Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Clinical Psychology

First Advisor

Ester Shapiro

Second Advisor

Alice S. Carter

Third Advisor

Laurel Wainwright


Research on women survivors of sexual assault suggests that the experience is associated with substantial mental health distress. Studies have demonstrated that between 20% and 40% of Black women have experienced unwanted sexual contact (USC), a definition which includes childhood sexual abuse, adult rape and sexual assault. Despite extremely high prevalence estimates for USC among Black women, much of the theoretical and empirical work following incidence and impact of USC is based predominantly on experiences of North American White women. A multifaceted framework is needed for understanding Black women's experiences of sexual assault. The current study combines elements of a feminist ecological model (Ballou et. al., 2002) with a multi-systems model (Boyd-Franklin, 2003) developed for African-American families to provide multiple ways of understanding an experience of sexual assault through a lens which is designed to be sensitive to intersections of race, gender and other social dimensions. Sociocultural variables may serve as protective factors in the recovery process for Black female survivors of unwanted sexual contact (USC). The overarching goal of this study was to examine the impact of USC on the mental health of African-American/Black (AA/B) female survivors of unwanted sexual contact (childhood and adulthood experiences) and the role of spirituality as a protective factor. African-American/Black Women (N=115) were recruited to participate in a survey of their experiences with Unwanted Sexual Contact (childhood and adulthood), realistic life stress, mental health symptoms of distress, and spiritual beliefs. Results suggest that USC was associated with higher levels of mental health distress for women in the sample. Exploratory analyses revealed a significant relationship between income level and realistic life stress. Descriptive analyses supported this by showing that top stressors for this group of women were often related to income. Although spirituality was not found to moderate the relationship between USC and mental health distress, daily spiritual experiences significantly predicted mental health distress in general with more daily spiritual experiences being associated with better mental health. Additionally, USC survivors showed a trend toward endorsing more daily spiritual experiences than non-USC survivors in the sample. The current study adds support to previous findings that have demonstrated negative mental health consequences for Black female survivors of USC, while highlighting the importance of considering contextual ecological factors (e.g. income) in the lives of Black women who have experienced USC, which may pose unique challenges to recovery. Future researchers should continue to think in culturally sensitive and ecological ways when it comes to Black women's experiences of USC, and to explore spirituality as a culturally meaningful resource reducing mental health distress.


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