The Experiences of African American Women Survivors of Sexual Violence With the Men in Their Lives
This presentation examines the experiences of African American mothers who are survivors of sexual violence living in poverty with the men in their lives. The literature on gender-based violence and trauma recognizes the transactional nature of societal, community, family, and individual protections and risks are recognized to include interpersonal relationship dynamics between women and men. For survivors, the intersections of power, privilege, and poverty in family dynamics contribute to pathways that include men in problematic and supportive roles.
Research question: What meaning do African American mothers who are survivors of sexual violence give to these experiences and how they shape their parenting practices?
Methods: An ecologically based theoretical framework (Afrocentric Intergenerational Solidarity perspective) recognizing history, culture, family, and environment guided this qualitative phenomenological study. It is part of a study originally conducted to meet the requirements of a doctorate in social work.
Currently parenting African American mothers who are survivors of sexual mistreatment between the ages of 18 – 60 (n=21) were purposely sampled. Participants were recruited from the general public, community-based agencies providing emergency housing, prostitution recovery, substance misuse treatment, and parenting services in an urban city in the Midwest.
Women participated in one in-depth, semi-structured, audiotaped, face-to-face interview. Participants received $10.00 in cash and a copy of the music CD “Rhythms of My Heart: Healing from Within” (Valandra, 2001). Interviews were professionally transcribed verbatim, checked for accuracy, and used to construct descriptive first person case narratives. A spiraling approach to coding and analysis was used with each case narrative based on the sensitizing concepts from the theoretical framework, a list of pre-established codes, and negative case analysis. Data analysis procedures were discussed with an advisor regularly.
Men were identified as affecting women’s experiences of trauma, their use of parental networks, and their access to sociocultural resources. Women acknowledged men as absent fathers, abusive partners, drug dealers, substance abusers, men who buy sex, and pimps, while nevertheless simultaneously crediting them with playing significant and supportive roles in parenting children and supporting women at critical times throughout their lives.
Younger mothers (20 – 28 years old) tended to have idealized or disorganized mental representations of their own fathers and were less likely to utilize their boyfriends and/or children’s fathers as supports for themselves or caregivers of their children. Older mothers (34 – 57 years old) relied heavily on their boyfriends, husbands, and/or children’s fathers as co-parents, and single parents for extended periods particularly during the mother’s absence due to substance abuse, incarceration, and/or domestic sex trafficking.
Mothers in this study experience the men in their lives in supportive and exploitive ways that can contribute to risks and resilience in parenting their children. Ecological and culturally responsive assessment tools can help social work professionals understand the strengths and challenges faced by survivors in complex and conflictual interpersonal relationships with the men in their lives to provide effective preventions in collaboration with mothers, men, and community stakeholders.