The unauthorized release of a photo of a battered-looking Rihanna may trigger flashbacks for other victims of assault and could discourage them from reporting abuse, domestic abuse advocates told ABCNews.com.
"For victims who see these kinds of pictures it's all too real," said Bea Hanson, chief programming officer at victim assistance agency Safe Horizon in New York City, who routinely treats women who have endured domestic violence.
"They have a huge impact on women," she said.
The photo, in which the singer's lips appear swollen and her forehead is covered in welts, was first obtained by the entertainment Web site TMZ.com. Since then, several blogs and news agencies, including ABC News, have also published the photograph.
Reportedly taken by police after Rihanna's boyfriend, rapper Chris Brown, allegedly assaulted her on the night of the Grammy awards two weeks ago, the photo has sparked an internal investigation within the Los Angeles Police Department, which released a statement saying that leaks from within the department are considered "serious misconduct" that could result in "termination" for those involved.
But Hanson said she is more concerned about what this leaked photo could mean for other victims of abuse and those who become victims in the future.
One in four women will become the victim of domestic abuse during her lifetime, according to statistics by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eight-five percent of those who are abused are women, according to the same statistics, and an estimated 1.3 million women per year are physically assaulted by their partner.
"Anything can be a trigger for victims," said Hanson. "You can see these types of photos ... and it can trigger memories."
"Seeing pictures like [Rihanna's] can certainly set a victim back in terms of recovery," she said.
Hanson says that victims of assault often cope with getting back into relationships, have problems with intimacy and suffer from depression. These afflictions can be made worse by triggers that remind them of their Women who have been victims of abuse are often wary of new relationships, said Hanson, and take longer to feel safe and comfortable with a new partner. Symptoms of depression can be so severe that victims not only become uninterested in romantic relationships but friendships too, she said.
Sue Else, the president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C., said she also worries that the photo may conjure up old feelings of trauma women felt immediately following their abuse.
"Domestic violence is such a difficult issue," said Else. "When you've been through that, you try to bury the worst part of the abuse, so seeing that kind of photograph can really have a traumatic affect."
The president of the National Organization for Women, Kim Gandy, echoes Else and Hanson.
"A woman who has been raped and reads about another woman's rape in the newspaper will have a reaction to that," said Gandy. "That's a normal and expected response, but it's not a reason you shouldn't report a rape."
Else said she's also worried that the leak of Rihanna's photograph may discourage women from coming forward to report their own abuse.
"Victims of domestic violence are so courageous when they come forward, and they expect to have confidentiality when they do that," said Else. "I do think that this photo leak could be very traumatic for women who have experienced domestic violence to think their privacy could or was compromised in this way."
Else said she believes this incident was "isolated" and said it's important for other victims to not give up trust in the authorities.
Else said for women who are currently struggling to survive in abusive relationships, the release of this photo could actually push them into counseling.
"It's common for women to blame themselves and think that it's only happening to them," said Else. "But for them to realize and see that in fact domestic violence crosses every boundary -- and even affects someone who we all see as a star -- could spur them seek help."
Gandy said that she believes there will be several women who become stronger after viewing Rihanna's photograph.
"This young woman deserves her privacy, and this has clearly been a terrible episode in her life, but at the same time, I hope the release of this photograph will make people think more about the realities of violence against women and just how common it is," said Gandy.
"The picture may have an effect on women who are contemplating going to the authorities," said Gandy.
"These women may think to themselves, 'Oh, I could end up looking like that if I don't do something about this now.'"