Kristin Davisson writes in a compelling way about the traumatic effects of witnessing rape or sharing those experiences with a loved one or friend. (A Womb of Her Own. Routledge 2017) Davisson writes as follows:
In 2010, I completed my doctoral clinical research project/dissertation on the concept of secondary sexual trauma of women. This project spanned three years and like many thesis subjects, was one close to my heart and lived experience. As a granddaughter, daughter and friend to women who have suffered the staggering consequences of sexual violence, I was interested in exploring the impact of being so close to another woman’s experience of sexual trauma. Considering the prevalence of assault against women worldwide, vast numbers of female “witnesses” may be suffering from symptoms of secondary trauma. Given this risk, what are the implications for the mental health of these female “witnesses” locally, nationally and internationally? This was the question I sought out to address.
The concept of secondary trauma accounts for the negative effects of secondary trauma exposure among those in contact with primary victims and is increasingly documented in the psychological literature (Figley, 2995; Herman, 1992; McCann & Pearlman, 1990; Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995; Stamm, 1999). In response to the emphasis of secondary traumatic states in the mental health field, Kadambi and Ennis (2004) identifed a central error in the assumption that secondary trauma is an experience that has been so “warmly embraced by the mental health community that the publication of remediation and self-care strategies has preceded the performance of empirical research investigating the occurrence and etiology of the phenomenon” (p. 7). In this way, although considerable research has expanded the concept of secondary trauma to include indirect exposure to events of global terror including war, political torture, environmental disasters and the events of 9/11, the emphasis on mental health and health care workers has excluded investigation of secondary trauma in the general population.
Female Risk for Secondary Trauma
As my research focused on investigation of this phenomenon with respect to women in the general population who encountered secondary exposure to sexual violence, literature regarding the increased risk of women to develop secondary traumatic states is relevant.
Several empirical studies have demonstrated that female caregivers experience increased risk for developing secondary trauma symptoms when working with victims of sexual assault (Pearlman & MacIan, 1995; Schauben & Fraizer, 1995; Wasco & Campbell, 2002). In their study assessing the effect on female counselors working with sexual violence survivors, Schauben and Fraizer (1995) found that working with victims of sexual violence was associated with disrupted beliefs, symptoms of posttraumatic stress, and an increase in self-reported vicarious trauma. Moreover, these results were not associated with a female counselor’s own history of victimization, suggesting that a past experience of victimization is not required for development of secondary trauma.
Research suggests that women display empathy at a higher rate than men, increasing the likelihood of exposure to trauma via empathic attunement. Empathy is described by Gold and Rogers as “accurately perceiving the internal frame of reference of another,” requiring primary consideration of another’s thoughts and feelings rather than preoccupation with the self (1995, p. 75). Further, Pearlman and Saakvitne (1995) specify that long-term empathic attunement increases risk of secondary trauma, as empathy increases openness to feel what another is feeling. Gender socialization and cultural stereotypes support the notion that women are more empathic than men (Klein & Hodges, 2001; Surrey, 1991). An empirical study by Toussiant and Webb (2005) supported the commonly held belief that women behave and view themselves as more empathic than men do. In addition, Shihui, Yan and Lihua (2008) investigated gender differences in the electrophysiological brain effects of empathy in response to painful experiences of others. They found that women showed greater long-term responses than did men, comprised of subjective experiences of others’ pain and changes in view of self.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.