Shameful “Victims” and Angry “Survivors”: Emotion, Mental Health, and Labeling Sexual Assault

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Decades of research demonstrate that women frequently avoid the label “rape” when reflecting on nonconsensual sexual experiences. The current study focuses on self-labels to further understand the relationship between assault characteristics, emotion, mental health, and women’s labeling of sexual assault. We argue that emotions produced by various assault characteristics are important mechanisms for understanding self-labeling after a sexual assault. We draw from research on rape scripts and cultural discourses of victimhood, survivorhood, and emotion to examine labeling “rape” and self-labeling as a “victim” or “survivor” in an online survey of 138 undergraduate women at a southeastern university. Using a series of ordinal logistic regressions in which labels are regressed on emotions and measures of mental health, we find that the “victim” label is associated with shame and post-traumatic stress, while the “survivor” label is associated with anger and less depression.

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