Victimization can be defined as the act or process of someone being injured or damaged by another person. The resulting damage may be physical (e.g., bruises, broken bones) or psychological (e.g., posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD], depression). Victimization is a frequent event that occurs within an interpersonal context, often involving an abuse of power, such as a parent who abuses a child; an adult child who abuses a frail, elderly parent; or a teacher who sexually abuses a student. Although past research on victimization has tended to be compartmentalized, a more integrative approach is needed not only because of the frequent comorbidity among the different types of victimization, but also because of the shared psychological issues. The shared core psychological issues extending across types of victimization include damage to interpersonal relationships and self. Although victimization may often involve traumatic experiences, trauma may not involve victimization. For example, stepping off a curb and falling and breaking an ankle might be a traumatic event; however, such an event does not define an experience of victimization because it is not an interpersonal event.
To understand victimization, several core themes need to be acknowledged. Contrary to a layperson’s perspective, victimization is not a rare event that occurs only in a stranger-on-stranger context. On the contrary, victimization is an extraordinarily frequent event that most often occurs in, and adheres to, the ordinary roles of human life. Although stereotyped conceptions of victimization do occur (e.g., a woman raped by a stranger walking down a street at night) and are damaging and need to be addressed, these types of victimization are not the norm outside the context of a war. Rather, the most significant sources of victimization are those that arise out of our ordinary day-to-day roles, such as those of spouse, parent, child, and friend. Thus, victimization must be understood as an inherent part of human relationships.
Unfortunately, research and writing about victimization is often compartmentalized or balkanized. For example, researchers who study child sexual abuse frequently do not consider the co-occurrence of other forms of victimization, such as physical abuse. Similarly, researchers who study physical abuse may fail to acknowledge the effects of witnessing domestic violence. This has lead to a failure to appreciate the total context of the victimization. Furthermore, such balkanization has led to the failure of researchers to create conceptual models that are organized around general concepts of victimization. Instead, most research and most models of victimization are limited to a particular context. As the field has matured, there is growing recognition that such balkanization can lead to failures to recognize the similarities in these experiences. In particular, such balkanization has prevented researchers from recognizing the common core of the victimization experience: the need to focus on the interpersonal nature and consequence of victimization.
This article does not discuss victimization that is related to social and political processes such as war. Although war and genocide are grim fields from which victimization springs, such events are beyond the scope of this article and require their own level of analysis and consideration. Likewise, victimization that is the result of living in a socially disintegrated or impoverished state (e.g., dangerous neighborhoods or extreme poverty), while profoundly damaging to human beings, is not discussed here.
This article focuses on phenomena that occur in the context of human relationships, particularly those relationships that are defined as the ordinary relationships in which people are involved. The experiences of victimization are defined not simply by who did it and what was done but, instead, by what core psychological process is involved. Such an integrative approach is a useful developmental stage in understanding the phenomena of victimization for a number of reasons. First, more and more researchers are finding that unique, isolated victimization may be rare and that, instead, multiple victimizations of the same person, occurring across time and context, are more typical. In short, there is an enormous amount of overlap among victimized populations in their exposure to what had been seen as distinct and unique victimization situations. As researchers have identified this process, what has come to be understood as a variation of the Matthew Principle is true—”He who has, receiveth; he who has not, receiveth not.” That is, victimization has a far higher likelihood of occurring among certain groups and certain people, particularly those previously victimized.
An abused child may be bullied at school and, as an adult, be a victim of domestic violence. Furthermore, the effect of these different victimizations may be more than simply the sum of the individual types.
Finally, the need for an integrative approach is particularly demonstrated by the shared interpersonal nature of the victimization phenomena. If the key facet of the victimization experience that defines it is the interpersonal nature of the victimization, then there is quite likely to be a shared psychological expression of exposure to victimization across types of victimization. An integrative approach allows for the examination of this common core of psychological features attendant to this definition of victimization.
Effects of Victimization
The early research on the consequences of victimization detailed the many psychological consequences of exposure to victimization. Typically, researchers would identify populations previously victimized and compare this population with a non-victimized population on standardized measures, primarily of psychological disturbance. This research has demonstrated that victimization exposure is a pathogen. In addition to the possible physical effects associated with victimization, there may be psychological symptoms across a range of domains, such as dissociation, depression, anxiety, and interpersonal difficulties. Additionally, specific forms may have more specific outcomes. For example, child sexual abuse may be linked to sexual difficulties. Not only is there a wide range of possible symptoms associated with victimization, but there also is a wide range of severity of response to victimization. With the maturation of the field, particularly with the leadership provided by researchers such as David Finkelhor, emphasis has shifted from specific psychological symptoms and the recognition of PTSD to core psychological issues or processes that are affected by victimization. These core psychological issues include damage to interpersonal relationships and self.
One of the accomplishments of the several decades of research into the consequences of exposure to violence and victimization is the recognition that PTSD is often a specific consequence of victimization. This recognition has brought considerable attention to the role of trauma in the lives of human beings and an awareness that exposure to trauma, particularly chronic, repetitive trauma, creates a unique kind of psychological response that does not fit the typical understanding of PTSD and, instead, requires an understanding of not only trauma and its response but also trauma and the task of adjusting to chronic exposure to trauma. This has led researchers to identify different types of PTSD, described as complex PTSD, to distinguish it from the diagnosis of PTSD as given in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (fourth edition; DSM-IV).
Likewise, in the lives of children, there is a greater recognition that the responses of children to chronic, repetitive stressful events cannot be subsumed under the diagnosis of PTSD, which was developed primarily in the crucible of wartime experiences of soldiers. Thus, in the current scientific community, there is an appreciation that the unique adjustment capacities and responses of children and adolescents require some new types of diagnostic nomenclature. In particular, the notion of a developmental trauma disorder has been brought into the scientific community by several people and is being considered for inclusion in subsequent editions of the DSM. The finding that should be emphasized, however, is that trauma exposure is a unique and particular pathogen that occasions a range of responses in humans. In part, these outcomes can be captured by the diagnosis of PTSD; however, the range of responses needs a more articulated and specific set of diagnostic categories to be able to delineate the variety of responses and syndromes observed in children, adolescents, and adults.
The fact that victimization typically occurs within the context of an interpersonal relationship has profound consequences for understanding the consequences of victimization. Such victimization elicits unique interpersonal, emotional, and developmental issues. Humans form their working models of the world in the context of relationships. It is how we come to understand what we may expect from other people and how we learn to interact with others. Thus, the consequences of victimization, particularly victimization that occurs in the context of central human relationships, are far reaching and may affect later relationships.
As originally proposed by John Bowlby, our core attachment figures are the lens through which we develop our understanding of the world. The theory of the world we form in these relationships, thus, becomes the template against which we judge subsequent experiences and by which we shape our own actions in the world. When these models are damaged or distorted by victimization, the primary consequence is that all subsequent interactions are affected by the accommodations that the victim has to make to the experience of victimization. For example, as a result of abuse by a parent, a child believes that all relationships are potentially hurtful. The child then enters into all subsequent relationships with a sense of mistrust and an expectation that rejection and harm will soon follow. The microenvironment that the child has created, in turn, may lead to these expectations being fulfilled.
Thus, at the heart of the victimization experience is the damage done to the victim’s sense of trust and his or her ability to create a safe, attached relationship. The betrayal of victimization is considered to be one of the most difficult processes for humans to incorporate into their expectation of the world as being a benign or benevolent place. Particularly, when victimization is repetitive and ongoing, there is no opportunity for the development of a secure base in any attached relationship.
This damage to the attachment’s schema occurs along with changes in other cognitive schemas. The way in which the world is experienced and interpreted is transformed by victimization exposure. Cognitive schemas, particularly with the perception of relationships, are transformed in negative ways. Roland Summit was among the first to explain these changes in cognitive schemas through his description of the accommodation syndrome, wherein the experience of victimization fixes and makes rigid subsequent interpretations of reality.
The core cognitive schemas of relationship are all profoundly influenced by the experience of victimization. Finkelhor has summarized for a developmental approach, in particular, how this damage is mediated through four core conditions: (1) repetitive and ongoing victimization occurs, (2) the victim’s core relationships are altered, (3) victimization is added to other stressors, and (4) victimization occurs during a critical developmental stage. That is, if victimization is repetitive, if the nature of the victim’s relationship with core attachment relationships is damaged by the victimization, is added on to other stressors, and occurs at a critical period, then these serve as moderators that contribute to the power of the victimization experience through the powerful degradation of development processes.
In terms of critical developmental tasks that can be affected by victimization, perhaps the most core cognitive schema affected is that of the self. Early child development requires the development of a sense of self. One of the core functions of this self is the ability to manage one’s emotions, physiological arousal, basic daily living tasks, as well as managing and regulating affect. In particular, affect regulation is perhaps the most critical task for all humans. The experience of victimization may have a particularly critical influence on children’s ability to regulate their emotional responding to the world. Victimization occurring during adulthood has the effect of undermining acquired competencies and forcing a kind of psychological regression. A very typical experience in adult victimization is for the victim to lose significant psychological developmental accomplishments and regress to previous levels of dependence. There may be a corresponding failure to be emotionally autonomous and self-regulating. There is considerable research that demonstrates that these experiences, moreover, have the power to foreclose the future accomplishment of a developmental task by the consequence of victims being burdened by psychological symptoms and/or accommodating to the victimization by a disengagement from the social world and a lack of confidence in their own self-efficacy.
As described by Finkelhor and Angela Browne, the damage to the self also may include feelings of stigmatization and powerlessness. The person may feel responsible and to blame for what happened. For example, the physically abused child and battered wife may feel deserving of the abuse. Furthermore, given the nature of the interpersonal relationship, the victim may feel too ashamed to report the experience. For example, an elderly person abused by an adult child may feel too ashamed to report the experience. Victimization also may be accompanied by a feeling of powerlessness. The stalking victim, for example, may feel a loss of control over his or her life.
As was previously noted, victimization is not usually an isolated event, and this is important in understanding the consequences of victimization. Finkelhor suggests that there is an additive effect when victimization occurs in the context of other stressors. He also notes that if victimization occurs during a critical period of development, it can interrupt successful task resolution of a developmental stage. Finkelhor’s model, defining the moderating effects of damaging context, is a useful attempt at bringing understanding of the psychological processes to the specific understanding of the victimization effects. There is now an increasing body of literature that does confirm most of Finkelhor’s suggestions, particularly those having to do with multiple victimizations and the cumulative effect of victimization co-occurring with other stressors.
In summary, victimization is a frequent event with profound consequences on human adjustment. To have a more nuanced psychological understanding of victimization, the interpersonal context of the experience must be included in our theoretical and practical models of those who have been victimized.
- Finkelhor, D., & Browne, A. (1985). The traumatic impact of child sexual abuse: A conceptualization. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 55, 530-541.
- Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R., Turner, H., & Hamby, S. L. (2005). The victimization of children and youth: A comprehensive, national survey. Child Maltreatment, 10, 5-25.
- Herman, J. L. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books.
- Myers, J. E. B., Berliner, L., Briere, J., Hendrix, C. T., Jenny, C., & Reid, T. A. (Eds.). (2002). The APSAC handbook on child maltreatment (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Summit, R. C. (1983). The child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome. Child Abuse & Neglect, 7, 177-193.