Symptoms and Beyond: Self-Concept Among Sexually Assaulted Women

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Abstract

Objective: The unique characteristics of sexual assault (SA)—a toxic mix of an interpersonal harm, a violent exploitation of one’s body, and a transformation of an act of connectedness into an act of submission—are postulated to negatively affect the self-concept. We sought to deepen the understanding of self-concept impairments among sexually assaulted women with varying levels of posttraumatic distress. To this end, we compared women with a main trauma of SA to women with a main trauma of motor-vehicle accident (MVA) and to nontraumatized (NT) women on several self-concept aspects. Our main hypotheses were (a) sexually assaulted women without PTSD exhibit impaired self-concept as compared with NT women and (b) SA is related to greater self-concept impairments as compared with MVA, even when posttraumatic distress is statistically controlled. Method: Women (N = 235: NT = 69, MVA = 87, SA = 79) completed a web-based survey including measures designed to assess the global and domain-specific contents and structure of the self-concept as well as background and clinical questionnaires. Results: Sexually assaulted women without PTSD reported impaired self-concept as compared with NT women. Furthermore, SA was related to greater self-concept impairments as compared with MVA, even when considering participants’ levels of posttraumatic distress. Conclusions: SA is related to unique self-concept impairments that extend beyond symptoms, emphasizing the need to assess and address self-concept impairments in sexually assaulted women. The importance of adopting a multifaceted conceptualization of the self to gain a deeper understanding of the aftermath of trauma is highlighted.

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