In Brief

Up to 38 percent of women engage in more sexually risky behaviors after experiencing a sexual assault than they did before the attack, while 48 percent significantly reduce their risky behavior, according to a new study in January's Health Psychology (Vol. 23, No. 1).

Sexually risky behavior can include sex with multiple partners, without contraception and while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, notes researcher Rebecca Campbell, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University.

Campbell and her collaborators surveyed 102 women, ages 18 to 52, who had survived a sexual assault. The researchers used an innovative sampling strategy, involving the intense recruitment of women living in randomly selected Chicago area ZIP codes.

"We saturated targeted ZIP codes with flyers--putting them wherever a woman might go in her everyday life," says Campbell. They then matched participant demographics with census data to ensure representative sampling.

Applying a battery of psychometrics, including the Cohen-Hoberman Inventory of Physical Symptoms and a sexual health risk-outcome survey, trained interviewers assessed the participants' psychological and physical health, the characteristics of their sexual assault and their perceived frequency of sexually risky behavior, as well as demographic information.

Using cluster analysis, a statistical method that determines subpopulations in a group, three distinct patterns of behavior emerged. The largest group of women--48 percent--reduced their risky behavior significantly after an assault. In fact, nearly half of this group began abstaining from sex after their assault. However, a full 38 percent of the women interviewed significantly increased their sexual risk behavior, especially their tendency to use alcohol and other drugs while engaging in sex.

According to Campbell, the data further suggest that these dramatically different responses to sexual assault seem to be predicted by the victim's interaction with police, medical professionals, the legal system and other sources of post-assault aid. In particular, rape survivors who had negative interactions with these officials, and who reported experiencing blame for their assault from these sources, tended to fall into the group of women who increased their sexual risk behaviors.

While this study design does not permit the drawing of causal inferences, future studies might explore the link between societal blame, self-blame and sexual health risk behaviors, says Campbell.