Abstract: Secondary Institutional Betrayal: Unintended Consequences of Media Coverage in the Era of Me Too (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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742P Secondary Institutional Betrayal: Unintended Consequences of Media Coverage in the Era of Me Too

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Grace Anderson, Undergraduate student, Michigan State University
Morgan PettyJohn, ABD, Doctoral Student, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Heather McCauley, ScD, Assistant Professor, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI

In the aftermath of an assault, survivors of sexual violence are faced with the decision of whether to disclose to formal and/or informal support systems. Survivors who seek formal help may end up navigating numerous institutions such as law enforcement, university systems, medical care providers, or mental health professionals (Campbell et al., 2009). Not only are these systems potential resources for survivors to receive help and seek justice, survivors are more broadly dependent on them for safety and well-being in their everyday lives. When such organizations fail to meet the needs of victims or respond in a harmful way (e.g., through victim blaming, choosing not to prosecute the perpetrator), survivors experience a unique form of betrayal trauma, called institutional betrayal (Smith & Freyd, 2014). Institutional betrayal has been shown to exacerbate negative outcomes associated with sexual assault, including worsened symptoms of trauma, anxiety, sexual dysfunction, and dissociation (Smith & Freyd, 2013). The concept of institutional betrayal has thus far been limited to individuals who have their own direct, negative experiences interacting with institutions (e.g., a survivor feeling betrayed by police choosing to not press charges against her assailant after she reports). Less is known about whether and how institutional betrayal manifests among survivors without personal interactions with an institution regarding their assault.


This study comprised 8 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with female survivors (ages 18-34) recruited from a Midwestern college town in the aftermath of the Me Too Movement. Data were analyzed via thematic analysis. Interviews explored how participants felt about Me Too media coverage of victims disclosing to formal systems, and how those systems responded in turn.


Participants felt a sense of betrayal through witnessing how institutions which they are ultimately reliant on (e.g., the Supreme Court, the White House, law enforcement, prosecutors, the media) treated other survivors. Survivors described intensified feelings of anxiety, depression, and trauma related symptoms as a result of observing these processes unfold secondhand through the media. Many participants also stated that this secondary sense of betrayal would likely deter them from formally reporting an assault in the future.


This poster presents the concept of secondary institutional betrayal (SIB) as a form of betrayal trauma which survivors can experience through witnessing institutions mistreat or fail to protect other survivors. Building on the groundbreaking construct of institutional betrayal, this idea captures the impact which coverage of sexual violence in the media can inadvertently have on survivors. While more research is needed, our preliminary data indicates SIB has the potential to worsen negative outcomes after sexual assault and reduce future reporting to formal systems. While the Me Too Movement was established to bring light to the pervasive issue of sexual assault, it is important to also evaluate the potential adverse impact this media coverage can have on survivors through SIB.