401 undergraduate women respondents (mean age = 19), 106 or 26% had been victims of sexual aggression by an acquaintance since the age of 16. Two years on average after the assault, these women reported more psychological problems on the Brief Symptom Inventory (Derogatis & Spencer, 1982) than a comparison group who had not been assaulted since age 16. Respondents who had survived sexual aggression were asked to indicate on the Coping Strategies Inventory the methods they had used to cope with this experience and the methods they had used to cope with a separate nonsexual stressful event which also had occurred since age 16. Multiple regression analyses indicated that disengagement methods of coping with sexual aggression per se accounted for unique variance in general psychological distress as measured by the Global Severity Index of the Brief Symptom Inventory and in posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms as measured by a DSM-III-R derived checklist.

Although studies suggest that approximately 25% of female undergraduate students in the United States have experienced sexual aggression by dates and other male acquaintances (Kilpatrick & Kanin, 1957; Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987), relatively little research has been addressed to the lasting negative psychological effects of these experiences. Instead, most of the studies on the effects of sexual aggression have involved samples of women who have sought help at clinics and rape crises centers and who in the majority of cases were attacked by strangers (cf., Atkeson, Calhoun, Resick, & Ellis, 1982; Burgess & Holmstrom, 1979; Meyer & Taylor, 1986). Studies of college samples and general community samples, however, indicate that by far the most common sexual aggression experiences are those perpetrated by close acquaintances (Koss, Koss, & Woodruff, 1990; Russell, 1984). These are also the types of sexual aggression least likely to be reported to authorities (Koss, Dinero, Siebel, & Cox, 1988). For example, Koss (1988) found that fewer than 5% of a national sample of college student rape victims reported the incident to the police or went to rape crisis centers.

Although only a small minority of sexual aggression incidents by acquaintances are reported, this should not be taken to suggest that these experiences are any less traumatic than sexual aggression by strangers. In clinical samples, the psychological effects of acquaintance rape are usually as negative as stranger rape (e.g., Atkeson, Calhoun, Resick, & Ellis, 1982; Becker, Skinner, Abel, & Tracy, 1982; Frank, Turner, & Stewart, 1980), although this is not always the case, especially if degree of violence is not controlled for (e.g., Ellis, Atkeson, & Calhoun, 1981). In nonclinical samples also, the negative long-term psychological effects of sexual aggression by acquaintances and strangers have been observed to be equivalent. In cases of completed rape drawn from a random community sample, Kilpatrick, Best, Saunders, & Veronen (1988) found that just as many women who were raped by husbands and dates as by strangers thought they might be killed or seriously injured during the assault. The number of women who were experiencing mental health problems 18 to 30 months after the rape was also equivalent in the two groups and significantly greater than in a comparison group of nonvictims. In a national sample of female college students, Koss et al. (1988) similarly found that symptoms of depression, anxiety, relationship dissatisfaction, and sexual dissatisfaction were the same in victims of sexual aggression by an acquaintance and a stranger. …