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Research Communications

Sexual assault victims report high levels of self-blame, trauma 

By Jessica Salerno
Oct. 19, 2012

When a woman is sexually assaulted while drinking, others hold her more accountable and blameworthy than a woman who is assaulted while sober, research has shown.

A new study by two Ohio University undergraduates takes a look at whether women who've been victim to sexual assault also blame themselves for the incidents.

Courtney Wineland and Brandie Pugh analyzed data from a survey of 638 college women that asked about their experiences with unwanted sexual contact and whether they were incapacitated at the time of the assault. Of those surveyed, 158 women reported that they had experienced an assault (rape, attempted rape, and/or unwanted sexual contact) since the age of 14. That figure corresponds with previous studies that found that 25 percent of American women have been sexually assaulted by the time they finish college.

 By Christina Ullman
Illustration by Christina Ullman.

Those who reported such experiences were given a questionnaire to measure where they placed their blame for the assault. The categories included chance (feeling like they were in the wrong place at the wrong time), perpetrator blame (feeling as though the perpetrator was "out to hurt someone"), behavioral self-blame (feeling like they had put themselves in the wrong situation), and characterological self-blame (feeling like they were the "victim type.")

The project was advised by graduate student Tina Dardis, who conducted the original survey, and Psychology Professor Christine Gidycz, who manages the university's Laboratory for the Study and Prevention of Sexual Assault. The lab conducts research on issues such as treatment outcomes in sexual violence survivor support groups, factors that predict leaving abusive dating relationships, the evaluation of sexual assault risk reduction and prevention programs, and predictors of sexual perpetration in college men.

As Wineland and Pugh expected, those who were incapacitated at the time of the assault were more likely to experience behavioral self-blame than those who were not incapacitated. Considering that 81.6 percent reported having been incapacitated during the incident, that's a lot of self-blame.

"It just hurts, the idea of the victims blaming themselves for something that they did not have any control over," Pugh says.

The student researchers asked the assault survivors about the impact of the event on their lives to determine the level of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) each victim experienced. Wineland and Pugh anticipated that those who had been incapacitated would have fewer PTSD symptoms than those who were sober.

They were surprised, however, to find approximately the same level of PTSD symptoms in both incapacitated and sober victims. Upon reflection, Wineland says, that result makes sense.

"(Incapacitated victims) shouldn't experience more or less trauma than someone who's sober," she says.

The students presented the research at the Ohio Psychological Association's 2011 Annual Conference, where it won the Best Undergraduate Student Poster Award, and the 2012 Ohio University Student Research and Creative Activity Expo.

Both women believe that this area of research can help combat rape myths and promote discussion, especially on college campuses.

"Considering that rape trauma syndrome is very prevalent among rape survivors, it's just a good study to do to open people's eyes," says Pugh, who is continuing her research on violence against women as a graduate student at the University of Delaware this fall.

It's also important to teach men that being drunk is never an excuse for sexually assaulting women, Gidycz adds. Sexual contact without consent—whether the man is drinking or not—is assault. Men, however, tend to receive less blame than women do for their actions while drinking, she notes.

Victims of assault must be taught that they aren't at fault, Pugh adds, noting that "the trauma there is real."

This article will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2012 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship, and creative activity of Ohio University faculty, students and staff.