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How Sexual Assault Victims Become Survivors: Culture Counts

Research reveals culturally based challenges, and solutions, for victims.

Sexual assault is a persistent, under-reported, public health crisis. The fact that victims are far less likely to reveal assaults by known perpetrators than by strangers unfortunately allows abusive relationships to continue for years, undetected.

Having prosecuted sex crimes for 23 years and worked with these victims, I consider it apparent, as concerned friends, family members, and colleagues would agree, that appropriate aftercare is essential in paving a positive road to recovery. Research corroborates this reality, affording a detailed examination into what types of services are of most assistance to different victim demographics.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
Source: Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

The Road to Recovery Is Physical, Mental, and Financial

Lisa Fedina et al. (2020) examined the different factors that impact recovery from sexual assault in a study called “Experiences of Sexual Assault, Economic Insecurity, and Health in an Ethnically Diverse Sample of Women.”[i] They investigated the interplay between characteristics of sexual victimization, physical and mental health, and economic insecurity within a sample of victims, with the goal of studying the different experiences of Latina, African American, and White women, to identify plans for population-level intervention and prevention.

Using data from the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, they found distinctive in-group predictors relating to the physical and mental health of victims. Specifically, they found that financial obstacles to accessing health care were linked with reduced physical and mental health outcomes among African American women. With White women, they found insecurity related to housing and food to be linked with reduced physical and mental health. For Latina women, however, they found few significant predictors, which led them to opine that perhaps there were other factors that were not measured that might better predict health outcomes for this group of women.

Sexual Violence Is Pervasive and Persistent

Fedina et al. recognize sexual violence as a pervasive and persistent public health issue in the United States. Regarding the different types of sexually assaultive behavior, they cite national estimates that have suggested that 20% of women have been victimized through incapacitated or forcible rape, 13% through sexual coercion, and 27% through other types of unwanted sexual contact, including nonconsensual touching of sexual body parts, or kissing.

Of specific relevance to their current research, they note that higher rates of sexual violence have been documented among women of color compared with those classified as White non-Hispanic women. They note that such ethnic and racial disparities stem from long-standing inequalities, and that racial inequalities in terms of education, income, and employment could prevent many women of color from accessing necessary resources and opportunities and achieving safety.

Physical and Mental Health

Fedina el al. acknowledge the well-documented link between sexual violence and adverse physical and mental health results. They note that women who have been victimized through sexual violence are at greater risk of developing depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder than women who have not been victimized.

They also note that sexual assault victims are at greater risk for suffering poor physical health as well as chronic health problems such as pain, hypertension, and diabetes. They recognize that physical health is often compromised when one experiences mental health symptoms, and that health-related symptoms such as alcohol or substance abuse, as well as sleep difficulty, may in fact lead to longer-term chronic health problems. They cite emerging research related to the neurobiology of trauma that links its biological processes as well as the accompanying chronic stress to immune functioning, which might actually put sexual assault victims at increased risk of developing chronic disease.

The Road to Recovery Incorporates Care and Culture

Fedina el al. conclude that in order to reduce poor mental and physical health outcomes, sexual assault survivors require health care that is affordable and accessible, training of police, as well as clinical interventions to reduce economic insecurity. They affirm the need for future research on the intersection of health and sexual violence that will include a racial discrimination assessment. They also recognize the need to explore factors that are relevant culturally, such as acculturation and immigration status, along with economic insecurity, among women of color in order to formulate interventions that are culturally specific.


[i] Fedina, Lisa, Charlotte Lyn Bright, Rebecca Campbell, Andre B. Rosay, and Melissa Edmondson Smith. 2020. “Experiences of Sexual Assault, Economic Insecurity, and Health in an Ethnically Diverse Sample of Women.” Psychology of Violence 10 (4): 355–66. doi:10.1037/vio0000272.