By Joseph Jacob
Despite increased awareness and prevention efforts, sexual violence continues to persist even in this day and age. In addition to physical harm, sexual violence can facilitate the formation of PTSD as well as other mental health conditions in victims. According to literature, around 16% to 60% of victims develop PTSD and while there is a wide gap in the percentage, it is high regardless of what the exact number may be (Ullman and Peter-Hagene).
With that said, a recent study looked at the importance of one's reaction to victims who disclose their experiences with sexual assault (Ullman and Peter-Hagene). According to the study, around 80% of sexual violence victims tell a third party about it (Ullman and Peter-Hagene). The study then suggests how a negative reaction could lead to greater PTSD symptom development in the victim (Ullman and Peter-Hagene). Characteristics of a negative reaction include “blame, taking control of the victim’s decisions, and stigma”—all of which correlate to greater PTSD symptoms in sexual violence victims (Ullman and Peter-Hagene).
Furthermore, the study also found that positive reactions may serve as protective factors against PTSD, although the link between the two is not as well established (Ullman and Peter-Hagene). The results of this study goes to show how important it is to receive someone’s disclosure of being sexually assaulted with sensitivity and compassion.
The study also found that initial PTSD symptoms in the victim could also elicit more negative responses from the individual listening to the victim (Ullman and Peter-Hagene). That is, PTSD symptoms already present in victims could lead to negative responses from the person to whom the victim revealed their sexual assault to. With this, a cycle could be generated that leads to persistent negative responses that further the harms of PTSD (Ullman and Peter-Hagene). So not only does a negative response to a victim disclosing their attack cause PTSD symptoms, but the vice-versa is also true—PTSD symptoms could also garner negative responses from listeners. Again, this can instill a harmful cycle.
With all of this said, there is still much to assess about PTSD, its link to sexual violence, the impact of negative and positive reactions, and what we can do to prevent worsening of the symptoms. However, there is one thing that is apparent—responding to a victim’s disclosure of sexual assault must be in a sensitive, attentive, and gentle manner. If a sexual abuse survivor chooses to trust us enough to talk about their experience, we must be cognizant of how our response could impact the victim. We must be careful in choosing our response, and we should always be supportive and should seek to help the individual. Communication from the victim is good, and if they choose to talk about their attack—which of course is a demanding task in and of itself—the response should only bolster the victim and never the opposite.
Ullman, Sarah E., and Liana C. Peter-Hagene. "Longitudinal Relationships of Social Reactions, PTSD, and Revictimization in Sexual Assault Survivors." Journal of Interpersonal Violence (2014): 1-21. SAGE Publications. Web. 3 May 2015.