Upfront

Research has long documented that women who have been raped or experienced attempted sexual assault often develop anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, a new study suggests that sexual assault can have pernicious effects in other domains of a woman's life, including her intimate relationships, how she views her sexual and social reputation, and the quality of her family and social relationships.

The study, which appeared in the October Archives of Sexual Behavior, was intended to expand the scope of what we know about how rape affects women's lives — how it affects their functioning and decision-making as well as their psychological status, says the study's lead author, Carin Perilloux, PhD, visiting assistant professor at Union College. Her team also wanted to examine the issue through the lens of evolutionary psychology, which holds that healthy women tend to choose mates based on characteristics that bode well for long-term commitment, such as honesty, industriousness, and the ability and willingness to invest in them and their children. Among women who have been raped, however, that strategy could be undermined, says Perilloux.

In the study, the researchers asked 49 women who had been raped and 91 women who faced attempted sexual assault to rate how the event affected them in 13 domains of functioning, including sexual and social reputation, perception of attractiveness to potential mates, social and family lives, long-term relationships, and desire for and enjoyment of sex. The women also shared qualitative observations in each domain.

Both groups reported negative effects in all of the areas, but the women who had been raped reported significantly more difficulty in 11 of them, the team found. In the qualitative responses, the victims of attempted sexual assault saw the event as a warning, while rape victims viewed it as a life-altering event. In addition, rape victims were more likely to indicate that they felt the experience might affect their future choices in ways that squared with an evolutionary perspective of mate selection. For example, it was common for rape victims to report motivation to either abstain from or have indiscriminate sex because they felt their ability to attract a good mate was greatly diminished.

In addition to laying the groundwork for an evolutionary psychology perspective on rape, the findings suggest potential directions for treatment, Perilloux says. For one, women who have experienced attempted sexual assault may need intervention, just as rape victims do, she notes.

For another, the data suggest tailored treatments for each group.

"While all of the women faced the same negative outcomes, the data also suggest they experienced these events differently," Perilloux says. "So each group might benefit from treatments that focus on areas that are especially problematic for them."

—Tori DeAngelis