Sexual assault on college campuses is a significant concern across the United States. Although definitions vary, most state that sexual assault is any sexual contact without consent. Scholars have argued that statistics are not inclusive of all student identities (e.g., focusing on White, heterosexual, cisgender female students) and, given the low reporting to campus authorities, campus sexual assault (CSA) rates are likely higher than what is being reported. Experiencing CSA also can have significant mental health and educational consequences for students. Researchers have focused on the consequences of CSA, but there is a dearth of research on the diversity of students’ post-assault lived experiences of resilience as they navigate their campus environment.
The purpose was to explore the phenomenon of resilience among undergraduate students who have experienced CSA, through a qualitative inquiry that used phenomenological methods and was informed by socio-ecological and intersectional feminist based theoretical perspectives. The research question was, “How might student victim-survivors of CSA experience resilience as they navigate their post-assault life on campus?”
I conducted a qualitative inquiry using post-intentional phenomenology (PIP), which is an emerging branch of phenomenology that seeks to understand what the phenomenon might become. The phenomenon of this study was the resilience that CSA victim-survivors experienced as they navigated their lives post-assault at a large, urban, public university. I conducted in-depth interviews with a diverse group of participants (N=6), who were enrolled undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 24 and experienced CSA while being an undergraduate student. The interviews explored the lived experiences of resilience, CSA, and post-assault life on campus. This study used PIP’s whole-part-whole process of analysis to analyze and deconstruct the data. This type of analysis included completing line-by-line readings of the interview transcripts, lived experience descriptions, field notes, and revisiting and incorporating theory to think with and through the data. The impact of COVID-19 on recruitment and data collection also will be presented.
Four key findings of resilience included agency, coping, connection, and hope. Agency included the participants’ discussion of consent and self-identities, including victim and/or survivor labels. Coping appeared as participants shared their diverse coping practices in learning how to adapt to their campus environment post-assault. Connection included participants’ description of challenges and strengths across relationships, specifically when they disclosed their CSA. Finally, hope was identified as participants reflected on their belief in self and societal change.
Conclusion and Implications:
Participants reflected on recommendations to better address, prevent, and respond to CSA. Social work values play an integral role when analyzing CSA, particularly through the critical social justice lens that recognizes the dignity and worth of the individual, the diversity of experiences, the importance of human relationships, and the person in their environment. Students continue to demonstrate and share their powerful lived experiences of strength and resilience in the context of their campus environment. Findings have the potential to significantly contribute to the broad field of multidisciplinary practitioners, researchers, and policy-makers working to support students and prevent CSA.