Victimization (or victimization) is the process of being victimized or becoming a victim. Research that studies the process, rates, incidence, and prevalence of victimization falls under the body of victimology.
Peer victimization is the experience among children of being a target of the aggressive behaviour of other children, who are not siblings and not necessarily age-mates.
Secondary victimization (also known as post crime victimization or double victimization) relates to further victimization following on from the original victimization. For example, victim blaming, inappropriate post-assault behaviour or language by medical personnel or other organizations with which the victim has contact may further add to the victim’s suffering. Victims may also experience secondary victimization by justice system personnel upon entering the criminal justice system. Victims will lose time, suffer reductions in income, often be ignored by bailiffs and other courthouse staff and will remain uninformed about updates in the case such as hearing postponements, to the extent that their frustration and confusion will turn to apathy and a declining willingness to further participate in system proceedings.
Rape is especially stigmatizing in cultures with strong customs and taboos regarding sex and sexuality. For example, a rape victim (especially one who was previously a virgin) may be viewed by society as being “damaged.” Victims in these cultures may suffer isolation, be disowned by friends and family, be prohibited from marrying, or be divorced if already married.
The re-traumatization of the sexual assault, abuse, or rape victim through the responses of individuals and institutions is an example of secondary victimization. Secondary victimization is especially common in cases of drug-facilitated, acquaintance, and statutory rape.
The term revictimization refers to a pattern wherein the victim of abuse and/or crime has a statistically higher tendency to be victimized again, either shortly thereafter or much later in adulthood in the case of abuse as a child. This latter pattern is particularly notable in cases of sexual abuse. While an exact percentage is almost impossible to obtain, samples from many studies suggest the rate of revictimization for people with histories of sexual abuse is very high. The vulnerability to victimization experienced as an adult is also not limited to sexual assault, and may include physical abuse as well.
Reasons as to why revictimization occurs vary by event type, and some mechanisms are unknown. Revictimisation in the short term is often the result of risk factors that were already present, which were not changed or mitigated after the first victimization; sometimes the victim cannot control these factors. Examples of these risk factors include living or working in dangerous areas, chaotic familial relations, having an aggressive temperament, drug or alcohol usage and unemployment.
Revictimization of adults who were previously sexually abused as children is more complex. Multiple theories exist as to how this functions. Some scientists propose a maladaptive form of learning; the initial abuse teaches inappropriate beliefs and behaviours that persist into adulthood. The victim believes that abusive behaviour is “normal” and comes to expect it from others in the context of relationships, and thus may unconsciously seek out abusive partners or cling to abusive relationships. Another theory draws on the principle of learned helplessness. As children, they are put in situations that they have little to no hope of escaping, especially when the abuse comes from a caregiver. One theory goes that this state of being unable to fight back or flee the danger leaves the last primitive option: freeze, an offshoot of death-feigning.
Offenders choosing pre-traumatized victims
In adulthood, the freeze response can remain, and some professionals have noted that victimisers sometimes seem to pick up subtle clues of this when choosing a victim. This behaviour can make the victim an easier target, as they sometimes make less effort to fight back or vocalise. Afterwards, they often make excuses and minimise what happened to them, sometimes never reporting the assault to the authorities.
Self-victimization (or victim playing) is the fabrication of victimhood for a variety of reasons such to justify abuse of others, to manipulate others, a coping strategy or attention seeking.
Self-image of victimization (victim mentality)
Victims of abuse and manipulation often get trapped into a self-image of victimisation. The psychological profile of victimisation includes a pervasive sense of helplessness, passivity, loss of control, pessimism, negative thinking, strong feelings of guilt, shame, self-blame and depression. This way of thinking can lead to hopelessness and despair.
Symptoms of victimization
Symptoms of victimization may include negative physical, psychological, or behavioral consequences that are direct or indirect responses (see physical symptoms section) to victimization experiences. Symptoms in these categories sometimes overlap, are closely related, or cause each other. For example, a behavioral symptom such as an increase in aggressiveness or irritability may be part of a particular psychological outcome such as post traumatic stress disorder. Much of the research on symptoms of victimization is cross-sectional (researchers only collected data at one point in time). From a research perspective this means that the symptoms are associated with victimization, but the causal relationship is not always established and alternative explanations have not been ruled out. Some of the symptoms described also may put individuals at risk for victimization. For example, there may be a two-way relationship between victimization and certain internalizing symptoms such as depression or withdrawal, such that victimization increases these symptoms, and individuals exhibiting these symptoms may be targeted for victimization more often than others.
The experience of being victimized may cause an individual to feel vulnerable or helpless, as well as changing their view of the world and/or their self-perception; the psychological distress this causes may manifest in a number of ways. Diagnosable psychological disorders that are associated with victimization experiences include depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Psychological symptoms that are disruptive to a person’s life may be present in some form even if they do not meet diagnostic criteria for a specific disorder. A variety of symptoms such as withdrawal, avoidance, and nightmares, may be part of one of these diagnosable disorders or may occur in milder or more isolated form; diagnoses of particular disorders require that these symptoms have a particular degree of severity or frequency, or that an individual exhibits a certain number of them in order to be formally diagnosed.
Depression has been found to be associated with many forms of victimization, including sexual victimization, violent crime, property crime, peer victimization, and domestic abuse. Indicators of depression include irritable or sad mood for prolonged periods of time, lack of interest in most activities, significant changes in weight/appetite, activity, and sleep patterns, loss of energy and concentration, excessive feelings of guilt or worthlessness, and suicidality. The loss of energy, interest, and concentration associated with depression may impact individuals who have experienced victimization academically or professionally. Depression can impact many other areas of a person’s life as well, including interpersonal relationships and physical health. Depression in response to victimization may be lethal, as it can result in suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. Examples of this include a ten-fold increase found in suicide attempts among rape victims compared to the general population, and significant correlations between being victimized in school and suicidal ideation.
A connection between victimization and anxiety has been established for both children and adults. The particular types of anxiety studied in relation to victimization vary; some research references anxiety as a general term while other research references more specific types such as social anxiety. The term anxiety covers a range of difficulties and several specific diagnoses, including panic attacks, phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder. Panic attacks are relatively short, intense bursts of fear that may or may not have a trigger (a cause in the immediate environment that happens right before they occur). They are sometimes a part of other anxiety disorders. Phobias may be specific to objects, situations, people, or places. They can result in avoidance behaviors or, if avoidance is not possible, extreme anxiety or panic attacks. Generalized anxiety is characterized by long-term, uncontrolled, intense worrying in addition to other symptoms such as irritability, sleep problems, or restlessness. Anxiety has been shown to disrupt many aspects of people’s lives as well, e.g. academic functioning, and to predict worse health outcomes later in life.
Posttraumatic stress disorder
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a specific anxiety disorder in response to a traumatic event in a person’s life. It is often discussed in the context of mental health of combat veterans, but also occurs in individuals who have been traumatized in other ways, such as victimization. PTSD involves long-term intense fear, re-experiencing the traumatic event (e.g. nightmares), avoidance of reminders of the event, and being highly reactive (e.g. easily enraged or startled). It may include feeling detached from other people, guilt, and difficulty sleeping. Individuals with PTSD may experience a number of symptoms similar to those experienced in both anxiety and depression.
In addition to the established diagnostic criteria for PTSD, Frank Ochberg proposed a specific set of victimization symptoms (not formally recognized in diagnostic systems such as the DSM or ICD) that includes shame, self-blame, obsessive hatred of the person who victimized them alongside conflicting positive feelings toward that person, feeling defiled, being sexually inhibited, despair or resignation to the situation, secondary victimization (described below), and risk of revictimization.
The most direct and obvious physical symptoms of victimization are injuries as a result of an aggressive physical action such as assault or sexual victimization. Other physical symptoms that are not a result of injury may be indirectly caused by victimization through psychological or emotional responses. Physical symptoms with a psychological or emotional basis are called psychosomatic symptoms. Common psychosomatic symptoms associated with victimization include headaches, stomachaches and experiencing a higher frequency of illnesses such as colds and sore throats. Though psychosomatic symptoms are referred to as having psychological causes they have a biological basis as well; stress and other psychological symptoms trigger nervous system responses such as the release of various chemicals and hormones which then affect biological functioning.
Individuals who have been victimized may also exhibit behavioral symptoms after the experience. Some individuals who have been victimized show externalizing (outwardly directed) behaviors. For example, an individual who has not previously acted aggressively toward others may begin to do so as after being victimized, such as when a child who has been bullied begins to bully others. Aggressive behaviors may be associated with PTSD (described above). Externalizing behaviors associated with victimization include hyperactivity, hyper vigilance, and attention problems that may resemble ADHD. Others may exhibit internalizing (inwardly directed) behavioral symptoms. Many internalizing symptoms tend to be more psychological in nature (depression and anxiety are sometimes referred to as internalization), but particular behaviors are indicative of internalization as well. Internalizing behaviors that have been documented in victimized individuals include withdrawing from social contact and avoidance of people or situations.
Some individuals who have experienced victimization may have difficulty establishing and maintaining intimate relationships. This is not a subset of symptoms that is exclusive to sexual victimization, but the link between sexual victimization and intimacy problems has been particularly well-established in research. These difficulties may include sexual dysfunction, anxiety about sexual relationships, and dating aggression. Those who experience sexual victimization may have these difficulties long-term, as in the case of victimized children who continue to have difficulty with intimacy during adolescence and adulthood. Some research suggests that the severity of these intimacy problems is related directly to the severity of victimization, while other research suggests that self-blame and shame about sexual victimization mediates (causes) the relationship between victimization and outcomes.
2. Childhood bullying
One symptom that has been associated particularly with school-based peer victimization is poor academic functioning. This symptom is not exclusive to peer victimization, but is contextually relevant due to the setting in which such victimization takes place. Studies have shown poor academic functioning to be a result of peer victimization in elementary, middle, and high school in multiple countries. Though academic functioning has commonly been studied in relation to childhood bullying that takes place in schools, it is likely associated with other forms of victimization as well, as both depression and anxiety affect attention and focus.
3. Childhood physical abuse
Researchers have drawn connections between childhood physical abuse and tendencies toward violent or aggressive behaviors both during childhood and later in life. This aligns logically with increases in aggression and reactivity described above (see psychological symptoms section). The increased risk for engaging in aggressive behavior may be an indirect symptom, mediated by changes in the way that individuals process social information. Increased risk does not mean that everyone who was physically victimized during childhood will continue the cycle of violence with their own children or engage in aggressive behaviors to a point that it is highly detrimental or requires legal action; estimated numbers of individuals who do continue this pattern vary based on the type of aggressive behavior being studied. For example, 16-21% of abused and/or neglected children in one particular study were arrested for violent offenses by around the age of 30.
In psychology, a moderator is a factor that changes the outcome of a particular situation. With regards to victimization, these can take the form of environmental or contextual characteristics, other people’s responses after victimization has occurred, or a victimized person’s internal responses to or views on what they have experienced.
Attributions about a situation or person refer to where an individual places the blame for an event. An individual may have a different response to being victimized and exhibit different symptoms if they interpret the victimization as being their own fault, the fault of the perpetrator of the victimization, or the fault of some other external factor.Attributions also vary by how stable or controllable someone believes a situation to be. Characterological self-blame for victimization (believing that something is one’s own fault, that it is a stable characteristic about themselves, and that it is unchangeable or out of their control) has been shown to make victims feel particularly helpless and to have a negative effect on psychological outcomes While self-blaming attributions have potentially harmful moderating effects on the symptoms of victimization for those who are already prone to self-blame, it is worth noting that self-blame may itself be a result of victimization for some individuals as noted above (see section on PTSD).
2. Coping and help-seeking
Victimized individuals who participate in active forms of coping experience fewer or less severe psychological symptoms after victimization. One form of active coping is seeking help from others. Help-seeking can be informal (e.g. seeking help from friends or family) or formal (e.g. police reporting of victimization).Attributions about victimization may play a role in whether an individual seeks help or from whom they seek it. For example, a recent study showed that children who are being victimized by peers are less likely to seek support from friends or teachers if they attribute victimization to a group factor such as race, and more likely to seek support if they attribute victimization to more individualized personal characteristics. Similarly, adult victims who blame themselves and are ashamed of being victimized may wish to hide the experience from others, and thus be less willing to seek help. Gender may affect willingness seek help as well; men who have been victimized may be less willing to disclose this information and ask for help due to differing societal expectations for men in addition to the shame and stigmatization experienced by both men and women in response to victimization.
The increased social support that sometimes results from seeking help may alleviate some of the symptoms of victimization and decrease the risk of continued or future victimization. However, seeking help may also make the outcomes and symptoms worse, depending on the context and responses to help-seeking behavior. Help-seeking may be received more positively from some individuals than others; for example, elementary school aged girls who seek social support after victimization may benefit from it socially, while victimized boys of the same age may experience worse social problems as a result of the same support-seeking behaviors. Seeking help may also increase the severity of victimization symptoms if an individual experiences secondary victimization in the form of victim-blaming, being forced to mentally relive a victimization experience, or other negative responses from individuals or institutions from whom they seek help. Secondary victimization has been documented in victims of rape when they seek medical or psychological assistance. It has also been documented in individuals whose victimization results in criminal trials, particularly if the outcomes of those trials were not in the victims’ favor.