Abstract: Cathartic Ink: A Qualitative Examination of Tattoo Motivations for Survivors of Sexual Trauma (Society for Social Work and Research 22nd Annual Conference - Achieving Equal Opportunity, Equity, and Justice)

659P Cathartic Ink: A Qualitative Examination of Tattoo Motivations for Survivors of Sexual Trauma

Sunday, January 14, 2018
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
December Maxwell, MSW, Student, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Fayetteville, AR
Background and Purpose: Studies have shown that 21-50% of trauma survivors meet the diagnostic criteria of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Evidenced based methods for treating PTSD include yoga, guided meditation, and grounding, which all provide release, relaxation, and empowerment. The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore the symbolism and therapeutic value of tattoos among survivors of sexual trauma. The current study explores whether there are similarities between the process of tattoo and existing PTSD treatments regarding use of personal narratives to empower survivors of sexual trauma. The following questions guided this study: Do tattoos serve as a healing process for victims of sexual violence? Is there therapeutic value in the process of tattoo? Do these processes mirror traditional therapeutic models used with survivors of sexual violence? Do the tattoo artists experience a therapeutic role ?

Methods/Design: The study was a grounded-theory qualitative investigation using semi-structured interviews with survivors of sexual trauma (N=10) age 18 and older with at least one tattoo, and tattoo artists (N=7) that were 18 years or older and had been tattooing for at least one year. Participants were recruited via snowball sampling on social media. Interviews were digitally recorded, transcribed and analyzed using Atlas.ti software via speculative inquiry to code for common themes.

Results: Key themes found were: tattoo acts as a personal narrative, provides cathartic release, allows the survivor to feel in control, has a therapeutic role, and acts as anti-normative expression. Additionally, tattoo allows survivors to reclaim definitions of beauty from traditionally patriarchal socially-imposed beauty standards.

Conclusion and Implications: Findings indicate that tattoo acts as a therapeutic process for survivors of sexual trauma and as a visual representation of a personal narrative. Tattoo also provides survivors of sexual trauma with bodily reclamation and cathartic release. Moreover, these findings illustrate an approach wherein clinicians can use tattoos as a tool of inquiry to explore an individual’s life course, their culture, the meanings of symbols to them, and ultimately their trauma history, akin to narrative therapy. Knowledge of the therapeutic value of tattoos can shift stigma and allow clinicians to be more inclusive. Limitations include small sample size and lack of participant diversity. Further research should be mixed-methods in approach to include larger statistical scales integrated with personal narrative, with a larger, more diverse population in order to draw larger conclusions about motivations of and the therapeutic value of tattoo attainment.