“Victims” and “Survivors” of Crime: The Effects of Labeling Unwanted Sexual Experiences on Mental Health

Tuesday, July 15, 2014: 3:30 PM
Room: 422
Oral Presentation
Kaitlin BOYLE , Department of Sociology, The University of Georgia, Athens, GA
Despite a high level of general interest in stigmatized identities, sociologists have given little attention to victimization as a stigmatized identity. How adoption of this identity influences one’s self-sentiments, behaviors, and mental health has been largely unexplored. This is important because criminologists document that women who acknowledge as “rape victims” have different post-assault outcomes from those who do not acknowledge. This study applies affect control theory, a formalized theory of symbolic interaction, to examine the relationship between labels and sentiments, post-assault behaviors, and mental health in a survey of undergraduate college women. While previous studies generally use dichotomous measures of rape acknowledgment, neglecting other labels of the event, this study measures multiple event labels and links these labels to shame, anger, PTSD, and relationship termination. Results show that calling the event “sexual assault” or “rape” is associated with heightened PTSD, yet only “rape” is associated with increased shame. This suggests that the label “sexual assault,” which is also associated with relationship termination, is more benign and helpful than “rape.” Being a “victim” and calling the perpetrator a “rapist” are also associated with shame and PTSD, most likely because these are stigmatized labels that cause identity disruption and anxiety. Finally, “survivors” do not have increased shame or PTSD. Instead, this more powerful and active identity is associated with anger and relationship termination. This study generally supports rape workers’ and activists’ move towards calling women “survivors” instead of “victims.” However, the two labels are correlated and share similar predictors, revealing the complex nature of rape acknowledgment. General social psychological processes explained by affect control theory increase understanding of this process. Implications for the effects of labeling traumatic experiences on emotion, mental health, and identity are discussed.