In A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) Kristen Davisson writes as follows:
Given women’s increased risk for development of secondary trauma, consideration of the prevalence of sexual violence becomes significant in understanding the extent of this exposure. The World Health Organization (2005) found that next to telling no one, friends and neighbors are the most common confidants following an incident of sexual violence.
Sexual violence against women remains a critical social issue, as the frequency of sexual coercion, intimate violence, sexual assault and rape impacts vast numbers of women each year. Of equal concern are the mental health correlates that accompany the direct and indirect effects of such widespread gender violence. With examples resonating throughout history, gender inequality has perpetuated sexual violence against women for centuries. As a widespread global concern, definitions of the acts of sexual violence differ. The National Institute of Justice defines sexual violence as “as constellation of crimes including variations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape” (2007, np). Characterization of sexual violence by the World Health Organization (2005) includes positive indication of any of the following three criteria: physical force to have sexual intercourse against a person’s will, sexual intercourse due to fear of harm, or the force of sexual acts that are experienced as humiliating and/or degrading. Crimes of sexual assault encompass actual or threatened physical force, genital mutilation, and the use of weapons, intimidation or coercion that may or may not result in rape (National Institute of Justice, 2007). Legal definitions of rape within the United States differ by state, generally referencing nonconsensual oral, anal or vaginal penetration by body parts or objects and including rape by coercion, intimidation, threats of violence and sexual intercourse with individuals unable to consent (National Institute of Justice, 2007).
As statistics indicate, the likelihood of female contact with a victim of sexual violence is extensive. As confidants bear witness to the direct suffering of the primary victim, they observe firsthand the direct effects of sexual violence including but not limited to experiences of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic states, dissociation, suicidality, somatization, sexual difficulties, personality disorders, lower overall health, increased risk of substance abuse, sleep disorders, nightmares and symptoms of posttraumatic stress (Briere & Jordon, 2004; Herman, 1992; Johnson, et al., 2003; Murray, 1993; Pico-Alfonso et al., 2006; DeMaris & Kaukinen, 2005; Krakow et al., 2001). Looked at together, the overwhelming statistics suggest that vast numbers of women worldwide know another woman who has suffered the direct consequences of sexual victimization. Given the empirical support for the impact of secondary exposure to trauma in addition to the research detailing women’s empathic attunement to one another, one could reasonably presume that women “witnessing” the sexual victimization of others with whom they are close (and thus empathically attuned) would be at increased risk for development of secondary traumatic states.
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.