In our book, A Womb of Her Own (Routledge 2017) author Kristin Davisson describes the factors of influence that affect the way an individual reacts to witnessing a rape. She writes as follows:
In examining reaction interview transcripts and coding the data, it became clear that several factors appeared to influence the data. That is, at least in some cases, certain variables seemed to significantly impact participant reaction. Some of these variables were pre-identified as potential “predictors” in the research questions (closeness of relationship; previous trauma), while others were not considered in this way. This section will explore the qualitative association of such variables as they were discussed or revealed in reaction interviews.
Multiple relationships with victims. Though the study focused on one “close” relationship, it became clear during reaction interviews that a number of participants had exposure to multiple female victims of sexual assault. (Five of 13 women indicated they had previous exposure to victims of sexual assault, though this data was volunteered not asked.) Although not a focus of the interviews, participants often volunteered reflections of their reactions to multiple exposures.
A 55-year old participant, remarked of her experience, “I knew more women in college, but I haven’t known of any for about 20 years, so I guess it was a shock to my system in some ways.”
Other women referenced closeness to the victim as an important indicator in their reactions. A 24 year-old woman reflected on her contact with two friends that were assaulted: “The other friend, I felt more protective of her and defensive for her. I worried about her more. This friend, my closest friend, I feel like she was so strong on her own that I was left feeling more despair about it.” In this case, closeness and “strength” of the victim appeared to be relevant in distinguishing this participant’s reactions between multiple exposures.
Several women who reported feeling responsible for their friend’s assault noted they were (physically) with the victim prior to her being attacked. In this way, they experienced a “proximity” to the traumatic event, which by their report, they had not experienced before.
Though there were no consistent patterns, all women who indicated multiple exposures noted the relationship in question as the “closest” of their friendships to female victims of sexual assault.
Distance in time from the traumatic stimulus and phase of life: Distance in time from the traumatic event did not appear to drastically shape reactions overall. As noted in the previous discussion, most participants reported a decrease in the acuity of their initial emotional responses after several months. Distance in time from the event did not appear relevant for participants who reported continuation of intense emotional experiences.
Phase of life (with reference to age and/or developmental life stage) seemed at times to overlap with distance in time from the event, additively influencing participant reaction. The youngest participant, a 19-year-old freshman in college, encountered the traumatic event 5 years earlier. The participant remarked, “I don’t feel really impacted now because it was so long ago. I would probably be more likely to notice if something like that happened to me, but I was so young.” It seems reasonable to assume that distance in time from the event, coupled with the participant’s age and the reported nature of the assault, shaped her subjective perception that she was not significantly impacted.
In other ways, phase of life seemed an important factor in the life experience of the participant. Participants aged 25 and older were more likely to report multiple exposures to sexual assault. They were also more likely to be engaged in advanced education or established careers. As noted elsewhere in discussion, single women were more likely to report distrust of men than were women who identified as partnered or married.
Closeness to victim: As noted in the preceding discussion, participants indicating closeness to the primary victim were more likely to recount details of the traumatic story during the interview. They were more likely to admire/idealize the victim, reporting concordant feelings of helplessness and despair. Closeness with the primary victim was likewise qualitatively associated with feelings of sameness/identification. Correspondingly, of the two women who obtained the lowest closeness coefficients, one engaged in victim blaming, and the other reported her feelings of closeness to the primary victim decreased on account of the victim’s psychological struggle following the incident.
Revisiting personal trauma. Ninety-two percent of participants endorsed prior trauma exposure and 1 participant indicated a personal history of sexual assault. She acknowledged her previous traumatic experience as “triggered” by her friend’s victimization. In describing her reaction to the vicarious incident occurring two years prior, she stated:
After my friend’s incident, things became triggered in me as well. I became hypervigilant as well. So in addition to trying to be there for her, I was struggling with some of the same reactions like walking down the street and being very hypervigilant and things like that. That has lessened much since then.
Her candid report of conscious impact strongly suggests the re-surfacing of her former traumatic experience, though with less reported intensity than when she was in a primary victim role. For this participant, her previous experience of sexual victimization cannot be separated from her reaction in the present.
Concluding Thoughts and Suggestions for Exploration
The participants in this study described their experiences serving as “witnesses” to their friends’ experiences of sexual violence. They frequently began their narratives by recounting the traumatic event, giving voice to the primary traumatic stimulus. Their descriptions incorporated dynamic and often, complex emotional responses including various manifestations of anger and guilt directed towards themselves, the perpetrator and/or the victim. Their stories spoke to the changes that occurred over time in their emotional responses, perceptions of themselves and view of the world around them.
Within these descriptions, the theme of helplessness emerged alongside a longing for control/protection. The strength and/or admired qualities in the victim served as a source of struggle for the group overall, as they wrestled to reconcile their illusions of safety with their feelings of sameness and/or idealization towards the victim. The group made connections to their personal feelings of safety and danger as women, the majority identifying decreases in their feelings of safety following the traumatic event. While the group varied in their responses to perceived reductions in safety, they tended to struggle with the idea that “nothing they could do” could keep them completely protected. A small number of women appeared to deal with this ambiguity by aligning themselves with rape myths and blaming the victim. Shifts in worldview were associated with long-term changes for some women in the sample including increases in social consciousness and/or feelings of hopelessness/disillusionment. Finally, factors of influence (multiple relationships with victims, participant phase of life, closeness to the victim, and personal history of trauma) were spoken to as they seemed to emerge in participant descriptions.
An important theme that was explored in the present qualitative analysis was worldview. Results indicated that this theme emerged as an important aspect of women’s conscious reaction to the traumatic incident. In the aforementioned study by Banyard and colleagues (2010), female friends were described as experiencing “anger at society” in response to the sexual assault of a friend. This can be discussed in light of worldview shifts in the current study. Shifts in worldview were often associated with the adoption of a “realistic” stance and loss of naiveté, including increased social awareness of gender violence or dynamics of power. It was not uncommon for women in the sample to report feelings of anger in accordance with this “newfound” knowledge. Worldview shifts of participants were likewise observed to include hopelessness, disillusionment and/or disappointment. These experiences alluded to a kind of resignation and despondency towards the world, accentuating a cognitive and emotional dissonance that for some women, negated experiences of hope and optimism.
Constructivist Self-in-Development theory views frame of reference (worldview) as a necessary structural force through which one organizes and understands their experience in the world (McCann & Pearlman, 1995). Disruption of this central psychological force is one manifestation of trauma to the self, resulting in confusion, fragmentation and disruption in the perception of a secure reality (Kohut, 1977; Herman 1992; Pearlman, 1998). Women in the study demonstrated interruption of cohesion (by virtue of self-report and the Inventory of Altered Self-Capacities), further suggesting that dialogue is warranted to fully understand the implications of this life change.
Many participants in this study recounted strong emotions the traumatic details of their friends’ assaults, linking themselves emotionally to the pain and suffering of the victim. Identification and empathy emerged as processes by which women seemed to feel the anguish of their friends. Given their various shifts in worldview and strong emotional ties to the victim, participants struggled to organize and make meaning of witnessing such violence and destruction first-hand.
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.