Researching sexual revictimisation

My research activities largely focus on the prevention of, healing from, and resilience in the face of, sexual assault. In particular I am interested in the phenomenon of sexual revictimisation, both in terms of understanding the causal mechanisms and developing effective interventions. This includes interventions aimed at survivors, their childhood guardians and potential offenders, and includes consideration of the applicability of various restorative justice processes. Additionally, some of my research examines the attitudes of other people towards those who have experienced sexual revictimisation.  My aim in this type of research is to develop training that helps to create a more empathetic response to survivors of sexual revictimisation.  Ultimately I hope that this will aid a greater proportion of survivors who choose to report their experiences to the police or other professionals to gain a sense of justice and to not feel retraumatised by these interactions. Finally, I have also been concerned with ensuring that I conduct research on this topic in a sensitive and compassionate manner.  Thus I have written several papers on the ethical implications of researching sexual revictimisation (Wager 2011; Wager 2012a).

So what is sexual revictimisation? Well, in the case of my research I have been using this phrase to refer to the phenomenon where some children who have experienced childhood sexual abuse (CSA) grow up to become sexual assaulted by different perpetrators in adolescence and/or adulthood. In the wider research literature the phrase also refers to people who have only experienced repeated incidents of sexual assault in adulthood, again at the hands of different perpetrators.  In terms of my published work I have written a book chapter (Wager 2012b) which discusses a number of theories that attempt to explain why sexual revictimisation happens in a way that doesn’t instantly blame the survivors themselves.

My first study which examined what factors are associated with a greater risk for revictmisation was a community-based, web-survey which attracted 481 adults who responded to the invitation to participate.  To-date this study has revealed a number of previously unknown findings and has provided further support for the findings for other researchers.  In brief the key findings include:

  • about 1/4 of the sample reported experiencing some form of contact childhood sexual victimisation prior to the age of 14
  • about 2/3 of those who experienced CSA went on to be sexually re-victimised by a different offender in either adolescence or adulthood
  • whilst males were less likely to report CSA, still 2/3 of the males who reported CSA also reported being revictimised in either adolescence or adulthood.
  • about 30% of people who experienced CSA experienced revictimisations both in adolescence and adulthood.
  • 23% of the people who reported experiencing CSA also reported that for a period of time they had absolutely no memory or awareness of the fact that they had been sexually abused as a child.  However, in later life they had suddenly and unexpectedly begun to recall these memories of abuse.  I refer to this as having amnesia for memories of the abuse.
  • The average age for people to suddenly remember their childhood abuse experiences, was 30 years, with some people not knowing until in their 50’s.
  • Being ‘amnesic for memories’ of the CSA was found to be associated with a very high risk for sexual revictimisation, particularly that occurring during adolescence.  Indeed, almost 90% of amnesic CSA survivors reported being sexually revictimised by a different perpetrator during adolescence.
  • To me, this finding is extremely important because it means that those who are at greatest risk for sexual revictimisation are unlikely to be assessing services or support organisations which might assist them in minimising risk.  This means, that the most effective interventions will be those that can be developed for and delivered to all young people in schools, and not those that target known survivors of CSA.
  • I have called the phenomenon of children who have experienced CSA at the hands of a caregiver (e.g. a parent, step parent, grand-parent etc.) and who attempted to tell someone of the abuse when they were a child, but the person they told then either disbelieved them or blamed them in some way, as being ‘doubly-betrayed’.  That is, they have been betrayed by their carers through the abuse, and betrayed by someone they trusted enough to tell, though their inappropriate response to the disclosure.
  • Adults whose responses on the survey indicated that they had been doubly betrayed, were the most likely to report a prior period of amnesia for CSA and were at greatest risk for sexual revictimisation.
  • Importantly, in adulthood risk for revictimisation was more strongly linked with a negative reaction to their childhood disclosure of abuse, than it was to CSA itself.
  • No protective effect was found for a positive response to a childhood disclosure of CSA.  Whilst some might view this negatively, the positive message that can be taken from this is that there is no perfect response to a disclosure, but there are types of responses that need to be avoided.  For example, those that suggest that the child’s allegations are not believed or that the child is blamed for the actions of the offender.
  • On finding the above, I spent the day in all the book shops in my local town centre examining all of the pregnancy and childcare books to see what advice new or expectant parents are offered on the topic of CSA.  NONE, was my finding.  Thus it is not surprising that parents, who for young children tend to be the most likely recipients of a disclosure, are ill prepared to know how to respond. So I argue that there need for greater awareness raising in the general population about CSA and for advice on how to effectively respond to a child when they begin to disclose.

I have published two papers so far from this study (1) Amnesia and risk for revictimisation (Wager, 2012c) and 2) Double Betrayal and risk for revictimisation (Wager, 2013).  But have also several more that I am just in the process of finishing writing.  One of these is on adult’s reflections on disclosing (or reasons for not disclosing) CSA as a child.  This analysis and resultant paper offer suggestions for the ways in which trusted adults can make it easier for children to tell of their abuse (Wager in preparation). – Maybe I’ll tell you more about this in another post 🙂

Finally, the motivation of my research on attitudes towards survivors of sexual revictimisation comes the findings in studies of the tendency of the police to no-crime (nowadays, no further action) reports of sexual assault made by complainants who are known to a previous history of sexual victimisation. My aim was to determine whether the general public were also as likely to disbelieve complainants of sexual revictimisation as are the police. The study was based on an experimental study in which my participants are asked to read one of 10 different hypothetical sexual assault scenarios, and then to complete a questionnaire which examined how likely they were to believe the allegation or to blame the complainant for their victimisation.  Sadly, the findings suggest that revictimisation which is characterised by CSA followed by an adult sexual assault and where the childhood perpetrator had been convicted, is the least likely to be believed in relation to the allegation made in adulthood.  The findings from this study and the associated literature search are currently being used in a victim-empathy training I am delivering to Bedfordshire Police (Wager, under review).

My latest study is an interview study with survivors of various forms of sexual victimisation, which I am conducting to see if I can unravel the process and circumstances through which CSA leads to a heightened risk for revictimisation in later adulthood.  To-date there has been no qualitative study on this topic in which survivors have been able to offer their own opinions and relay their own experiences.  And so onward we go…


References (Please feel free to request copies directly from me)

Wager, N. (2011) Researching Sexual Revictimisation: Associated Ethical and Methodological Issues and Possible Solutions. Child Abuse Review, 20(3): 158-72

Wager, N. (2012a) Respondents’ experiences of completing a retrospective web-based sexual-trauma survey: Does a history of sexual victimisation equate with risk for harm? Violence & Victims, 27(6): 991-1004

Wager, N. (2012b) “Sexual Revictimisation: Theoretical pathways from childhood sexual abuse to adult sexual assault.” In J. Brayford, F. Cowe & J. Deering (eds) Sex Offenders Punish, Help Change or Control? Theory, policy and practice explored.  London: Routledge

Wager, N. (2012) Psychogenic Amnesia for Childhood Sexual Abuse and Risk for Sexual Revictimisation in both Adolescence and Adulthood. Sex Education, 12(3): 331-349

Wager, N. (2013) Sexual revictimisation: Double Betrayal and the Risk Associated with Dissociative Amnesia.  Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 22(7): 878-899

Wager, N. (under review) An experimental investigation of the perceived credibility of complainants of sexual revictimisation: Disbelief or victim-blame.  Violence and Victims

Wager, N. (in preparation) Children’s disclosures of sexual abuse: A retrospective analysis of the responses of the recipients.  Child Abuse Review




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