After experiencing a traumatic event, such as sexual assault and rape, victims attempt to make meaning out of their experience. Often part of this meaning making process is referred to as healing. While the words healing and healed are frequently used by victims and professionals, the words hold different meanings to survivors of rape and sexual assault.
This phenomenological study examined how perception of the use of the words healing and healed to rape and sexual assault survivors (N=31) to answer two research questions. Do the words healing and healed provide survivors with a sense of empowerment? What word empowers survivors when describing their life after the victimization?
Interviews (n=31) conducted by a research team at a Hispanic Serving Institution and local treatment center were used to develop a phenomenological approach guided by empowerment theory. Empowerment theory aims to increase personal, interpersonal and political power to marginalized people to take action for positive change.
During first cycle coding, an open coding method was utilized. During second cycle coding, pattern coding and thematic coding was utilized to organize the data. Two investigators provided initial inter-rater reliability of 5 interviews. Cohen’s Kappa was used to establish preliminary inter-rater reliability and a coefficient of .80. NVivo software was then utilized to code and analyze the remaining 26 interviews using established themes. Further triangulation agreement of three researchers was utilized end-stage for final interpretation of all identified themes following 31 interviews. 100% agreement of primary and secondary themes for both research questions was established.
In examining sense of empowerment: Overarching themes of unattainability, duality, and finding themselves in an ever-evolving process address the first research question. As participants discussed their personal meaning of healing, many thought it would be nice to heal, but felt it was impossible to separate themselves from the experience. Many also believed that healing had a definite endpoint where all triggers, flashbacks and bad days would no longer happen, which to them, was impossible.
In examining words that empower survivors: Overarching themes of identity, balance, resilience, and integration address the second research question. Participants most frequently discussed finding a balance between the victimization, using other words that captured the full experience of their transformation, believed these words allowed them to thrive instead of survive, and felt that integration gave them a sense of acceptance, strength and empowerment.
Sexual assault survivors commonly find benefit in referring to their experiences and process post victimization as integrative. Integration allows the survivor to step into a new identity that is a blending of who they were before and after the victimization. Through use of language that is chosen by the survivor, they are gaining power and control over their process and journey. This study informs practice innovation by providing first-hand knowledge from survivors. As this information is disseminated, we can honor survivor’s perspective and preference by transitioning from using the words healing and healed to words that truly represent and empower the survivor.