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Why do rape victims blame themselves?

Victim blame and self blame in sexual assault


The first thing you should know if you were raped or sexually assaulted is that:

It was not your fault.

It's one thing to say that and another to really understand why.

Why do rape victims feel guilty for being the victim of a crime?


The answer to that revolves around several issues:

1 ) The definitions of guilt and shame - only the perpetrator deserves these feelings.

2) Control (which you did not have during an assault and DO have now). You control the present and can decide to take steps towards healing.

3) Cognitive restructuring- reasoning out why it's not appropriate that you should feel guilt or shame. Try this worksheet.

4) Find out what types of counseling help reduce self blame.


Rape victims often confuse the undeserved shame they feel at having been stigmatized with the guilt meant for someone who has committed a crime. This is reinforced by secondary victimization and victim blame. This explains the difference between guilt (meant for a perpetrator) and shame (meant also for perpetrators and confused with guilt.)

The difference between

guilt v/s shame



Try using this exercise from the Courage to Heal



The misunderstandings around guilt v/s shame are still more complex. Guilt is associated with actions while shame is associated with character. Although guilt is only meant for someone who HAS done something wrong - some victims second guess their innocent actions or defense strategies. This does cause victims to feel undeserved guilt. Shame is likewise undeserved as there is nothing wrong with the character of a victim. There is something wrong with the character of a perpetrator.

Rape victims often blame themselves for the crime committed against them. Self blame is an avoidance coping skill which inhibits the healing process. This page discusses the different theories, aspects and recommended counseling strategies for understanding self blame.


There are two main types of self blame: undeserved blame based on character and undeserved blame based on actions.

These are called Characterological and Behavioral.

Behavioral self blame refers to victims feeling they should have done something differently (therefore they feel it is their fault).

Characterological self blame is when victims feel there is something inherently wrong with them (causing them to deserve to be assaulted). This type of blame is associated with more psychological negative effects.

This is illogical thinking (known as counterfactual thinking) which can be remedied by a therapeutic technique known as cognitive restructuring.

Cognitive restructuring is way to stop illogical thought patterns.

Basically that means sorting out thoughts that don't make sense and looking at the truth in a better light. The Courage to Heal has an exercise on this topic as does mind tools.

Example I

This is a Behavioral self blame thought: 'It might have turned out better if I had done something else. I should have cooperated / I should have fought back.'

This is a more reasonable thought: 'I might have been hurt worse if I hadn't done what I felt I needed to in order to stay alive.' or 'If I hadn't gone to the party I might have been assaulted anyway somewhere else. I deserve to go to a party and not be raped.' In other words: you didn't do anything wrong.

Example II

This is a Characterological self blame thought: 'I must be a bad person to deserve to be raped and not believed by anyone.'

This is a more reasonable thought: 'The only reason people don't believe me is their belief in the Just World Theory. If people knew more about rape trauma syndrome then they would know how to help me instead of derogating me to my fate.' In other words: there is nothing wrong with you. Your character is just fine. There is something wrong with society and with the perpetrator.

Related theory: Stockholm Syndrome


 The Truth Chart

Behavioral Blame / Guilt - Appropriate?

Characterological Blame / Shame - Appropriate?














Try this worksheet on changing counterfactual thoughts or the worksheet from The Courage to Heal (The Courage to Heal Workbook. Laura Davis. pp 257-260)


There are two main theories behind victim blame:

The just world theory and the invulnerability theory.

The Just world theory states that:

"Individuals that have a strong belief in a just world can have this belief challenged when they encounter a victim of random misfortune such as a rape victim. The individual wants to believe that the world is a safe, just place where people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. Even when evidence suggests otherwise, the individual is very reluctant to give up this belief that the world is not just. In the face of contradicting evidence, research suggests (Kleinke and Meyer, 1996) that people with a high belief in a just world will do one of two things: either they will try to eliminate the suffering of the innocent victims or else they will derogate them for their fate. Since it is impossible to reverse the crime of rape, and thus relieve the victim of her suffering, the rape victim is often subjected to derogation and blame. In this manner, the person who believes in a just world can maintain this belief as there is no longer a suffering person, but a woman who deserves her misfortune."

The invulnerability theory states that:

Some people blame themselves because it is a way to think 'you' had control over the situation. If it was your fault, then you were in control. It wasn't your fault and you weren't in control - but you are in control now. Understanding that there are some things we don't have control over (like world peace and the actions of criminals) is part of letting go of shame. You can control your healing process. You can reach out for help, educate yourself about rape trauma syndrome and start therapy.

Remind yourself:

"I am a human being and deserve support from others in my efforts to address problems."

"I deserve support and help to address these problems for my self-growth."


Control over your life


Wanting to think you were in control during the assault (negative results):

Self blame is thought by some to be a way to feel one had never lost control over the situation. If it is your fault- then you always had control over things and you feel less vulnerable. This type of thinking is called past control or behavioral self-blame. Feeling this way is associated with more distress partly because it is associated with greater social withdrawal.


Thinking you are in control NOW (positive results):

Present control (control over the recovery process) is associated with less distress partly because it was associated with less social withdrawal and more cognitive restructuring. If you have control NOW (in the present) then there are actually productive things you can do to improve the situation (Frazier, 2005).


Types of Counseling and Therapy


Three types of Rape Crisis Center counseling responses were judged to be helpful in reducing feelings of self-blame:

(a) Supportive responses see: Please read "If you were my sister..."

(b) Psychoeducational responses (learning about rape trauma syndrome) see: Effects of rape

(c) Those responses addressing the issue of blame. (Matsushita-Arao, 1997 ) see: Victim blame or Self blame

A recommended type of treatment (by a trained therapist) is cognitive restructuring or cognitive therapy. Other recommended treatments for PTSD can be found here. This type of therapy helps with reduction in Behavioral Self-Blame. It is thought that reduction in Behavioral Self Blame drives recovery. (Koss & Figueredo, 2004)

Present control (control over the recovery process) is similar to learning about rape trauma syndrome and seeking therapy. Feeling that you did NOT control the assault but control the present situation is associated with less social withdrawal and more cognitive restructuring (Frazier, 2005). You control the present and can decide to take steps towards healing.


Is self blame a negative thing? Yes.

Self blame is sometimes associated with avoidance coping which inhibits the healing process. (Littleton, 2006)


More about the nature of shame and guilt

Some theories state that rape victims are confusing shame with guilt. They are distinct from each other. Research has found that:

  • Embarrassment was associated with transgressions of conventions that govern public interactions,
  • Shame with the failure to meet important personal standards, and
  • Guilt with actions that harm others or violate duties. (Dacher, 1996)


What are the roles of shame and guilt in the after math of rape?

  • Shame has been found to be a factor in substance abuse problems whereas guilt has not. (Collete & Nicholas, 1995)
  • Abusive environments have also been linked to shame-prone tendencies as opposed to guilt-prone. (Collete & Nicholas, 1995)
  • There is a distinct difference between shame and guilt, who feels it and why.
  • Shame is also linked to repressed anger in both men and women. It manifests as shame more often in women and anger more often in men. (Collete & Nicholas, 1995)


Shame-proneness is also described as "(the tendency to feel bad about the self) relates to a variety of life problems, whereas guilt-proneness (the tendency to feel bad about a specific behavior) is more likely to be adaptive." (Dearing et. al., 2005) This perhaps explains why perpetrators of crimes may fare better psychologically than victims. If shame is related to more psychological problems than guilt then the perpetrator of the crime would suffer less complications. This relates to the invulnerability theory in that the victim leans toward accepting responsibility for something they did not do in order to maintain psychological stability. Guilt is psychologically easier to bear than shame for a reason. Guilt is the result of actions taken. Shame is the result of a feeling about one's character. It is easier to alter actions and feel removed from them than it is to change character or self. Research on shame and guilt


All of this is a part of counterfactual thinking: Meaning, literally, contrary to the facts. It also refers to thinking about 'what might have been'.

Counterfactual thinking is also linked to greater attributions of self blame. (Mandel & Dhami, 2005), (Niedenthal et., al. 1994), more research on counterfactual thinking

This can be stopped by using cognitive restructuring: Stop telling yourself the bad story and tell yourself a good story instead. One that says you did the right thing - things might have been worse had you not done what you needed to do to stay alive.


Other factors to consider in self blame (see below articles) are the role of PTSD in shame and guilt, religious belief systems and more.

see also: Research on self blame in rape victims


Related Links


Reactions to victimization.


Another aspect to consider in understanding self blame is when the victim identifies with the perpetrator's world view in order to understand what will help them survive. One such phenomenon is known as the Stockholm Syndrome.

"Victims of especially severe abuse often 'identify with the abuser' in order to survive. This means she will actually begin to agree with the criticisms and perspectives of the abuser while her own personality, opinions, and views fade to the background. This is a serious set of psychological events called the 'Stockholm Syndrome.'"


"It has been found that four situations or conditions are present that serve as a foundation for the development of Stockholm Syndrome. These four situations can be found in hostage, severe abuse, and abusive relationships:

- The presence of a perceived threat to one's physical or psychological survival and the belief that the abuser would carry out the threat
- The presence of a perceived small kindness from the abuser to the victim
- Isolation from perspectives other than those of the abuser
- The perceived inability to escape the situation

"The victim has the sense they are always "walking on eggshells" – fearful of saying or doing anything that might prompt a violent/intimidating outburst.

For their survival, they begin to see the world through the abuser's perspective.

They begin to fix things that might prompt an outburst, act in ways they know makes the abuser happy, or avoid aspects of their own life that may prompt a problem...in Stockholm Syndrome there is a daily preoccupation with "trouble". Trouble is any individual, group, situation, comment, casual glance, or cold meal that may produce a temper tantrum or verbal abuse from the controller or abuser...The abusing partner may threaten to spread rumors or tell intimate details or secrets. A type of blackmail using intimacy is often found in these situations."


Survivor guilt


"A deep sense of guilt, combined often with feelings of numbness and loss of interest in life, felt by those who have survived some catastrophe....

Challenge irrational thoughts. Ask yourself what you truly could have done at the time of the disaster. Remind yourself who is to blame -- you are not to blame. Grieve for those who perished and for the loss of innocence. But, do not accept responsibility for that loss."


Origins of Self-Blame and Survivor Guilt


"Self-blame arises in part from the fact that powerlessness and helplessness are two of the worst feelings any human being can experience. Yet being and feeling powerless or helpless in the face of great danger is the very definition of trauma. However, people prefer to think that they are able to control their lives, so it is easier to blame themselves for negative events than to acknowledge that sometimes life is unfair or arbitrary and innocent people can be victimized for no reason.

Consequently, to maintain a sense of being in control you may view yourself, rather than chance, as responsible for one or more aspects of the trauma--perhaps for all of it. In this way, self-blame can be a means of regaining the power that was lost during the traumatic event." Eating disorders and sexual assault research


PTSD and survivor guilt


"The study of guilt has received increased prominence
over the past ten years, allowing guilt experiences
to be further categorised, assessed and
treated (Glover 1984 and 1988, Hendin and Haas
1991, Kubany 1994). Guilt can be categorised in a
number of ways, two common categories associated
with PTSD are:

  • Survivor guilt: evidenced by ruminating about
    the person’s self-worth when compared to others;
    ‘My child deserved to live more than I’, with
    self blame and self punishment being prominent
    themes as the person feels responsible and
    guilty for surviving a trauma where a
    friend/family member died.

  • Commissioned guilt: evidenced by ruminating
    about one’s responsibility and wrong-doing due
    to an act – for example, a police officer who
    shoots and kills an armed robber, but later finds
    out that the robber’s gun was a replica.




NiCarthy, G. (1982). Emotional abuse. In Getting Free. Seattle: WA: Seal Press: 285-304.

Book chapter focuses on personal life dilemmas such as terror, inability to act independently due to erosion of self esteem. Issues of control, manipulation by perpetrator and self-blame as examined. Biderman's Chart of Coercion is included as well as questionnaires to measure levels of abuse. Recommended for general public and professionals.


Journal articles


Scholarly journal article citations on survivor guilt



Matsushita-Arao, Yoshiko. (1997). Self-blame and depression among forcible rape survivors. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering. 57(9-B). pp. 5925.


The purposes of this study were four-fold. The first purpose was to determine the relationship between rape survivors' self-blame (behavioral, characterological, and total amount of self-blame) and time (retrospective and current assessments). For the retrospective assessment, survivors rated their feelings of self-blame immediately following their rape and before receiving Rape Crisis Center (RCC) treatment. For the current assessment, survivors rated their feelings of self-blame at the time of completing this study's questionnaire and after having received RCC treatment. The second purpose was to identify whether perceived severity was a better predictor of current total amounts of self-blame and depression than actual severity. The third purpose was to determine the relationships between current self-blame and depression and various pre-assault, assault, and post-assault variables. The fourth purpose was to identify the relationships between RCC contacts (number of contacts and amount of satisfaction) and current self-blame and depression. Participants were women survivors of adult forcible rape identified by staff members at 14 RCCs. Questionnaires were mailed to 50 women who agreed to participate, and of these, 42 (84%) returned them. Wilcoxin Signed-Ranks test for matched pairs, simple correlations, and multiple regression were used to analyze the data. The major findings were: (1) RCC survivors reported experiencing less total, behavioral, and characterological amounts of self-blame currently than they retrospectively reported experiencing right after their rape. (2) The best predictor of current total amount of self-blame using pre-assault, assault, and post-assault variables was the relationship to the assailant(s). Survivors who knew their assailant(s) reported experiencing more self-blame. (3) The best predictor of current amount of depression was the amount of time since the rape. As the amount of time increased, the survivors reported experiencing less depression. (4) Three types of RCC counseling responses were judged to be helpful in reducing feelings of self-blame: (a) supportive responses, (b) psychoeducational responses, and (c) those responses addressing the issue of blame. (5) There was an inverse relationship between the number of RCC counseling contacts for the rape and the current total amount of self-blame. As the number of contacts increased, the survivors reported experiencing less self-blame. Implications of the findings are discussed.



Branscombe, Nyla R.; Wohl, Michael J. A.; Owen, Susan; Allison, Julie A.; N'gbala, Ahogni. (2003). Counterfactual Thinking, Blame Assignment, and Well-Being in Rape Victims. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 25 (4). p265, 9p.

Blame assignment and well-being among women who had been raped (N = 85) were investigated as a function of counterfactual thinking. The more upward counterfactuals (i.e., ways the rape might have been avoided) victims concurred with where some aspect of the self was mutated, the poorer their well-being. The effect of such upward counterfactual thinking on well-being was mediated by increases in self-blame. The amount of blame assigned to both the rapist and society did not mediate the effect of counterfactual thinking on well-being. These observed effects of counterfactual thinking on blame assignment are consistent with those obtained with uninvolved observers and with victims of other types of trauma. Models testing other possible relationship orderings were not supported. Implications for intervention strategies with rape victims are considered.



Frazier, Patricia A.; Mortensen, Heather; Steward, Jason. (2005). Coping Strategies as Mediators of the Relations Among Perceived Control and Distress in Sexual Assault Survivors. Journal of Counseling Psychology. 52 (3). p267-278.


Two studies assessed whether coping strategies mediate the relations among 2 forms of perceived control (past and present control) and postassault distress among female sexual assault survivors. In Study 1, longitudinal data were gathered from 2 weeks to 1 year postassault (N = 171). Past control (behavioral self-blame) was associated with more distress partly because it was associated with greater social withdrawal. Present control (control over the recovery process) was associated with less distress partly because it was associated with less social withdrawal and more cognitive restructuring. In Study 2, cross-sectional data were gathered from a community sample of nonrecent survivors of sexual assault (N = 131). Coping strategies again mediated the relations among the measures of past and present control and distress.


Littleton, Heather; Breitkopf, Carmen Radecki.. (2006). COPING WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF RAPE. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30 (1), p106-116.


The coping strategies that a victim of a rape engages in can have a strong impact on the development and persistence of psychological symptoms. Research provides evidence that victims who rely heavily on avoidance strategies, such as suppression, are less likely to recover successfully than those who rely less heavily on these strategies. The present study utilized structural path analysis to identify predictors of avoidance coping following rape and examined factors in the assault itself (e.g., force, alcohol use), sequelae of the assault (e.g., self-blame, loss of self-worth), and social support as potential direct and indirect predictors of avoidance coping. From a sample of 1,253 university women, the responses of 216 women who endorsed an experience of rape were examined. Results suggested that sequelae of the assault such as feelings of self-blame and negative reactions received from others are potentially important predictors of avoidance coping. Implications of the results for future rape recovery research are discussed.


Walker, Jayne; Archer, John; Davies, Michelle. (2005). Effects of Rape on Men: A Descriptive Analysis. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 34 (1). p69-80, 12p.


Previous studies of the effects of rape on men have focused mainly on clinical populations. This study extended current research by investigating the effects of rape on a non-clinical sample of men recruited from the general population by media advertising. A total of 40 male rape victims were asked to provide details of their assaults, levels of psychological disturbance, long-term effects, and reporting issues. Results revealed that most assaults had been carried out using physical or violent force, in a variety of different circumstances. All of the victims reported some form of psychological disturbance as a result of being raped. Long-term effects included anxiety, depression, increased feelings of anger and vulnerability, loss of self-image, emotional distancing, self-blame, and self-harming behaviors. Findings are discussed in relation to previous research in the area and perceptions of rape.


Panepinto, Amberly R. (2005). Meaning reconstruction and recovery in rape survivors. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 66(1-B). pp. 568.

While some research has focused on the meanings created by women after an episode of violence, none has focused on the meaning-making process. The present study explores the meaning-making process after a rape, specifically investigating how women's constructions of the rape and the self change over time. The study was rooted in personal construct psychology, a theory that focuses on the ways that we create meanings. Narrative methods were used, and the data analysis was conducted through grounded theory. Themes will be presented for each participant individually and across participants. Themes across participants include finding a sense of purpose, confronting the perpetrator, rejecting self-blame, taking responsibility for the recovery process, finding a support network, and struggles with relationships and body image. Implications for recovery models, therapy, and personal construct psychology will be discussed.


Foa, Edna B.; Rauch, Sheila A. M. (2004). Cognitive Changes During Prolonged Exposure Versus Prolonged Exposure Plus Cognitive Restructuring in Female Assault Survivors With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 72(5). pp. 879-884.

The authors report on changes in cognitions related to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among 54 female survivors of sexual and nonsexual assault with chronic PTSD who completed either prolonged exposure alone or in combination with cognitive restructuring. Treatment included 9-12 weekly sessions, and assessment was conducted at pretreatment, posttreatment, and a modal 12-month follow-up. As hypothesized, treatment that included prolonged exposure resulted in clinically significant, reliable, and lasting reductions in negative cognitions about self, world, and self-blame as measured by the Posttraumatic Cognitions Inventory. The hypothesis that the addition of cognitive restructuring would augment cognitive changes was not supported. Reductions in these negative cognitions were significantly related to reductions in PTSD symptoms. The addition of cognitive restructuring did not significantly augment the cognitive changes. Theoretical implications of the results are discussed.



Branscombe, Nyla R.; Wohl, Michael J. A.; Owen, Susan; Allison, Julie A.; N'gbala, Ahogni. (2003). Counterfactual Thinking, Blame Assignment, and Well-Being in Rape Victims. Basic & Applied Social Psychology. 25 (4). p265, 9p.


Blame assignment and well-being among women who had been raped (N = 85) were investigated as a function of counterfactual thinking. The more upward counterfactuals (i.e., ways the rape might have been avoided) victims concurred with where some aspect of the self was mutated, the poorer their well-being. The effect of such upward counterfactual thinking on well-being was mediated by increases in self-blame. The amount of blame assigned to both the rapist and society did not mediate the effect of counterfactual thinking on well-being. These observed effects of counterfactual thinking on blame assignment are consistent with those obtained with uninvolved observers and with victims of other types of trauma. Models testing other possible relationship orderings were not supported. Implications for intervention strategies with rape victims are considered.


Frazier, Patricia A. (2003). Perceived control and distress following sexual assault: A longitudinal test of a new model. ; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 84(6) pp. 1257-1269.

Longitudinal data were collected from female sexual assault survivors (N=171) at 4 points postassault. Consistent with the predictions of the temporal model (P. Frazier, M. Berman, & J. Steward, 2002), past, present, and future control were differentially related to posttrauma distress. Both personal past (behavioral self-blame) and vicarious past (rapist blame) control were associated with higher distress levels. In addition, the belief that future assaults are less likely was more strongly associated with lower distress levels than was future control. Present control (i.e., control over the recovery process) was most adaptive. Hierarchical linear modeling analyses revealed that changes in perceived control were associated with changes in distress after linear change in distress over time was accounted for.


Nadon, Susan Margaret. (1972). The relationship between blame and symptomatology among female victims of acquaintance rape. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences. 64(6-A). pp.

In recent years, awareness of the rape of women by acquaintances has been brought to public attention. The empirical literature suggests that while the consequences of stranger rape (SR) victims are also common among acquaintance rape (AR), AR victims tend to blame themselves at a higher rate than their SR counterparts. Although blaming others for the victimization has received less research attention, a small body of literature indicated that other blame was related to negative consequences following threatening events. Out of a sample of 804 female Introductory Psychology students, 66 participants were identified as victims of AR. When the victim-offender relationship was restricted to include only romantic and non-romantic acquaintances and exclude victims of stranger rape, there was a trend toward significance suggesting that assaults by less intimate acquaintances were related to higher self-blame, not less, as predicted. Backward multiple regressions showed that low resistance by the victim was associated with high self-blame whereas high resistance was related to high perpetrator blame. As expected, AR victims reported more psychological symptoms compared to a matched comparison group of non-acquaintance rape victims or non-victims. Unexpectedly, prior childhood sexual victimization was unrelated to self-blame, perpetrator blame, or psychological distress. Self-blame was the only significant predictor of symptomatology. Implications for treatment and suggestions for future research are presented.


Koss, Mary P.; Figueredo, Aurelio José; Prince, Ronald J. (2002). Cognitive mediation of rape's mental, physical and social health impact: Tests of four models in cross-sectional data. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 70(4). pp. 926-941.


Four nested, theoretically specified, increasingly complex models were tested representing cognitive mediation of rape's effects on mental, physical, and social health. Data were cross-sectional (N = 253 rape survivors). Outcomes were standardized assessments of social maladjustment, physical, and psychological symptoms, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The best-fitting model was not fully cognitively mediated. Personological and rape characteristics influenced the level of self-blame experienced and the intensity of maladaptive beliefs about self and others. Self-blame and maladaptive beliefs predicted psychological distress, which strongly influenced all health outcomes. Self-ratings of rape memory characteristics contributed little to predicting postrape distress. The model accounted for 56% of the variance in general distress, including 91% of psychological symptom severity; 54% of PTSD symptoms; 65% of social maladjustment; and 17% of physical symptoms. Longitudinal replication is planned.


Shimp, Lana Noel (2002). A model of sexual assault acknowledgment: Blame, social support, posttraumatic stress, and posttraumatic growth. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering. 62(11-B). pp. 5392.


Previous research has indicated that approximately half of the women who have experiences which are consistent with legal descriptions of rape do not identify themselves as having experienced a rape. A model of sexual assault/rape acknowledgment was proposed, which attempts to integrate previous research in the area which suggests that the circumstances of the assault (i.e., relationship with the assailant, resistance and force), perceptions of significant others' and societal attitudes towards rape, attributions of blame, disclosure, unsupportive behavior from others, posttraumatic stress symptomatology, and posttraumatic growth may be important in terms of understanding acknowledgment. Path analysis was used to test this model as applied to sexual assault acknowledgment. The final sample consisted of 238 university women who had experiences consistent with legal definitions of sexual assault. This sample was obtained after screening 2552 female students based on their previous unwanted sexual experiences. The proposed model received partial support and a better fitting model was derived. Contrary to expectations, sexual assault acknowledgment was not associated with greater posttraumatic growth, as posttraumatic stress accounted for the observed relationship between sexual assault acknowledgment and posttraumatic growth. Thus, the results of this study contradict clinical and feminist literature, which suggests that acknowledgment is necessary in order to facilitate growth following a sexual trauma. More forceful assaults, greater perpetrator blame, more posttraumatic stress symptomatology, less negative perceptions of significant others' attitudes towards rape, and more negative perceptions of societal attitudes towards rape were all directly related to greater sexual assault acknowledgment. The relationship with the perpetrator, self blame, resistance, and unsupportive behavior were indirectly related to sexual assault acknowledgment. As expected, women who had experiences which were consistent with legal definitions of rape/sexual assault were more likely to use the term "sexual assault" rather than the term "rape" to describe their forced sexual experience. This study illustrates the complexity of the process of sexual assault acknowledgment, as there are many possible paths to acknowledgment. The results are discussed in terms of sexual assault reporting, clinical applications, and theoretical issues.



Neville, Helen A.; Heppner, Mary J.; Oh, Euna; Spanierman, Lisa B.; Clark, Mary. (2004). General And Culturally Specific Factors Influencing Black And White Rape Survivors' Self-Esteem. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 28(1). p83-94, 12p.


Grounded in a culturally inclusive ecological model of sexual assault recovery framework, the influence of personal (e.g., prior victimization), rape context (e.g., degree of injury during last assault), and postrape response factors (e.g., general and cultural attributions, rape related coping) on self-esteem of Black and White college women, who were survivors of attempted and completed rape, were examined. As predicted, Black and White women identified similar general variables (e.g., general attributions) as important in the recovery process. Black women, however, identified a cultural factor (i.e., cultural attributions) as more important in influencing their reactions to the last rape compared to their White counterparts. Using path analysis, findings from this cross-sectional study indicated that severity of the last assault and prior victimization were related to lower self-esteem indirectly through avoidance coping strategies, and victim blame attributions for the latter. Results also suggested that the link between cultural attributions and self-esteem was explained through victim blame attributions, primarily for Black participants. The model accounted for 26% of variance in self-esteem.



Ullman, Sarah E. (1996). Social reactions, coping strategies, and self-blame attributions in adjustment to sexual assault. ; Psychology of Women Quarterly. 20(4). pp. 505-526.


The present study investigated the impact of social reactions of others to sexual-assault victims on disclosure of their victimization. A convenience sample of adult sexual-assault victims (N = 155) completed a mail survey in which they reported information about their sexual assaults and postassault experiences. As expected, all negative social reactions were strongly associated with increased psychological symptoms, whereas most positive social reactions were unrelated to adjustment. The only social reactions related to better adjustment were being believed and being listened to by others. Victims experiencing negative social reactions also reported poorer adjustment even when other variables known to affect psychological recovery were controlled. Avoidance coping mediated the association of negative social reactions with adjustment. Implications of these findings for research and treatment of sexual-assault survivors are discussed.



Foster MD, Matheson K, Poole M. (1994). Responding to sexual discrimination: the effects of societal versus self-blame. J Soc Psychol. 134(6):743-54.link


Although self-blame has been considered to be a useful coping tool for victims, its benefits within the context of group discrimination are equivocal. The present research hypothesized that women encouraged to engage in self-blame for sex discrimination would be more likely to endorse accepting the situation or to endorse the use of individual, normative actions. In contrast, women encouraged to engage in societal blame for sex discrimination would be more likely to participate in nonnormative actions aimed at enhancing the status of women as a group. Female students in Canada were subjected to a situation of discrimination and were encouraged to blame either themselves or society. They were then given the opportunity to respond to the discrimination by endorsing various actions. A profile analysis of the endorsed actions indicated that the women encouraged to blame themselves were most likely to endorse accepting the situation, whereas the women encouraged to blame society endorsed nonnormative individual confrontation.


Janoff-Bulman R. (1979). Characterological versus behavioral self-blame: inquiries into depression and rape. J Pers Soc Psychol. 37(10):1798-809. link


Two types of self-blame--behavioral and characterological--are distinguished. Behavioral self-blame is control related, involves attributions to a modifiable source (one's behavior), and is associated with a belief in the future avoidability of a negative outcome. Characterological self-blame is esteem related, involves attributions to a relatively nonmodifiable source (one's character), and is associated with a belief in personal deservingness for past negative outcomes. Two studies are reported that bear on this self-blame distinction. In the first study, it was found that depressed female college students engaged in more characterologial self-blame than nondepressed female college students, whereas behavioral self-blame did not differ between the two groups; the depressed population was also characterized by greater attributions to chance and decreased beliefs in personal control. Characterological self-blame is proposed as a possible solution to the "paradox in depression." In a second study, rape crisis centers were surveyed. Behavioral self-blame, and not characterological self-blame, emerged as the most common response of rape victims to their victimization, suggesting the victim's desire to maintain a belief in control, particularly the belief in the future avoidability of rape. Implications of this self-blame distinction and potential directions for future research are discussed.


Coffey, P., Leitenberg, H., Henning, K., Turner, T., & Bennett, R.T. (1996). Mediators of the long term impact of child sexual abuse: Perceived stigma, betrayal, powerlessness, and self-blame. Child Abuse & Neglect, 20, 447-455.


Libow, J. & Doty, D. (1979). An exploratory approach to self-blame and self-derogation by rape victims. American-Journal-of-Orthopsychiatry, 49(4), 670-679.



Non-Rational Guilt in Victims of Trauma

The guilt many victims of physical and psychological trauma experience in response to their victimization often contains non-rational content which, when analyzed, is more appropriate to the perpetrator. This non-rational perpetrator guilt is imposed on the victim under two primary conditions: 1) attribution, in which the perpetrator disavows guilt and blames the victim for the victimization; and 2) terror, which results in the victim's rapid incorporation of essentially the entire world view of the perpetrator, including the perpetrator's guilt. Guilt results when some aspect of a moral system is transgressed. There are four aspects of a moral system reflecting different levels of guilt and four basic components of guilt within each level. The perpetrator's violation of one aspect of a moral system may be processed by the victim at the level of another aspect, making resolution difficult. Resolution involves careful analysis of the content of the guilt to enable the victim to identify its source.


see also: Research on self blame in rape victims


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Search terms: avoidance coping, avoidance strategies, suppression, Past control (behavioral self-blame), maladaptive beliefs, personal construct psychology, a theory that focuses on the ways that we create meanings, prolonged exposure; cognitive changes; cognitions; cognitive restructuring; female assault survivors; posttraumatic stress disorder, survivor self-blame,


Thoughts for further research: The role of avoidance coping in self blame as well as the negative effects avoidance coping has on the healing process. Coping skills to replace avoidance coping and how to distribute those to the survivor community.


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