Dissertation Abstracts

Self, Identity, and the Mental Health of Sexual Assault Victim/Survivors

Author: Boyle, Kaitlin M., kmboyle@vt.edu
Department: Department of Sociology
University: University of Georgia, USA
Supervisor: Dr. Jody Clay-Warner
Year of completion: 2016
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Identity , Violence Against Women , Mental Health
Areas of Research: Social Psychology , Mental Health and Illness , Women in Society


The pervasiveness of violence against women and increasing diagnosis of mental illness are two of the most pressing issues in higher education. This dissertation examines the role of self and identity in psychological distress and well-being in both a general college student sample and among victim/survivors of sexual assault. Specifically, I examine mental health through the lenses of identity theory, affect control theory, and the affect control theory of self. These theories share intellectual roots in that they conceptualize the self as a multifaceted identity set that reflects society, and they explain interaction as a dynamic control process. However, they differ in their unit of analysis, formalization, and measurement techniques, and researchers in these traditions have studied mental health in different ways. I highlight these similarities and differences by reviewing the theories’ foundations, mechanisms, and core concepts. In the first study, I address a gap in rape research by explaining variation in psychological distress among victim/survivors of sexual violence. I use identity theory to elucidate the connections between psychological distress in the context of sexual assault and the meaning of identities, the salience of identities, and self-identification as a “victim” or a “survivor.” In the second study, I integrate trauma perspectives on sexual violence and affect control theory, demonstrating how the identity-disrupting nature of sexual violence can lead to re-identification of self (as “victim” or “survivor”) and post-traumatic stress. In the third study, I test the mechanisms of the affect control theory of self, a newly developed, formalized theory that links the self and identity to self-esteem and depression. This is the first study designed to test the propositions of this theory longitudinally. As a whole, these studies not only illuminate the relationships between sexual trauma, stigmatized identities, and mental health, but they address a variety of fundamental, sociological questions about the content and construction of the self, the enactment of identities, and the effects of social interaction and perception on self-esteem, depression, and distress.

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