Dominant Coping Strategies of Women Survivors of Sexual Abuse
Until recently, the sexual abuse of women has been a tragedy that for many years has been silenced by the public. Several women within the last few years have chosen to no longer be a victim of sexual abuse and share their painful stories to hopefully inspire others. Many women hesitate to disclose their trauma for several different reasons including fear, shame, helplessness, denial, and low self-esteem. Experiencing something as horrific as sexual abuse whether it was as a child or as an adult is scarring. Sexual abuse has long-term emotional, physical, and mental effects on individuals. Victims of sexual abuse use different coping mechanisms in order to heal from their experience and regain their sense of self and confidence. Through my research, I will explore the different coping mechanisms women use that allow them to emotionally and mentally move forward from their childhood trauma and abuse.
Sexual Abuse During Childhood
Sexual abuse is any undesired sexual activity from a perpetrator onto a victim who has not given their consent. Sexual abuse most commonly occurs during one’s childhood. Studies have shown that 28 to 33% of women are victims of childhood sexual abuse and these cases are reported much less or much later in their lives. (Hall & Hall , 2011, p.1). Unlike other crimes, sexual abuse is a secret between the victim and perpetrator (Petronio, Reeder, Hecht, & Mendoza, 1996, p.181). Children are so vulnerable that it allows perpetrators to take advantage of them much more easily, making them feel inferior in order to adhere to what they ask. Research shows that most women delay disclosure of their sexual abuse because of the immense guilt they feel. In the majority of child sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator has been a trusted adult to the child, making it difficult for the child to perceive them in a negative light.
This leaves the victim only to internalize what they could have done wrong for this to happen to them. Children are not fully developed physically or mentally and this can put a significant stunt on their growth as well as their perceptions of self-worth and relationships later on in life. The impact on the individual can vary due to several different factors, including the severity of the abuse, the perspective of the perpetrator, the child’s internal resources, and the individuals level of support (Hall & Hall, 2011, p.1). The population of sexually abused children often times battles a lifetime of psychological and social problems which include PTSD, sleeping disorders, low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. These issues often stem from feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and limited support resources, which in turn does not foster an appropriate coping environment for the child.
Coping refers to a large range of cognitive behaviors that individuals use as a means of managing internal and external demands when exposed to stressors. There are two coping strategies: cognitive coping and behavioral coping. Cognitive coping involves trying to change one’s perception of an experience, whereas behavioral coping involves actions taken to avoid and reduce the impact of the stressor (Wilson & Scarpa, 2012, p. 478). Any stressor will produce 1 of 2 responses. Either facing the stressor directly, or running from it (Johnson, Sheahan, & Chard, 2003, p.20). A study done by Panichrat Thanomjit and Julia Townshed, provided a transactional model linking several factors that show the psychological outcomes that arise from child sexual abuse.
According to the model, the abuse is a “stressor” that can potentially impact the child’s family and community environment depending upon the abuse events and the disclosure of the events (Panichrat & Townshed, 2010, p.63). This model suggest that negative psychological outcomes are likely to increase with each developmental stage of abuse. However, the stress can be managed by using coping strategies. Studies show that avoidant coping strategies are among the most common in sexual abuse victims. Avoidance coping actually creates more stress and anxiety and does not serve as a long-term solution. Avoidance includes three themes: “suppressed thoughts and feelings, escapism, and dissociation” (Panichrat & Townshed, 2010, p.69). Avoidance coping behaviors include refraining from taking actions that could trigger memories, avoiding finding the reality in your experience, suppressing bad memories, and avoiding any sensations associated with the trauma.
Disclosure of Sexual Abuse
Largely, the voices of women who have been sexually abused have remained to be muted. As previously mentioned, sexual abuse is often a private matter between the victim and the perpetrator. This creates an environment where the victim is fearful to disclose her experience openly. Women have been hesitant to report the abuse, and therefore society has obtained a limited perception of what causes sexual abuse. Society tends to place blame on the victim’s behaviors rather than considering social constructs that have been created. In the article “I am the Woman Next Door”, Rachel Droogsma provides us with a feminist standpoint with insights into the injustices, prevalence, and seriousness of gendered abuse. The Feminist Standpoint Theory provides a basis of how we can study women’s rhetorical practices and how they are influenced by oppression and gender (Droogsma, 2009, p.484).
This theory asserts that women possess less power than men and our social status shapes how we experience the world. As a result, we acknowledge that those outside of privileged groups, will experience a higher level of dominance. This claims that since we live in a “male-dominated” society, sexual abuse on women will be marginalized. Women abuse survivors who possess feminist standpoints interpret their experiences through assigning them meaning, which arises through communication with others (Droogsma, 2009, p.484). Many women have discovered that sharing their stories have been a critical step in their healing process. It provides them with a sense of empowerment as well as creates an environment with an immense amount of support.
Pluretti and Chesebro support the feminist standpoint theory by discussing the important of communicating their experiences with others. Through disclosing their experience, they are often seeking some form of validation. Research shows that several women chose to disclose with the goal of being taken seriously. They want others to understand what they went through, and validate that they are not to blame (Demers, Roberts, Bennett, & Banyard, 2017, p.333). Researchers suggest that disclosing their experiences have been shown to significantly help survivors heal from the trauma of sexual abuse (Pluretti & Cheseboro, 2015, p.552).
Sharing your experience has several positive impacts including the ability to rationalize your trauma to make sense of the abuse, as well as meeting several empathetic women with similar experiences. The research acknowledges that although disclosure is ultimately positive, it can create difficulties for the victim. If the victim does not receive the support or response that they envisioned, this can make the victim become reluctant to disclose their experience. As a result, the decision of whom to confide to is crucial in order to make progress. Pluretti and Cheseboro explain this notion through the Communication Privacy Management Theory. This theory provides a framework for the communicative struggles that arise when deciding to open up about the abuse. The sole focus is on high risk disclosure of sexual victimization and how private information is shared as well as how it is managed.
An experiment was performed consisting of a demographic of women between the ages of 16-24 and concluded three dominant reasons of individuals disclosing sexual assault: to be upfront with relational partners, to receive support, and to make sense of their trauma. Majority of the participants expressed high levels of anxiety prior to disclosing, but felt a significant amount of relief after communicating. Both of these research findings reinforce the benefits of sexual abuse survivors disclosing their experiences by providing them with support and clarity. These findings also demonstrate the important placed upon the recipient. It is crucial that those who work with survivors know how to manage high-risk disclosure and effectively aid the victim.
There is not one universal method, treatment, or strategy that women use to heal from sexual assault. Sandra French discusses the method of framing strategies used by women through assessing blame, defining, and reframing their sexual assault. She conducted a study through which she interviewed several women and analyzed their communication to assist them in finding clarity from their trauma. Through analyzing rape victim’s communication, they were able to the see the victim’s perceptions of themselves, the assault, and the world. As previously mentioned, many victims see their assault as a personal failure. This represents the victim’s misconstrued perception of their abuse which allows three possible communicative options: affirm, deny, or reinterpret (French, 2003, p. 300).
This study suggests that rhetoric outside of the traditional counseling can be therapeutic for sexual assault victims. They examine several individual’s personal narratives which are used to help them understand and describe their experience which they often discover new insights into their experience. The research shows that women who provide personal narratives often feel empowered by doing so. The way in which sexual assault is perceived by society and portrayed in media has a large influence on the way in which the victim themselves will interpret the event. As a result, there are several barriers that one faces in their sense making such as self-doubt and confusion.
The first step in reframing their experience is being able to recognize and correctly labeling their experience as rape (French, 2003, p.302). The interviews were structured by providing open-ended questions allowing women to freely describe their experience and followed with questions geared to highlighting issues of blame. The three focal points of the discussion were how did it make the victim feel, how others felt about the victims blaming themselves, and how others blamed the victim (French, 2003, p.307). Through dissecting and analyzing their abuse, victims were able to reflect on and judge the experience for what it truly was. Learning how to reframe your assault can be highly beneficial in learning to cope with trauma for several women. This can be done through writing, meditating, or verbally communicating your experience.
High Distress Victims Versus Low Distress Victims
Some women may find that they are able to independently cope with their trauma while others may rely heavily on counseling. Dr. Regehr, Marziali, and Jansen examine the differences between these individuals by studying low distress groups versus high distress groups. Within their experiment they found a significant amount of differences between the two groups including their perceptions of relationships, perceptions of self, perceptions of control, strategies for coping, and their response to treatment. The low distress response group demonstrated the presence of a positive family foundation which created an environment of safety.
In contrast, the high distress group expressed distrust in others and are consistently faced with the fear of another assault. Having a strong foundation plays a significant role in how victims perceive themselves. The LDR group has a much more positive self-perception which influences how they respond to the trauma. They portray themselves as stronger and more confident individuals who do not hold any guilt unlike the HDR group. They expressed feelings of low self- esteem and demonstrated a need for constant support from others. They often feel completely isolated and put up a front as a means of coping instead of acknowledging their trauma. All of the women within the LDR used the method of reframing to cope whereas the HDR viewed themselves as having very little power in reconstructing their experience.
From these responses, the research found that the LDR and HDR groups found counseling and treatment to be a helpful coping strategy but the extent of treatment varied. The LDR group appeared to be more pro-active in receiving help when they felt it was beneficial and used it as a means of sense-making. The HDR group expressed they rely heavily on treatment in order to cope with their trauma. Their treatment was much more extensive but focused more so on creating a positive self-perception. These findings suggest that there is an association between a woman’s post-traumatic response to the assault and the perceptions of self and ability to heal (Regehr, Marziali, & Jansen, 1999, p.181).
- Demers, J., Roberts, A., Bennett, S., & Bennett, V. (2017). Victims motivations for disclosing unwanted sexual experiences and partner abuse. Journal of Women and Social Work, 32(3), 327-343. doi:10.1177/0886109917704936
- Droogsma, R. (2009). I am the woman next door. Communication, Culture, & Critique, 2(4), 480-503. doi:10.1111/j.1753-9137.2009.01049
- French, S. (2003). Reflections on healing: Framing strategies utilized by acquaintance rape survivors. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 31(4), 298-319. doi:10.1080/1369681032000132573
- Hall, M., & Hall, J. (2011). The long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse: Counseling implications. Retrieved from https://www.counseling.org/docs/disaster-and-trauma_sexual-
- Johnson, D. M., Shaehan, T. C., & Chard, K. (2003). Personality disorders, coping strategies, and posttraumatic stress disorder in women with histories of child hood sexual abuse. Journal Of Child Sexual Abuse, 12(2), 19-39. doi:10.1300/J070v12n02_02
- Petronio, S., Reeder, H. M., Hecht, M. L., & Don’t Ros-Mendoza, T. (1996). Discloser of sexual abuse by children and adolescents. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 24(3), 181- 199. doi:10.1080/00909889609365450.
- Pluretti, R., & Cheseboro, J. (20115). Managing privacy and the decision to disclose: Disclosures of sexual victimization. Communication Quarterly, 63(5), 550-567. doi:10.1080/01463373.2015.1078826
- Regehr, C., Marziali, E., & Jensen, K. (1999). A qualitative analysis of strengths and vulnerabilities in sexually assaulted women. Clinical Social Work Journal, 27(2), 171-184.
- Thanomjit, P., & Townshed, J. (2010). Coping strategies used by survivors of childhood sexual abuse on the journey to recovery. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 19(1), 62-78. doi:10.1080/10538710903485617
- Wilson, L., & Scarpa, A. (2012). The mediating role of peritraumtic dissociation and thought control strategies on posttraumatic stress in women survivors of child sexual and physical abuse. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, & Trauma, 477-494. doi:10.1080/10926771.2012.66982