The Damaging Effects of Repeated Sexual Victimization
In the realm of sexual assault, we often hear in the media about singular, extreme events of sexual violence. These have a high shock value, and it sends the message that only this type of random, brutal crime leaves psychological scars on its victims.
It's true that one out of five women and one in 100 men report having been violently raped in their lifetime, and this is horrific. But what about the countless instances of other forms of sexual assault and coercion that occur on a daily basis that don't make the papers? According to research, two of every five women and one in every five men report having been repeatedly coerced into sex or having endured unwanted sexual contact on multiple occasions.
We know that rape is associated with mental health problems such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, but we don't know much about the psychological ramifications of being repeatedly sexually assaulted, if not violently raped. That is, until now.
Thankfully, researchers at the University of Missouri - Columbia conducted a thoughtful study of the psychological risks of this kind of under-acknowledged sexual assault. In examining the different kinds of sexual assault, they determined three broad categories: verbal coercion, substance-facilitated assault, and forcible rape.
In short, they determined that those who are repeatedly subjected to unwanted sexual contact and who are regularly coerced into having sex show greater levels of mental health problems that previously realized. Sadly, this kind of perpetual, subtle manipulation can turn into a lifetime of psychological difficulties.
Those who were victimized with a combination of physical and verbal assaultive or coercive behavior, or those who were regularly provided drugs or alcohol to coax them into intercourse, showed lower self-esteem, higher psychological distress, and more sexual risk-taking later in life.
The researchers are hoping that their study helps launch a conversation between parents, teens, and schools about how to prevent sexual assault and coercion by teaching preventive measures and highlighting the importance of consent. They also want to develop strategies to reduce the frequency of all kinds of sexual violence against adolescents, who are often the most vulnerable to this kind of assault. I hope the researchers are successful. Too many lives are irreparably scarred by this kind of repeated, subtle, and manipulative sexual victimization that most people don't want to discuss.
French, B. H., Bi, Y., Latimore, T. G., Klemp, H. R., & Butler, E. E. (2014). Sexual victimization using latent class analysis: Exploring patterns and psycho-behavioral correlates. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 29(6), 1111-1131.