Secondary Victims of Rape

By Christiansen, Dorte; Bak, Rikke et al. | Violence and Victims, March 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Secondary Victims of Rape


Christiansen, Dorte, Bak, Rikke, Elklit, Ask, Violence and Victims


Rape is often a very traumatic experience, which affects not only the primary victim (PV) but also his/her significant others. Studies on secondary victims of rape are few and have almost exclusively studied male partners of female rape victims. This study examined the impact of rape on 107 secondary victims, including family members, partners, and friends of male and female rape victims. We found that many respondents found it difficult to support the PV and that their relationship with the PV was often affected by the assault. Furthermore, the sample showed significant levels of traumatization, and it was estimated that approximately one quarter of the respondents suffered from posttraumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). Degree of traumatization was associated with a more recent assault, higher efforts to support the PV, recurrent thoughts about having been able to prevent the assault, a lack of social support for the respondent, and feeling let down by others. The respondents were generally interested in friend-, family-, and partner-focused interventions, particularly in receiving education about how best to support a rape victim.

Keywords: rape; secondary victims; posttraumatic stress disorder; social support; blame; intervention

It is widely acknowledged that rape is highly stressful for the victim and that the negative consequences may be long lasting. However, less attention has been paid on how rape affects the significant others of the primary victim (PV). Studies on significant others of rape victims have confirmed the view that rape is a shared crisis that affects both the PV and the people who care about him/her, as it produces abrupt changes in the balance of interpersonal relations and family systems (Banyard, Moynihan, Walsh, Cohn, & Ward, 2010; Emm & McKenry, 1988; Feinauer & Hippolite, 1987). Ahrens and Campbell (2000) used victimization perspective theory to explain how friends trying to help a rape victim are affected. According to this theory, friends believe they should help the PV cope with the rape but when their efforts prove ineffective, they feel helpless and frustrated, which puts further strain on them and on their relationship with the PV.

In accordance with Ahrens and Campbell's theory, significant others often find it difficult to know how best to help and support rape victims (Ahrens & Campbell, 2000; Brookings, McEvoy, & Reed, 1994; Remer & Elliott, 1995). Men may be more likely, than women, to feel that their help is ineffective and to be confused about how best to help (Ahrens & Campbell, 2000; Banyard et al., 2010). Such insecurities can result in the secondary victim withdrawing from the PV. Even so, in a study of college students, nearly two thirds of the sample felt that they had provided good support for their sexually assaulted friends (Banyard et al., 2010).

Problems related to communication are often reported as a consequence of rape (Emm & McKenry, 1988; Riggs & Kilpatrick, 1990). For example, both primary and secondary victims may be afraid to say something wrong, they may wish to avoid reminding the other part of the assault, or they may not want to burden the other part with feelings and thoughts related to the rape. Furthermore, following the rape, many secondary victims- particularly males-become extremely protective toward the PV (Brookings et al., 1994; Emm & McKenry, 1988; Gilbert,1998). Although this does not necessarily constitute a problem, overprotective behavior may be experienced as a restraint by the PV and may as a result cause tension in the relationship.

A rape may be especially straining on romantic relationships because many rape victims experience sexual problems as a direct consequence of the rape (Haansbæ k, 2005). The fact that a rape can severely damage romantic relationships is made evident by the fact that 50%-80% of female rape victims lose their boyfriends or husbands in the aftermath of the assault (Orzek, 1983). …

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