Abstract: "You Don't Choose to Go in Front of the Nation and Lie": The Impact of Pervasive Rape Myths on the Well-Being of Sexual Violence Survivors (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

289P "You Don't Choose to Go in Front of the Nation and Lie": The Impact of Pervasive Rape Myths on the Well-Being of Sexual Violence Survivors

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Gwendolyn Anderson, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota-Duluth, Duluth, MN
Rebekah Overby, BA, MSW Student, University of Minnesota-Duluth, Duluth, MN
Background and Purpose: Societal views of sexual violence are powerful and often keep survivors from disclosing the assault for many years, or ever.  Rape myths fuel blaming survivors for their own victimization by friends, family, and professionals (Aronowitz, et al., 2012; Ferguson & Malouff, 2016; Marks & Fraley, 2006). Recent current events and social media movements have challenged prevailing social norms, shifting from individual blame of the victim to recognition of sexual violence as a systemic issue (Davis, et al., 2017).  However, with the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, renewed debate within the public sphere sparked feelings of invalidation, fear, and re-traumatization for many survivors (Bloom, 2018).  During the hearing, calls to rape crisis lines spiked by over 200% (Sacks, 2018).  While some research has explored how public and political discourse, current events, and media coverage of sexual violence impacts survivor well-being, few studies have examined it from the perspectives of participants as a significant event is unfolding. 

The purpose of this research is to present findings in the context of data collection with survivors during the Kavanaugh hearings.  Study aims include: 1). What are societal myths that survivors encounter when they are seeking support or making a formal report following sexual assault?  and 2.) How is survivor well-being impacted in the midst of high-profile current events regarding sexual assault?

Methods: Twenty-one in depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with survivors of sexual violence.  Participants ranged in age from 21 to 75 (M=36), were primarily female (85% female; 4% male; 12% trans or non-binary), White (64% White; 8% Latina; 8% African American, 8% American Indian; and 12% Bi-racial); were attending or had completed college (76%), and/or were working full-time (64%). Participants were recruited in two ways: through indicated interest following their participation in a needs assessment survey and by responding to publicly posted flyers in the community.  Participants were asked to reflect on their own experiences in seeking services as a survivor, including barriers or supports, and myths they have encountered along the way. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and coded using NVivo, using a multi-step strategy derived from grounded theory.  Analytic triangulation occurred through use of multiple coders, member checking, and theme verification to ensure trustworthiness. 

Findings: Most participants experienced disbelief and blaming reactions from friends, family, and professionals.  These included minimizing the assault when substances were present, questions about clothing, and direct blaming statements.  Due to the timing of when interviews took place, participants often discussed the Kavanaugh hearings, with many noting the direct negative impact of the events on their mental health.   Findings also suggest that participants interpret coming forward as a survivor as being increasingly politicized.

Implications: Findings indicate that victim blaming, rooted in rape myths, retains a strong presence in our society and negatively impacts survivors in their ability to come forward to seek support and justice.  Social workers can challenge such myths and support survivors by prioritizing the use of evidence-based sexual violence prevention programs in communities and engaging in advocacy.