Sexual Assault

Deconstructing The Stigma Of Sexual Assault

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Stigma is a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something; a mark of disgrace or dishonor – Merriam Webster.

Stigma—it’s an ugly word and it’s even uglier to experience. Yet a large number of survivors of sexual violence have endured the pain of stigma. It includes:

  • Stereotypes: to believe unfairly that all people or things with particular characteristics are the same.
  • Prejudice: a feeling of like or dislike for someone or something especially when it is not reasonable or logical.
  • Discrimination: the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or group of people.

Stigma often brings experiences and feelings of shame, blame, hopelessness, distress, misrepresentation, and reluctance to seek and/or accept necessary help. The impact of stigma is twofold. Public stigma is the reaction that the general population has toward victims and survivors of sexual violence.

Self-stigma is more self-directed, this is the prejudice survivors turn against themselves. Self-stigma is not a survivor’s fault; nor is it a part of the survivor’s experience! If the public did not hold negative and stigmatizing attitudes in the first place, they would never have become internalized, causing survivors the painful and disabling experience of self-stigma.

Both public and self-stigma may be understood in terms of three components: stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. Social psychologists see stereotypes as especially efficient, social knowledge structures that most members of a social group learn. Stereotypes are considered “social” because they represent collectively agreed upon notions of groups of persons. They are “efficient” because people can quickly generate impressions and expectations of individuals who belong to a stereotyped group.

Public Stigma

The behavioral impact (or discrimination) that results from public stigma may take three forms: withholding help or avoidance, coercive treatment, and segregated institutions. Withholding help can come in the form of not taking a victim’s report seriously or blaming them for their assault and labeling them unbelievable and promiscuous. The more extreme form of this behavior is social avoidance, where the public strives to not interact with victims and survivors altogether, sometimes in the guise that they would be unjustly accused (too). This discrimination can also appear in the form of public opinion about how to treat people who come forward with accounts of sexual violence.


It is right to think that survivors living in a society that widely endorses stigmatizing ideas would internalize these ideas and believe that they are less valued because of their trauma, that their self-esteem suffers, as does confidence in their future. However, research suggests that, instead of being diminished by the stigma, many survivors become righteously angry because of the prejudice that they have experienced. This kind of reaction empowers survivors to change their roles as victims, become actively involved in advocacy, and seek/become more active participants in their treatment and recovery plan.

Low self-esteem versus righteous anger describes a fundamental paradox in self-stigma. Studies that explain the experience of self-stigma strive to account for survivors whose sense of self is harmed by social stigma versus others who are energized by, and forcefully react to the injustice. And there is yet a third group that is considered in describing the impact of stigma on the self. Those whose sense of self is neither hurt, nor energized, by social stigma, but who instead show a seeming indifference to it altogether.

A survivor may experience diminished self-esteem/self-efficacy, righteous anger, or relative indifference depending on the parameters of the situation.

Important factors that affect a situational response to stigma include:

  • Collective representations that are primed in that situation
  • The person’s perception of the legitimacy of stigma in the situation
  • And the person’s identification with the larger community of survivors of sexual violence.


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