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WIU Study About Sexual Assault Survivors


Survivors of sexual assault frequently confide in family and friends. New research is underway to examine how that impacts their recovery.

According to national statistics [.pdf], 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime and that figure is slightly higher for women in college at 1 in 4. What’s even more common is for a survivor to tell someone details about what happened.

"Disclosure after a sexual assault can either really help survivors deal with what happened to them or actually have a really negative effect."

That's the focus of a pioneer study led by Dr. Bridget Welch, an assistant professor of sociology at Western Illinois University. Welch is analyzing how a sexual assault survivor's social network impacts their recovery.

Previous research on sexual assault has focused on how an individual or people in general have effected the survivor. But for this study, Welch and her team will interview the survivor, everyone she talked to about the assault followed by everyone they told about it. She estimates needing to speak with 80 people to complete a single case.

"If I tell my mom that I have been sexually assaulted and she has a reaction to me that reaction is usually in the moment but over time she is going to talk to other people. And that's going to change how she interacts with me. So this larger network is really going to shape my outcomes because it's going to shape how other people are reacting to me," Welch says.

To participate in the study, applicants must be female, 18 or older and have been sexually assaulted in Macomb, IL. Welch says each participant will analyze each disclosure they made in terms of their perception of it's quality.

"Disclosure after a sexual assault can either really help survivors deal with what happened to them or actually have a really negative effect on them depending on how the person reacted to them," Welch says.

How did they respond?

  • Victim blaming (ex. Said "you could have done more to prevent this experience from occurring")
  • Treated you differently (ex. Avoided talking to you or spending time with you)
  • Ego (ex. Focused on his/her own needs and ignored yours)
  • Tangible Aid (ex. Told you about the available resources such as victim services)
  • Distract (ex. Told you to stop thinking about it)
  • Took Control of the Situation (ex. Treated you as if you were a child or somehow incompetent)

Welch and her team including Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Melanie Hetzel-Riggin at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, Associate Professor of Sociology Dr. Craig Tollini  at WIU and Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Dr. Jessica Bonnan-White, at Stockton State College have received a $6,500 grant from WIU for the study. Most of that money will go toward paying participants. Welch says she hopes to have all interviews collected before semesters end. Then she plans to submit the findings to apply and apply for national grants in order to expand the study.

So far, more than a dozen women have volunteered since the call for participants went out late last week.

Emily Boyer is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.