U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Study Finds Agencies Can React More Supportively Than Family and Friends to Victims’ Disclosures of Sexual Assault

Women victimized by sexual assault often are victimized again by negative reactions of others when they first share the news they have been assaulted.
Date Published
October 30, 2018

A study supported by the National Institute of Justice has found that individuals close to the victim can be less supportive than others when a sexual assault is disclosed. The research offers a new window into victims’ own perceptions of how others react to news of sexual assault, with implications for policy and practice.

When a woman reports becoming a victim of sexual assault — formally, to law enforcement or a community service provider, or informally, to family, friends, or other intimates — the reaction itself, if negative, can cause further harm to the victim. That damaging “social reaction” effect has been recognized for some time.

But new research reveals significant variation in the degree of negativity of different types of recipients of assault disclosures. Perhaps counter-intuitively for some, victims reported receiving more negative reactions from informal supports (e.g., peers, family members) than they experienced when disclosing sexual assault to police or community-based service providers, according to a research team led by Anne P. DePrince, a University of Denver psychologist. Informal supports also generally provided less tangible aid and helpful information to the victim, the researchers found.

Understanding the dynamics of how people and institutions react to sexual assault reports, and the impact of differing reactions on victims, is important at a time when, as the researchers noted, society’s response to sexual assault nationally is shifting toward community-coordinated action, with law enforcement and community service providers increasingly working together. The study findings point to a need for further investment in community-coordinated support of assault survivors, and enhanced education to equip both formal and informal supports to react compassionately to survivors.

Among other key findings of the study: Victims who reported higher levels of fear were less likely to disclose sexual assaults to law enforcement. Yet victims who disclosed initially to community-based providers were more likely over time to also disclose to law enforcement. “Thus, the help provided by community-based providers may be important to women’s entrance into the criminal justice system,” the researchers reported.

The purpose of the research was to devise and test a modified Social Reactions Questionnaire (SRQ) — a standard research tool — to separately assess social reactions to women’s sexual assault reports from criminal justice personnel, community-based providers, and informal supports.

In the study, women who reported having been sexually assaulted within the previous year were interviewed about social reactions at several time periods after the assault, allowing researchers to examine changes over time in both victim impact and reactions received. A total of 228 respondents, age 18 to 62, participated in the study. Respondents reported multiple types of sexual victimizations, with 79 percent of the sample reporting at least one forcible rape, 28 percent reporting an attempted rape, and 67 percent reporting unwanted sexual contact. Several victims also experienced sexual coercion. The report noted the women could report more than one type of sexual victimization.

Although the reactions of informal supports to victims’ initial reports of assault tended to be most negative, negativity of reactions varied somewhat within the reactor groups, depending on the type or severity of assault reported. For example, although informal supports were generally less inclined to give tangible aid to women who reported being assaulted, they were more likely to provide aid when that assault was a rape. And attempted rape was met with more negative reactions from criminal justice providers than from other disclosure recipient groups.

The research also yielded new insight on social-reaction effects on sexual minority women (e.g., lesbian, bisexual, asexual) reporting sexual assault. Nearly one-fifth (19 percent) of all women surveyed identified as a sexual minority. Out of all participants who reported disclosing a sexual assault to a community service provider, sexual minority members were less likely than others to have also reported the assault to law enforcement.

The research team broke new ground both in distinguishing social reactions to assault, by group, and in using victims’ own perceptions to assess the victim impact of the social reactions they received from others. The researchers noted that existing literature on community-coordinated responses to sexual assault had focused “primarily on the perceptions of team members regarding how they assess their work with victims,” to the exclusion of victims’ own perceptions of the impact of social reactions. The researchers observed that “assessing women’s perceptions is critical in light of long-held concerns that criminal justice personnel react to women’s disclosures of sexual assault in ways that may be harmful ... and to giving local communities empirical tools to assess — and thereby potentially improve — their coordinated responses to sexual assault.”

All respondents were asked how criminal justice personnel and community-based providers could better serve victims of sexual assault. Six common themes emerged:

  • Availability of a female officer or service provider to survivors.
  • Better trauma-informed training for responders.
  • Better communication with survivors, as well as within and between departments.
  • Information for survivors about obtaining resources, or helping survivors obtain them, or both.
  • Believing survivors, not blaming them for the sexual assault.
  • Greater sensitivity to, and understanding of, trauma-related responses, and approaching survivors with greater overall care and compassion.

The study team concluded that its findings are evidence supporting further investment in multidisciplinary, coordinated responses to sexual assault to facilitate victims’ access to services from both community providers and law enforcement agencies. Negative reactions by informal supports point toward a need for “campaigns that educate the public broadly about how to respond to sexual assault disclosures,” so that victims can be supported and better connected to resources, the researchers said. They noted “the importance of preparing both formal and informal supports to respond with compassion and support in the face of distress expressed by victims.”

The research team used a multilevel confirmatory factor analytic approach to analyze SRQ items.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2012-W9-BX-0049, awarded to the University of Denver. This article is based on the grantee report: “Expanding Use of the Social Reactions Questionnaire Among Diverse Women, Summary Overview.” (pdf, 14 pages)

The report authors are principal investigator Anne P. DePrince, Ph.D., University of Denver, and contributors Julia Dmitrieva, Ph.D.; Kerry L. Gagnon, M.A., University of Denver; Jennifer Labus, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles; Tejaswinhi Srinivas, M.A., University of Denver; and Naomi Wright, University of Denver.

Date Published: October 30, 2018