Sexual Assault Victims Coping

Coping strategies of adult rape victims refers to the ways in which rape victims respond to an assault. Most of this research focuses on female victims because most sexual assault victims are women. Although the term coping implies that someone is adjusting well, coping strategies can actually be either helpful or unhelpful. Less helpful strategies include avoiding dealing with the assault, withdrawing from others, using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate, blaming one’s self, and focusing on the past and on why the assault occurred. Among the more helpful strategies reported are seeing the assault in a more positive light, relying on one’s religious beliefs, and focusing on what currently is controllable. Disclosing the assault can lead to either positive or negative reactions from others. Positive reactions are more common, although negative reactions have a greater impact.

Knowledge about the strategies victims use to deal with an assault is relevant to several kinds of professionals who work with victims. For example, knowledge about which strategies have been helpful or unhelpful is useful to those who provide direct services to victims (e.g., psychologists, social workers, advocates). This information also might be used by a psychological expert in a sexual assault case to help explain the effects of the rape on a victim to a judge or jury. It is important, however, to keep in mind that most rapes are not reported and, of those that are reported, many are not charged and few go to trial.

Specific Coping Strategies

In the general research literature on coping, nine primary forms of coping have been identified: cognitive restructuring, problem solving, support seeking, distraction, avoidance, social withdrawal, emotional regulation/expressing emotions, rumination, and helplessness. Several studies have assessed the frequency with which rape victims use these strategies and the relationship between the use of the strategy and the postrape symptoms of distress. Typical symptoms of distress among rape victims include those associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Of the studies that have assessed one of these forms of coping among rape victims, avoidance and social withdrawal are generally associated with greater distress. Avoidance involves trying not to think about or deal with the assault (e.g., trying to block it out), and social withdrawal, of course, involves withdrawing from others. The strategies associated with better adjustment fall mainly within the category of cognitive restructuring, which refers to trying to see the assault in a different or more positive light. Although this might seem unlikely, many victims do actually report positive changes in their lives following an assault, such as that they appreciate life more. Teaching coping skills such as cognitive restructuring also has been found to reduce symptoms in experimental studies. The results of studies assessing emotional regulation/expressing emotions are mixed, partly because of methodological problems with the studies. However, the general research literature on coping suggests that expressing emotions is associated with better adjustment. Another coping strategy not included in this categorization scheme is religious coping, which generally is associated with lower distress levels among victims.

Another way in which victims may try to cope with the assault is by drinking or using drugs. Several studies indicate that victims report more alcohol and drug abuse and dependence than do nonvictims. Because drinking and drug use are risk factors for sexual assault, it is important to try to determine if the substance use came before or after the assault. Studies that attempt to assess the timing of the substance abuse relative to the sexual assault generally indicate that the substance abuse started after the assault. Alcohol and drug use by victims is related to higher distress levels; thus, victims may be using substances to self-medicate their distress.

Social Support

Although support seeking is considered one of the primary forms of coping, research on support processes in rape victims goes beyond the examination of support seeking as a coping process. For example, one issue for rape victims is whether and to whom to disclose the assault. Although disclosing the assault may not necessarily be for the purpose of seeking support, unlike other events that are more public (e.g., bereavement), victims only receive supportive or unsupportive reactions from others if they disclose the assault to them. The act of disclosing the assault or of seeking support also should be distinguished from the supportive or unsupportive reactions of others to the victim regarding the assault. Thus, research in this area has focused on whether and to whom victims disclose, what kinds of reactions they receive, and how those reactions are related to victims’ distress levels. This research suggests that although most rape victims do not report the assault to the police, most disclose to someone, such as friends or family members. In general, victims indicate that they received mostly positive and supportive reactions from others. However, negative reactions, such as being blamed or treated differently, also occur and appear to be more common from formal (e.g., the police, physicians) than from informal (e.g., friends, family) support providers. Negative social reactions tend to be more associated with distress than positive social reactions are associated with well-being. Nonetheless, being believed and being listened to by others, especially friends and family, is associated with better adjustment among rape victims. Many friends and victims report that the assault had a positive effect on their relationships (e.g., it brought them closer).

Attributions about the Cause of the Rape

Individuals who have been sexually assaulted often struggle to regain a sense of control over their lives. One way to do this is to try to identify the cause of the assault (i.e., make a causal attribution) and thus recognize how the assault could have been prevented. For rape victims, this may involve trying to identify what they could have done differently to avoid being raped. Much of the research on the relations among attributions and posttrauma distress has been guided by the theory that behavioral self-blame, which involves attributing the assault to one’s past behavior, is an adaptive response to rape because it is associated with the belief that future rapes can be avoided. In contrast, characterological self-blame, which involves attributing the rape to some stable aspect of one’s self that cannot be changed, is thought to be maladaptive because it is not associated with a sense of future control. This theory has been described as dominating research on attributions and adjustment for more than two decades and as being widely accepted as having implications for interventions with trauma survivors.

Although this theory suggests that behavioral self-blame is adaptive, behavioral self-blame consistently is associated with more, rather than less, distress among survivors of rape. In addition, behavioral self-blame generally is unrelated to perceived future control among victims of rape. In other words, behavioral self-blame does not appear to foster the belief that future rapes can be avoided, which was the proposed mechanism for its adaptive value. Characterological self-blame is also consistently related to higher distress levels. Indeed, the two types of self-blame are highly correlated with each other. Experimental studies suggest that reductions in self-blame in treatment are associated with reductions in PTSD symptoms.

Research on attributions has tended to focus on self-blame, perhaps because of the predominance of the aforementioned theory. However, other kinds of blame, such as blaming the rapist or other external factors, tend to be more common than self-blame. These other types of blame also are associated with more distress. It appears that focusing on the past and on why the assault occurred is associated with higher distress levels. It is less adaptive to focus on the past and on why the assault occurred, or even on how future assaults can be avoided, than to focus on aspects of the assault that are currently controllable, such as the recovery process.


  1. Filipas, H., & Ullman, S. (2001). Social reactions to sexual assault victims from various support sources. Violence and Victims, 16, 673-692.
  2. Frazier, P. (2003). Perceived control and distress following sexual assault: A longitudinal test of a new model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1257-1269.
  3. Frazier, P., Mortensen, H., & Steward, J. (2005). Coping strategies as mediators of the relations among perceived control and distress in sexual assault survivors. Journal ofCounseling Psychology, 52, 267-278.
  4. Ullman, S. (2000). Psychometric characteristics of the Social Reactions Questionnaire: A measure of reactions to sexual assault victims. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 24, 257-271.
  5. Ullman, S., Filipas, H., Townsend, S., & Starzynski, L. (2005). Trauma exposure, posttraumatic stress disorder and problem drinking in sexual assault survivors. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 66, 610-619.

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