Sexual Victimization in Young, Pregnant and Parenting, African-American Women: Psychological and Social Outcomes

Article excerpt

The influence of sexual victimization on the psychological and social adjustment of 177 pregnant and parenting African Americans was examined. Compared with those who had not been victimized, young women with a history of sexual victimization were more symptomatic, had lower self esteem, and had a more external locus of control than the non-victimized women. In addition, women who were sexually victimized at some time in their lives reported higher levels of economic strain. Victimized young women were less satisfied with their social support than their non-victimized peers. Taken together, these findings suggest that the link between sexual victimization and psychological distress in pregnant and parenting adolescents may be mediated through young women's interpersonal resources.

By early adulthood, many young women in this country experience serious stressors that are likely to influence their lives for years to come. Chief among these experiences are premature childbearing and sexual victimization. In fact, the rate of adolescent childbearing is higher in the United States than in any other industrialized nation (Jones, Forrest, & Goldman, 1986). Each year, approximately one million teenagers become pregnant, and about half of these young women carry their babies to term (Hardy & Zabin, 1991).

Similarly, it has been estimated that over one-third of the female children in this country are sexually abused before they turn 18 (Russell, 1983, 1986; Wyatt, 1985). Such figures refer only to incidents involving physical contact or attempted contact; estimated prevalence rates for child sexual abuse are much higher when other forms of sexual exploitation are included. Prevalence rates for sexual assault in adolescence are also unacceptably high. In their study of entering college students, White & Humphreys (1990) found that a full 29% had been victims of either rape or attempted rape between the ages of 14 and 18. Comparable rates have been documented elsewhere (Koss, Giycz, & Wisniewski, 1987; Wyatt, 1992; Sorenson & Siegel, 1992).

Given the high rates of both early parenting and sexual violence among young women, it is likely that many adolescent mothers are also survivors of sexual victimization. Indeed, several recent studies have documented the prevalence of sexual victimization among young mothers (Boyer & Fine, 1992; Butler & Burton, 1990; Gershenson, Musick, Ruch-Ross, Magee, Rubino, & Rosenberg, 1989). These studies suggest that sexual victimization is at least as common, if not more common (Boyer & Fine, 1992), among adolescent mothers as it is in the general population of adolescent females.

In light of this evidence, researchers are beginning to consider factors that may link sexual victimization with early parenthood. The psychological effects of victimization, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, low self-esteem, and feelings of powerlessness, (Bagley & Ramsey, 1986; Courtois, 1988) are thought to heighten young women's vulnerability to sexually exploitive relationships, placing them at increased risk for early, unplanned pregnancy. Similarly, certain behavioral correlates of sexual victimization, such as later sexual acting out (Briere, 1989; Russell, 1986), have been cited as contributing to victims' risk for pregnancy (Gershensen,etal., 1989).

In addition to considering the possible predisposing factors, researchers are beginning to examine the consequences of sexual victimization for young mothers. Boyer & Fine (1992) compared adolescent mothers who had not been sexually abused with those who had, and found that the latter were more likely to use drugs and alcohol and less likely to practice contraception. Abused young women were also more likely to have early repeat pregnancies, to be single parents, and to be pregnant by different men. Finally, the sexually abused women were nearly three times more likely than their nonabused counterparts to maltreat their children. …