Research on Identification as an Abuse Survivor

One of the major criticisms in the literature on sexual abuse is an overwhelming lack of agreement on how to operationalize CSA. Individual differences in the interpretations of the same type of unwanted sexual event may be an aspect of sexual abuse that carries important meaning and warrants consideration. We (Rellini & Meston, 2009) conducted a study examining potential differences in abuse experiences and sexual outcomes between CSA survivors who do and do not identify as an abuse survivor. Women with a history of CSA who self-identified as a sexual abuse survivor were more likely to have experienced penetration of the genitals during the abuse, had a familial relationship with the perpetrator, experienced fear at the time of the abuse, and experienced the abuse more frequently than CSA survivors who did not identify as an abuse survivor.

Less than half of individuals with NSE histories identify their experiences with common sexual violence labels, such as sexual assault, rape, or sexual abuse (Kilimnik, Boyd, Stanton, & Meston, 2018; Kilimnik & Meston, 2019). Those not identifying with sexual violence labels may be less likely to reach out to support services that use those labels in their title or recruitment efforts (e.g., sexual assault crisis centers). Understanding how identification of NSEs relates to individuals’ mental and sexual health is an important area of examination, as it appears to index a more nuanced cognitive process of how individuals perceive their NSEs and make meaning of the experience within the broader context of their schemas of sexuality and the self (Kilimnik, Boyd, Stanton, and Meston, 2018; Kilimnik & Meston, 2019). In one study of women with NSE histories, we (Kilimnik, Boyd, Stanton, and Meston, 2018) found that identification with sexual violence labels was associated with a greater prominence of the NSEs in their sexual self-schemas (i.e., cognitive generalizations about sexuality and the sexual self), which predicted for decrements in their overall sexual functioning. It may be that identification with sexual violence labels involves a process of integrating NSEs into schemas that, in turn, impact sexual well-being.

The majority of the research examining sexual correlates of nonconsensual sexual experiences (NSEs) have examined these relationships for women with childhood NSEs (i.e., childhood sexual abuse). Yet, the operationalization of childhood is highly discrepant across the studies in the literature (e.g., childhood is under age 12 vs. childhood is under age 18). These heterogeneous definitions of childhood have resulted in inconsistent results in the literature. We (Kilimnik & Meston, 2017) have proposed a new developmentally relevant approach to the classification of NSE onset in the study of women’s sexual well-being that allows for NSEs to be contextualized within the sexual developmental stage the individual was in at the time of the experience. We propose three developmentally relevant categories for classifying the NSE onset, including: (1) NSE onset prior to an individuals’ age of menarche, (2) NSE onset post-menarche but prior to their first consensual sexual experience, and (3) NSE onset post-menarche and post-consensual sexual experiences. These categories serve to better index the potential developmental mechanisms that may facilitate the influence of NSEs on healthy sexual development and later life sexual concerns.

Recommended papers:

Kilimnik, C. D., & Meston, C. M. (2019). Sexual violence identification and women’s sexual well-being. Current Sexual Health Reports11, 1-8. PDF(299 KB) 

Kilimnik, C. D., Boyd, R. L., Stanton, A. M., & Meston, C. M. (2018). Identification of nonconsensual sexual experiences and sexual self-schemas of women: Implications for sexual functioning. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 47(6), 1633-1647. PDF (901 KB)

Kilimnik, C. D., & Meston, C. M. (2017). A developmentally relevant approach to the classification of nonconsensual sexual experiences in the study of women’s sexual well-being. Journal of Sex Research, 55(7), 824-836.  PDF (707 KB)

Rellini, A.H. & Meston, C.M. (2007). Sexual Function and Satisfaction in Adults Based on the Definition of Child Sexual Abuse. Journal of Sexual Medicine. PDF (331 KB)