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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Posttraumatic Stress and Posttraumatic Growth Among Female Victim/Survivors of Adult Sexual Assault: The Importance of Social Reactions

  • Author(s): Koch, Lauren M.
  • Advisor(s): Cosden, Merith
  • et al.

In the United States, millions of women have experienced some form of sexual violence. The relationship between sexual assault and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been well documented. However, more recent research is focusing on positive outcomes of trauma, including posttraumatic growth (PTG). The current study examined the relationships between childhood trauma, PTSD symptoms, PTG, and social reactions to disclosure among female victim/survivors of adult sexual assault (ASA). Additionally, victim/survivors’ reasons for disclosure or non-disclosure and the ways in which disclosure was helpful or unhelpful were explored.

Participants were 196 women who reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact since the age of 14 in an online survey. The survey included the following scales: the Sexual Experiences Survey – Short Form Victimization (Koss et al., 2006) identified unwanted sexual contact; the Adverse Childhood Experiences (Felitti et al., 1998) scale assessed childhood trauma; the PTSD Checklist for DSM-5 (Weathers et al., 2013) assessed PTSD symptoms; the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996) assessed experience of PTG; and the Social Reactions Questionnaire (Ullman, 2000) assessed frequency of positive and negative social reactions to disclosures of ASA. Open questions were asked to obtain information about non-disclosure and disclosure experiences.

Analyses found that more frequent negative social reactions were predictive of more PTSD symptoms. Unexpectedly, both more frequent negative social reactions and more frequent positive social reactions were predictive of more PTG. The relationship between PTSD and PTG was positive and linear. Neither delay of disclosure nor childhood trauma were predictive of PTSD or PTG. A relationship between delay of disclosure and negative social reactions was not found.

The most common reasons for non-disclosure were feelings of shame and self-blame. Participants who disclosed did experience blame and judgment, though nearly half reported there were no unhelpful parts to disclosure. The most common reasons for disclosure were seeking emotional support or to process the trauma, which were also the most common responses when asked what parts of disclosure were helpful.

The findings in the current study have important implications for shaping how people respond to victim/survivors’ disclosures. Providing psychoeducation to communities and the people serving them could help increase the frequency of supportive reactions and reduce the frequency of negative social reactions. Additionally, an understanding of the realities of social reactions to victim/survivors’ disclosures and their relationship with both PTSD and PTG can inform psychologists’ work with victim/survivors.

While this study was in progress, millions of women disclosed their sexual assault experiences on the Internet in the #NotOkay and #MeToo movements. Future research should examine the function of positive and negative social reactions victim/survivors experience online. Research should also examine women’s reasons for disclosing online versus in person.

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