THESIS DEFENCE: Danielle Palmer, “A Voice Centered Relational Inquiry Into Sexual Assault”
Supervisor: Dr. Janelle Kwee, CPSY
Second Reader: Dr. Mihaela Launeanu, CPSY
External Examiner: Dr. Allyson Jule, MAES
Exam Chair: Dr. Holly Nelson, MAIH
Research, theory, and practice in psychology have historically been oriented in paradigms that assume individuals are self-contained entities from which relationships emerge. A relational ontology reverses the order of this common notion; humans begin, and always exist, in relationships and the experience of the self is embedded in relational processes. This complimentary lens is needed to understand the complexity of relational harm and healing, especially in the case of sexual assault. This violation of human bonds occurs at epidemic-like proportions, often between persons who are known to each other. Despite the interpersonal nature of its occurrence and the devastating consequences on survivors’ relationships to themselves and others, the harm of sexual assault is often conceptualized as the presence of symptoms that exist within the individual, and healing as the alleviation or management of these symptoms. These conceptualizations can be pathologizing and are insufficient as they overlook the relational nature of reality. The present study offers a relationally embedded understanding of harm and healing through the examination of women’s first-hand accounts of being sexually assaulted by someone they knew. Six women participated in semi-structured interviews facilitated by the use of sandtrays. The qualitative method of the Listening Guide was used to analyze transcripts and participants were invited to share their reflections on the findings. The voices (or themes) that emerged existed along polarities. Voices of harm spoke to experiences that constricted participants’ experiences of being connected to themselves, others and the world, and consisted of denial, confusion, judgment, isolation and separation. Voices of healing emerged as expansive processes and were identified as acknowledgment, knowing, acceptance, accompaniment and empowerment. These findings broaden current understandings of trauma and betrayal, and better equip counsellors, social supports, communities and cultures, to dismantle the relational processes that stagnate survivors in their suffering, and to promote those that foster growth.