What Characterizes Vulnerability? Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Service Provision for Survivors of Sexual Assault

Maria Hardeberg Bach*, Nina Beck Hansen, Maj Hansen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Although research indicates that specialized sexual assault (SA) services are effective in terms of promoting postassault recovery and improving legal outcomes, little is known about how to best support survivors facing co-occurring difficulties and inequalities (e.g., preexisting mental health issues, substance abuse, poverty). This deficiency in knowledge was also expressed by service providers at Danish SA centers (SACs), who described this using the term “vulnerable survivors.” Therefore, the present study aims to address this knowledge gap by exploring (a) how service providers understand vulnerability in the context of SA and (b) how service provision is currently approached for these survivors. Interviews were conducted with 18 service providers representing five professional groups (psychologists, social workers, forensic doctors, nurses, police) and analyzed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. A total of eight themes emerged from the analysis, including service providers’ descriptions of what characterizes vulnerability in survivors and broader perspectives on service provision for these survivors. Survivors considered least likely to attain desired supports were also those perceived to be most vulnerable with regards to risk and experiences surrounding sexual victimization (e.g., individuals with preexisting mental health issues). Service providers also believed that a large proportion of those served experience ongoing vulnerabilities that are difficult to manage within existing support models. The results thus suggest that survivors’ needs cannot be met if vulnerabilities are overlooked or ignored. At the same time, the concept of vulnerability warrants caution since vulnerabilities are often placed within individual survivors, but the formal support system also appears vulnerable in its ability to meet the diverse needs and priorities of those served. The implications for SA services across the globe are discussed, including a need for more individually tailored and trauma-informed responses to SA that simultaneously address co-occurring difficulties and inequalities in survivors.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Interpersonal Violence
Issue number15-16
Pages (from-to)NP14140-NP14165
Publication statusPublished - 1. Aug 2022


  • alcohol and drugs
  • cultural contexts
  • developmentally delayed
  • intervention
  • sexual assault
  • support seeking
  • vulnerability to abuse
  • Poverty
  • Sex Offenses/psychology
  • Humans
  • Survivors/psychology
  • Crime Victims
  • Substance-Related Disorders


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