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Sexual Assault on College Campuses: An Investigation of Psychological Well-Being and Reporting Behaviors of Female Victims
AuthorJones, Ann E.
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One in five college women have been sexually assaulted since enrolling in university classes. Past research had identified a relationship between experiencing sexual assault and poor psychological outcomes. After experiencing a sexual assault, victims engage in meaning making of the assault, which includes attributing blame (e.g., self-blame or perpetrator blame). Prior research has identified that outcomes of psychological well-being have been related to attributions of blame and informal social reactions. For example, victims who blame their character typically have more symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as, more overall distress. Negative social reactions to sexual assault disclosures have been associated with higher levels of self-blame, as well as, poorer psychological outcomes, compared to positive social reactions. The purpose of this dissertation was to assess the attributions of blame, social reactions, and well-being of college women who have been sexually assaulted. More specifically, this study examined how attributions of blame and informal social reactions influenced a victim’s psychological well-being following a sexual assault (Ahrens, Campbell, Ternier-Thames, Wasco, & Sefl, 2007; Littleton, 2010; Orchowski & Gidycz, 2012; Ullman & Filipas, 2014). This study goes beyond examining the separate effects of attributions of blame and social reactions on psychological well-being (e.g., self-esteem, general stress, depression, anxiety) and hypothesizes that attributions act as a mediator. Specifically, this study hypothesized that attributions of blame mediated the relationship between psychological well-being and social reactions, rape myth, as well as, sexual assault histories and characteristics. Additionally, to provide a deeper understanding of the impact of social reactions, this study examined the victims’ lived experiences of informal disclosing (e.g., friends, family, partners) and formally reporting (e.g., law enforcement, Title IX, university victim advocates, mental health providers, mandatory reporters). This study utilized a mixed methods approach to examine these relationships and experiences. In order to assess the relationships between informal social reactions, attributions of blame, and psychological well-being an online survey was sent to all female students who were currently enrolled in classes. In-depth interviews were conducted following the campus wide survey with a subset of survey participants. These in-depth interviews focused on the victims’ experiences with disclosing and reporting. Victims were asked about their decisions to disclose or not to disclose following their sexual assault. Victims were asked about the types of reactions (e.g., positive, negative, mixed) they received following a disclosure or report. Additionally, victims were asked about their perception of blame following the sexual assault and how their discussions with others impacted their attributions of blame.The main findings of this study suggest that social reactions were related to attributions of blame, specifically, negative reactions from others were related to higher levels of self-blame. Behavior self-blame was unrelated to psychological well-being, character blame was negatively related to all factors of psychological well-being, and perpetrator blame was connected to greater levels of depression and anxiety. Additionally, receiving positive reactions was related to better outcomes of psychological well-being. Attributions of blame did not mediate the relationship between social reactions and psychological well-being. The interviews identified how subsets of positive and negative reactions impacted attributions of blame. However, the most interesting finding was that certain responses could be considered both positive and negative, which impacted attributions of blame differently. Expressly, responses of validation could reduce self-blame or increase self-blame. Positive validation, believing the victim and emphasizing that the experience was a sexual assault or rape decreased self-blame. In contrast, dismissive validation, including suggestions that the victim’s experience was not a big deal or that the experience was a misunderstanding, increased self-blame. Results of this study highlight the influential nature of attributions of blame and social reactions to sexual assault disclosures. The importance of educating others about how social reactions impact victims’ perception of events and well-being are further discussed.