College of Liberal Arts

How women define their sexual histories affects how they are influenced by them, study

Mon, Jul 9, 2018
Image by surdumihail, pixabay
Image by surdumihail, pixabay

While it’s estimated that more than a third of women have had nonconsensual sexual experiences in their lifetime, the way they define those experiences may influence their sexual wellbeing, according to psychology researchers at The University of Texas at Austin.

Self-schemas — impressions about the self — are acquired from years of experiences and sets of personal beliefs and can affect a person’s overall well-being. And while prior research has looked at how individuals choose to define past nonconsensual sexual experiences, not much is known about how these definitions shape an individual’s sexual self-schema.

New research, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, found that women who identified their experiences with commonly used sexual violence labels — rape, sexual assault, abuse — reported lower sexual function than those with nonconsensual sexual histories who did not identify their experiences as such. 

“The degree to which a woman uses sexual violence labels when describing a past NSE seems to reflect the degree to which she has incorporated these experiences into how she views herself as a sexual being, which, in turn, is related to her overall sexual well-being,” said UT Austin psychologist Cindy Meston, Director of the Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory.

Researchers surveyed 818 women, 481 of whom had nonconsensual sexual experiences. Among those with such experiences, 305 defined the experience as either rape, assault or abuse (identifiers) while 176 did not (non-identifiers). To measure the relationship between sexual functioning and sexual schemas, respondents were also asked to self-report their sexual functioning, as measured by the Female Sexual Function Index, and engage in a 20 minute expressive writing prompt on their sexual experiences.

“The language used when writing expressively provides insight into cognitive processes that shape how individuals view themselves,” said lead author of the study Chelsea Kilimnik, a UT Austin doctoral student in clinical psychology. “When you ask someone to sit and write on their sexual self, it makes room for raw reflections on a domain of identity that is often silenced and deeply personal.”

Results showed that identifiers reported significantly lower sexual function than both non-identifiers and those without nonconsensual experiences, with no significant difference between non-identifiers and women without nonconsensual experiences.

In analyzing the respondents written reflections of their sexual experiences, researchers extracted nine themes — virginity, openness, erotophilia, nonconsensual sexual experiences, romantic, sexual activity, warmth, relationships and reflection. Identifiers invoked the nonconsensual theme more than non-identifiers and those without such experiences. Those with no nonconsensual sexual experiences invoked the warmth and openness themes more than identifiers.

Furthermore, non-identifiers and those with no nonconsensual experiences whose essays evoked warmth were more likely to experience greater sexual function. Identifiers whose essays evoked the nonconsensual theme were more likely to experience lower sexual function. Overall, individuals with nonconsensual sexual experiences had both more negative and less positive sexual schemas.

“If a potentially traumatic sexual experience is dominating a woman's mental representation of sexuality and who they are as a sexual person, it makes sense that this could have deleterious effects on their sexual well-being,” Kilimnik said. “Women with nonconsensual sexual histories may benefit from clinical work that helps reduce the prominence of such experiences in their narrative of sexuality and her sexual self. We may also want to consider the impact of the language we use to describe, label and identify other people's sexual violence experiences."

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