Studies on the Sexual Self-Schema of Women with CSA Histories

The tendency to appraise sexual stimuli more negatively and less positively also has been demonstrated in women’s perceptions of their sexual selves. Sexual self-schemas are deeply held views and attitudes about the self as a sexual being that affect the processing of sexually relevant cues and inform sexual behavior. Sexual self-schemas have primarily been studied with a self-report measure, the Sexual Self-Schema Scale (SSSS; Anderson & Cyranowski, 1994), in which women are asked to rate themselves on a series of positive and negative trait adjectives (eg, uninhibited, serious, romantic). In a study using the Sexual Self-Schema Scale, we (Meston, Rellini, Heiman, 2006) found that women with abuse histories reported less positive sexual self-schemas but no difference in negative sexual self-schemas compared with their non-abused peers, and that positive sexual self-schemas were associated with sexual function. In a later study, we (Rellini & Meston, 2011) found that women with histories of CSA reported lower positive sexual self-schemas and greater negative sexual self-schemas than non-abused women, and that the two types of sexual self-schemas were related to sexual function and sexual satisfaction. Taken together the findings from our schema studies suggest that lower positive associations with sexuality are more important to the sexual function of women with abuse histories than greater negative associations with sexuality.

We (Stanton, Boyd, Pulverman, & Meston, 2015) explored the sexual self-schemas of women with abuse histories using text analysis approaches that extract common themes, or schemas, from natural language. In contrast to self-report questionnaires, this text analysis approach enables schemas to arise organically from the data. In our first study to use this approach, we examined sexual essays written by women with and without abuse histories and identified 7 unique schemas including family and development, virginity, abuse, relationship, sexual activity, attraction, and existentialism (Stanton, Boyd, Pulverman, & Meston, 2015). When comparing the essays of women with and without abuse histories, it was noted that non-abused women used the virginity and relationship schemas significantly more than the women with abuse histories, and the women with abuse histories used the abuse and attraction schemas significantly more than the non-abused women. We posited that although the loss of virginity might be a highly salient event in the sexual development of non-abused women, this might not apply to the women with CSA histories. For women with CSA histories, it is likely that abuse experiences were more central to their early psychosexual development than the loss of virginity. In a later study, we (Stanton, Meston, & Boyd, 2017) tested the ecological validity of the differences in language use and sexual self-schema themes that emerged in our previous studies between women with and without a history of CSA. Archival natural language data were extracted from a social media website and analyzed using LIWC2015, a computerized text analysis program, and other word counting approaches. The differences in both language use and sexual self-schema themes that manifested in recent laboratory research were replicated and validated in the large online sample. To our knowledge, these results provide the first empirical examination of sexual cognitions as they occur in the real world.

We (Meston, Lorenz, Stephenson, 2013) conducted a randomized clinical trial of a 5-session expressive writing treatment for women with histories of CSA and current sexual dysfunction. The study included 2 treatment conditions that asked women to write about their trauma history or their sexual self-schemas. Women in the sexual self-schemas condition showed significant improvement in sexual function and greater improvement than women in the trauma condition, reiterating the importance of sexual self-schemas to the sexual function of women with abuse histories. In further support of the impact of sexual self-schemas on study outcomes, women’s post-treatment essays were examined with the text analysis approach described earlier, and women with CSA histories showed decreases in their use of the abuse, family and development, virginity, and attraction schemas and an increase in their use of the existentialism schema (Pulverman, Boyd, Stanton, & Meston, 2017). Expressive writing on sexual self-schemas could aid women with histories of CSA to process their abuse experiences and thus diminish the prominence of abuse in their sexual self-schemas.

Recommended papers: 

Stanton, A., Meston, C., & Boyd, R. (2017). Sexual Self-Schemas in the Real World: Exploring the Ecological Validity of Language-Based Markers of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, & Social Networking, 20(6), 382-388. PDF (238 KB)

Pulverman, C. S., Boyd, R., Stanton, A. M., & Meston, C. M. (2016). Changes in the sexual self-schema of women with a history of childhood sexual abuse following expressive writing treatment. Psychological Trauma: Theory, research, Practice, and Policy, 9(2), 181. PDF (363 KB)

Stanton, A. M., Boyd, R. L., Pulverman, C. S., & Meston, C. M. (2015). Determining women’s sexual self-schemas through advanced computerized text analysis. Child Abuse & Neglect, 46, 78-88. PDF (371 KB)

Meston, C. M., Lorenz, T. A., & Stephenson, K. R. (2013). Effects of expressive writing on sexual dysfunction, depression, and PTSD in women with a history of childhood sexual abuse: Results from a randomized clinical trial. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10(9), 2177-2189. PDF (254 KB)

Rellini, A. H. & Meston, C. M. (2011). Sexual self-schemas, sexual dysfunction, and the sexual responses of women with a history of childhood sexual abuse. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 351-362PDF (473 KB)

Meston, C. M., Rellini, A. H., & Heiman, J. R. (2006). Women’s history of sexual abuse, their sexuality, and sexual self-schemas. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 229-236. PDF (107 KB)