A multimethod examination of the relevance of executive control to disgust and mental contamination among female sexual assault survivors.


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Sexual assault among women is a significant and ongoing public health problem in the United States, and studies indicate a particularly high prevalence of sexual assault among college-aged women. A large body of research has linked sexual assault to posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTSS), and researchers have sought to better understand how disgust and mental contamination may contribute to PTSS following sexual assault. Existing literature points to the possibility that executive control deficits are important in understanding the role of disgust and mental contamination in relation to PTSS. Yet, to date, whether disgust or mental contamination relates to executive control deficits among female sexual assault survivors remains unexamined. Addressing this gap in the literature, the present study examined the relationship between executive control and both disgust and mental contamination among female sexual assault survivors. It was predicted that greater disgust and mental contamination would relate to greater deficits in both self-reported and performance-based executive control. Additional analyses were completed to examine if disgust and mental contamination related to executive control deficits independent of trait anxiety and PTSS. Eighty-eight undergraduate women who reported previously experiencing a sexual assault participated in the present study. Participants completed self-report measures assessing the targeted variables and then attended an in-person session where executive control was assessed using performance-based tasks. Consistent with predictions, greater disgust and mental contamination were associated with greater self-reported executive control deficits. However, these associations were rendered non-significant after controlling for trait anxiety. Contrary to predictions, disgust and mental contamination were generally unrelated to executive control on performance-based tasks. However, supplementary analyses revealed that among women who identified a sexual trauma (versus a non-sexual trauma) as their most distressing traumatic event, greater disgust and mental contamination were related to greater deficits in cognitive flexibility on a performance-based task. These findings suggest that sexual trauma may need to elicit a certain level of distress for disgust and mental contamination to relate to deficits in cognitive flexibility, and have important implications for the potential use of interventions targeting cognitive flexibility in the treatment of disgust and mental contamination following sexual trauma.



Sexual assault. PTSD. Executive control. Disgust. Mental contamination.