Expert Interview: Sex Assault Survivors Troubled By Political Climate

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In sexual assault victims, the hostile political rhetoric aimed at women could even trigger traumatic memories and related symptoms.
In sexual assault victims, the hostile political rhetoric aimed at women could even trigger traumatic memories and related symptoms.

In a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, approximately 50% of Americans reported experiencing distress as a result of the 2016 presidential election, regardless of party affiliation or gender.1 Some of these individuals expressed such concerns to their therapists, including patients at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “We have seen over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign that many of our patients have expressed exacerbated stress and anxiety in response to the tenor and tone of the rhetoric, specifically as it relates to sexual assault,” wrote David A. Yusko, PsyD, associate director of the Center, and Jeremy Tyler, PsyD, a postdoctoral fellow there, in a recently published paper on the topic.

According to statistics from the Department of Justice (DOJ), an estimated 380,000 Americans experience sexual assault each year, and 90% of victims are women.2 Previous findings show that a substantial percentage of women will be raped (9.2%) or sexually molested (12.2%) in their lifetime — this equals a combined total of more than 20 million women.3 Almost half of these women are likely to develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, rape has been linked with the strongest risk of PTSD in both women and men, followed by combat exposure and being molested as a child.

For sexual assault victims, the hostile political rhetoric aimed at women — and the continuous exposure to associated news stories and social media posts — may be especially distressing, and could even trigger traumatic memories and related symptoms. More broadly, for “many survivors of sexual assault, the election invalidated their experience,” the paper states. “For these survivors, the willingness of so many people to vote for a candidate despite concrete evidence of inappropriate sexually aggressive language and behavior suggests that the culture in which they live considers sexual assault acceptable.”

Psychiatry Advisor interviewed Dr Tyler to gain further insight into this issue and associated clinical implications. 

Psychiatry Advisor: What prompted you and Dr Yusko to write this paper? What sort of things were practitioners seeing at the Center in terms of the effects of triggering comments from politicians?

Dr Tyler: Dr Yusko was initially contacted to write an article providing support and information for survivors of sexual assault whose PTSD may be triggered by some of the recent political rhetoric. He and I were talking about this topic and some of our recent experiences with patients, and we agreed that this needed to be more widely discussed. We wanted to shed light on the prevalence of PTSD in sexual assault survivors and provide information on how aggressive language from politicians can affect women who have been sexually assaulted.

At the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, we specialize in treating the full spectrum of anxiety disorders, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and PTSD. I began hearing more and more from my patients about how presidential campaign rhetoric was affecting their mood and anxiety level. Anecdotally, and without giving patient-specific details, we had both witnessed an uptick of worrisome rumination, irritability, and depressed mood in individuals affected by sexual assault. The debates, the Hollywood Access tape, and the disparaging comments towards Megyn Kelly and Alicia Machado were just a few of the events that seemed to negatively affect some of our patients. At some point during the campaign, it truly started to feel like an attack on women, and that attack seemed to really resonate with several of the women we were treating.  

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