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Sexual risk recognition deficits: The role of prior victimization and emotion dysregulation

Sexual risk recognition deficits: The role of prior victimization and emotion dysregulation
Kate L. Walsh


Department of Psychology, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, NE 68588, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.


Recent theoretical writings suggest that the ineffective regulation of negative emotional states may reduce the ability of women to detect and respond effectively to situational and interpersonal factors that increase risk for sexual assault. However, little empirical research has explored this hypothesis. In the present study, it was hypothesized that prior sexual victimization and negative mood state would each independently predict poor risk recognition and less effective defensive actions in response to an analogue sexual assault vignette. Further, these variables were expected to interact to produce particularly impaired risk responses. Finally, that the in vivo emotion regulation strategy of suppression and corresponding cognitive resource usage (operationalized as memory impairment for the vignette) were hypothesized to mediate these associations. Participants were 668 female undergraduate students who were randomly assigned to receive a negative or neutral film mood induction followed by an audiotaped dating interaction during which they were instructed to indicate when the man had “gone too far” and describe an adaptive response to the situation. Approximately 33.5% of the sample reported a single victimization and 10% reported revictimization. Hypotheses were largely unsupported as sexual victimization history, mood condition, and their interaction did not impact risk recognition or adaptive responding. However, in vivo emotional suppression and cognitive resource usage were shown to predict delayed risk recognition only. Findings suggest that contrary to hypotheses, negative mood (as induced here) may not relate to risk recognition and response impairments. However, it may be important for victimization prevention programs that focus on risk perception to address possible underlying issues with emotional suppression and limited cognitive resources to improve risk perception abilities. Limitations and future directions are discussed.