Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy



Date of Defense


Graduate Advisor

Zoe D. Peterson, PhD


Ann Steffen

Steven Bruce

Kristin Carbone-Lopez


Rape is strikingly prevalent among undergraduate women, and victims show significant variability in their reactions to sexual victimization. The aim of this longitudinal study was to examine two cognitive processing factors that have been theorized to impact a woman’s levels of distress after being raped. One cognitive factor, rape conceptualization, broadly refers to the way a woman comes to understand and interpret the event as identified by her attributions of blame and perceptions of severity, wantedness, and consent. Schemata—or global, enduring beliefs about the self and world—represent the other cognitive factor examined in this study. Participants included 189 undergraduate women from a Midwestern public institution, who endorsed a behaviorally-defined rape experience. Cross-sectional results from Study 1 indicated that all aspects of conceptualization were significantly associated with maladaptive schemata. Furthermore, results confirmed a predicted mediation; maladaptive beliefs a woman holds about herself mediate the impact that blaming her enduring traits has on distress. Forty-four rape victims completed a follow-up study, and results indicated that, overall, there were minimal changes in the participants’ conceptualizations of a specific rape experience and little difference in the maladaptive beliefs they held. Time 2 results also suggested that there appeared to be two separate groups of victims in this highly distressed sample—those whose symptoms improved over time and whose symptoms worsened over time. The hypothesized relationship between changes in cognitive processing factors and changes in distress was not confirmed in the longitudinal, follow-up study. Implications for cognitive processing theories, individualized treatment for rape victims, and future research directions are discussed.

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