Portrait of Antonia Abbey

Antonia Abbey: Exploring psychosocial factors that influence sexual assault survivors’ recovery

Antonia (Toni) Abbey, Ph.D., has examined psychosocial factors that influence sexual assault survivors’ recovery, beginning with her dissertation research that examined survivors’ attempts to reestablish control, find meaning, and deal with the blame they experienced from professionals, family, and friends.

Several more recent studies have explored the role of culture and ethnicity in disclosure and social support processes, with Angela Jacques-Tiura (now an assistant professor in Family Medicine and Public Health Sciences at WSU), Michelle Parkhill-Purdie (now an associate professor at Oakland University), Rifky Tkatch (now a senior researcher at Optum/United Health Group), and Sheri Pegram (currently completing her dissertation).

In recent years, the White House, Congressional committees, and survivors have demanded solutions to end the high rates of sexual assault and other forms of sexual misconduct that occur on college campuses. These groups have spotlighted a problem that has often been trivialized, despite consistent reports of disturbingly high rates of sexual violence on college campuses that have been documented in empirical articles since the 1950s.

The sexual violence that occurs on college campuses is part of a much larger problem. In a large U.S. nationally representative survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19.3 percent of women reported being raped during their lifetime and 44.6 percent experienced another form of sexual violence. More than 93 percent of the perpetrators were men.

This same survey found that 1.7 percent of men reported being raped in their lifetime. Public health professionals conceptualize sexual violence on a continuum with forcible rape at one end and verbal sexual harassment at the other end. Numerous studies have documented that all forms of sexual violence have a negative impact on victims, including their physical and emotional health, job and school performance, and their sense of safety and trust.

Dr. Abbey also has a longstanding interest in understanding the causes of men’s sexual aggression against women, with an emphasis on how alcohol interacts with personality, attitudes, and past experience to increase some men’s likelihood of being sexually aggressive.

As a social psychologist, she is guided by Kurt Lewin’s emphasis on the role of situational and individual factors on behavior, as well as his emphasis on conducting theory-based action-oriented research. Her studies use survey and experimental paradigms. In confidential surveys, participants provide detailed information about sexual assault characteristics, as well as their traits, attitudes, and experiences. In experimental research, participants can be randomly assigned to drink alcoholic or nonalcoholic beverages under controlled conditions to determine how intoxication affects their behavior. Each method has complementary strengths and limitations; thus, researchers have the greatest confidence in convergent findings.

Dr. Abbey’s first empirical study of this issue at WSU was a survey conducted with a large representative sample of WSU students. With doctoral students, Lisa Thomson Ross (now a professor at the University of Charleston) and Pam McAuslan (now an associate professor at the University of Michigan Dearborn), support was found for a theoretical model which posited that beliefs and experiences associated with gender roles, dating, sexuality, and alcohol increased the likelihood of sexual aggression. This study’s findings were expanded in three important ways with the help of then graduate students Michelle Parkhill-Purdie (now an associate professor at Oakland University), Renee BeShears McLeod (now a vice president at Adient), A. Monique Clinton-Sherrod (now a research psychologist at Research Triangle Institute), and Tina Zawacki (now an associate professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio).

First, this follow-up study was conducted with a community sample and demonstrated that common risk factors for sexual aggression found in studies with male college students (childhood sexual abuse, adolescent delinquency, alcohol problems, sexual dominance, positive attitudes about casual sex, supportive peer norms) were also risk factors in community samples. Second, this study found that the associations between risk factors and sexual aggression were similar for Caucasian and African American participants. Third, this study found that high levels of empathy were protective, reducing the relationship between sexual dominance and sexual aggression.

In a recent related study conducted with Angela Jacques-Tiura (now an assistant professor in Family Medicine and Public Health Sciences at WSU), Rhiana Wegner (now an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Jennifer Pierce (currently completing her dissertation), Sheri Pegram (currently completing her dissertation), and Jacqueline Woerner (now a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University’s Medical School), Dr. Abbey took a closer look at peer factors. The more that young single men reported having conversations with their male friends that used sexually objectifying language to describe women, the more likely they were to report being sexually aggressive with a woman that year. In a complementary manner, feeling comfortable discussing women using equalitarian language with male friends reduced the likelihood of sexual aggression that year.

These findings support the maxim that “words matter” by producing a social climate in which sexual aggression is normalized. Several recent studies by Dr. Abbey’s research team and other researchers demonstrate that there are different trajectories of perpetration over time: some men start in adolescence and continue in young adulthood, some start in adolescence and stop, and some don’t start until young adulthood (and of course, many men never perpetrate sexual aggression). Determining the risk and protective factors associated with these different patterns has practical implications for developing prevention and treatment programs. More of these studies are needed to make definitive statements; however, they suggest that hostile attitudes toward women, peer norms that encourage sexual objectification of women, alcohol expectancies, heavy drinking, and casual sexual attitudes and behaviors are good targets for interventions.

Experimental studies that randomly assign participants to drink an alcoholic or nonalcoholic beverage face the challenge of developing ethical procedures for assessing participants’ likelihood of being sexually violent. In past studies, along with Philip Buck (now a Director at GlaxoSmithKline) and Christopher Saenz (now a Senior Marketing Scientist at Marketing Strategies International), as well as several previously mentioned students, Dr. Abbey has examined the pharmacological effects of alcohol on participants’ decisions.

In one study, they found an interaction between drinking conditions and pre-existing hostility levels. For sober participants, trait hostility did not affect their judgments. However, among intoxicated participants, the greater their trait hostility, the more willing they were to use coercive strategies to obtain sex from an unwilling woman. This finding exemplifies social psychology’s focus on the interplay of personality and situational factors. Dr. Abbey’s lab is currently developing sexual aggression paradigms using virtual reality technology to increase the range of (nonviolent and violent) choices that participants can make in response to a sexual refusal.