Secondary Victimization of Rape
Victims: Insights from Mental Health Professionals Who Treat Survivors
Priscilla Schulz, LCSW
from an article of the same title by:
Rebecca Campbell, and Sheela Raja, University
of Illinois at Chicago
Violence and Victims, V. 14 (3),
What is the scope of this study?
This study surveys Illinois
mental health professionals to get their opinions about the extent and
impact of secondary victimization of rape victims who seek help from social
service providers after the assault. The study also looks at the backgrounds
of survey respondents to see how differences in mental health training,
orientation and experience affect respondents' perception of secondary
victimization. Researchers hypothesized that training and experience serving
rape survivors, as well as experience treating minority and poor women
would strongly influence clinicians' perceptions and opinions about secondary
What is secondary victimization?
refers to behaviors and attitudes of social service providers that are
"victim-blaming" and insensitive, and which traumatize victims of violence
who are being served by these agencies. Institutional practices and values
that place the needs of the organization above the needs of clients or
patients are implicated in the problem. When providers subjugate the needs
and psychological boundaries of rape victims to agencies' needs, victims
The disregard of victims' needs by
providers can so closely mimic victims' experiences at the hands of their
assailants that secondary victimization is sometimes called "the second
rape" or "the second assault." The personal beliefs and behaviors of social
service workers are also sources of secondary victimization:
- Belief in rape myths that blame the
victim for the assault and which result in providers voicing doubt about
the veracity of victims' accounts
Neglecting to offer or outright
denial of important services such as pregnancy testing, informing rape
survivors about HIV-AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and
legal prosecution of the sexual assault
The performance of services in
ways that leave victims feeling "violated and re-raped" or which otherwise
damage victims' psychological well being.
How was the study conducted?
The integrity of sampling
methods in this study was essential to rule out bias among study participants.
Researchers solicited study participation from a representative sample
of Illinois licensed mental health professionals (i.e., clinical/counseling
psychologists, clinical social workers, social workers and professional
counselors), and mailed to them a questionnaire designed specifically
for the study. Consisting of 15 questions and 4 subscales, the questionnaire
rated study participants' perception of the problem of secondary victimization
using a forced-choice, 5-point Likert
scale. It asked such questions as what did providers do that caused secondary
victimization, and how did contact with social service providers affect
the psychological well being of rape victims, positively or negatively.
Besides completing the questionnaire, study participants were asked to
give relevant personal and professional information about their therapeutic
orientation, training, experience and to characterize their caseloads
by sex, race and income level.
Forty-four percent of clinicians
surveyed returned completed questionnaires. Only responses of clinicians
with experience treating rape survivors were eligible to be included in
the study, other responses were discarded. Eligible responses were then
compiled and statistically evaluated along with characteristics of the
respondent and his/her mental health practice.
What were the study's findings?
secondary victimization a problem?
1) Only 48% of study participants
believed that contact with the social service system as a whole (i.e.,
legal, medical and mental health services considered together) can benefit
rape survivors psychologically, and that those service providers are doing
a good job of helping this population of clients.
2) The majority of mental health
professionals surveyed (84%) agreed that contact with social service providers
re-traumatizes rape victims.
Eighty-one percent of study participants believed that the legal system's
treatment of rape victims is psychologically detrimental.
b) Eighty-nine percent of study
participants agreed that the medical, post-rape exam was traumatizing
for rape survivors.
c) Fifty-eight percent of study
participants implicated mental health professionals in contributing
to secondary victimization of rape survivors through harmful practices.
the background training and experience of clinicians affect their perception
of the problem of secondary victimization?
Yes. Clinicians with specific
training about sexual assault, who endorsed a feminist treatment orientation
and who had experience treating rape survivors were significantly more
likely to agree that contact with social service providers caused secondary
victimization of rape survivors.
did race and income levels of rape victims affect clinicians' perceptions
of the problem of secondary victimization?
- Clinicians who worked primarily with
minority and/or low income rape survivors in their practices were significantly
more likely to express the opinion that social service providers treated
rape victims in a detrimental and re-traumatizing manner.
- Clinicians whose practices consisted
primarily of well to do, white women (incomes above $50,000) were more
likely to report that contact with social service agencies was beneficial
for victims in the aftermath of a rape.
are the study's implications?
- All mental health providers should
be made aware of issues of violence against women, including secondary
- Social service personnel (legal, medical
and mental health) should all be trained about how to work with victims
of violence to prevent secondary victimization. The instructional video
Restoring Dignity: Frontline
Response to Rape (1998) by the Long Island College Hospital and
Junior League of Brooklyn is recommended.
- Mental health professionals can play
an important role in preventing secondary victimization by advocating
for change in social service systems that treat rape survivors.
Reviewed by Priscilla Schulz, January