What I find most interesting in some ways is explaining to laypeople the concept of counterintuitive victim behavior, which speaks to the set of expectations, beliefs and assumptions laypersons and even many professionals hold about the way a sexual assault or intimate partner violence victims do or ought to respond to the violence perpetrated against them.
When a victim fails to react in ways that comport with an individual’s beliefs or expectations about how ‘real victims’ do or ought to respond, those victims accounts are met with disbelief and their credibility is questioned.
For example, most people believe that if someone was being sexually assaulted, that they would fight strenuously to resist the attack. Consequently, if a victim complies with her perpetrator’s demands, and does not employ high levels of physical resistance, laypersons and even many law enforcement professionals often doubt the veracity of her account.
However, research indicates that most women do not respond to sexual assaults by using forceful resistance, especially when the offender is someone they know or have been intimately involved with, and in the absence of weapons or injuries.
Likewise, it is expected that a sexual assault victim would immediately rush to the police and the hospital, even though many victims don’t report immediately.
Finally, while sexual assault victims are expected to show a lot of excess emotions, oftentimes, they appear numb, disconnected, or shut down – -when this happens the absence of emotion often leads people to disbelieve the victim’s account because her absence of emotions diverges from the expectation of extreme emotional distress.
How is intimate partner abuse typically framed in various cultures across America?
Irrespective of the particular ethnocultural context, when there is a significant inequality in gender roles and the power structure is unilaterally male dominated and patriarchal, there is an increased risk of intimate partner victimization. I’m not really sure I can respond cogently to the question about typicality across cultures…it also would depend for example on which cultures, and for any particular individual, how acculturated or assimilated they are to their host culture, v. their culture of origin.
In terms of research, the most challenging element is obtaining representative samples of individuals who have experienced intimate partner abuse. We know that women seeking help from shelters or other agencies tend to be exposed to more severe violence, and to be afflicted by greater rates and levels of poverty than women who don’t see such services.
We also know that women seeking protective orders or law enforcement assistance are also not representative in terms of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, severity of violence, etc.
In addition, reaching out to law enforcement is usually the last step women will try after all other attempts women have made to get help through personal or informal sources has not provided the assistance they needed.
From a practitioner perspective, one thing most people find challenging is how many times abused women go back to their abusive partners before eventually leaving them.
With all the funding in the world, what would be your white whale of research? Is there something you are secretly curious about but haven’t had the chance to explore yet?
I’ve always been interested in studying more about stalking – a topic I’ve studied to some extent with battered women, but it would be fascinating to the heterogeneity of stalking among different populations. It’s another population that is extremely difficult to study, either from the victim or the perpetrator side of the fence.
Why did you gravitate toward researching trauma and victimization and how has this interest developed over time?
It happened somewhat accidentally. My dissertation research focused on the use of expert testimony in battered women’s self-defense cases. After I left graduate school, I completed a clinical internship focusing on forensic psychology among other things, and after that I spent one year doing research in mental health law.
At that point, I needed to find a full time professional position but I had not completed my dissertation. Being ABD (all but dissertation) limited my opportunities, leaving me ineligible to apply for tenure track faculty positions.
I ended up finding a job to serve as a project director for a professor’s nationally funded research grant on posttraumatic stress disorder among sexual assault survivors.
That position was the gateway for all of my subsequent work on trauma and victimization. I was never intending to study victimization but a door opened, I walked through it and that was how it all unfolded.
What advice would you give to a student thinking of specializing in your field?
Studying trauma is not for everyone. It has its own emotional liabilities, because being exposed to high levels of trauma indirectly as a professional can lead to ‘vicarious’ or ‘secondary’ traumatization. This is especially true if an individual has their own unresolved history of trauma or victimization.