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Sexual assault and the matrix of harm: Sexual assault survivors narrate their whole lives in more negative ways

This paper uses data from the American Voices Project, an interview study based on a random population sample, to explore the relationship between assault experiences and how people narrate their lives. Using quantitative sentiment analysis, we find that survivors of assault ...

Published onJun 27, 2024
Sexual assault and the matrix of harm: Sexual assault survivors narrate their whole lives in more negative ways
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Abstract

This paper uses data from the American Voices Project, an interview study based on a random population sample, to explore the relationship between assault experiences and how people narrate their lives. Using quantitative sentiment analysis, we find that survivors of assault express significantly greater negative sentiment when asked to tell their life stories. These negative sentiments are observable throughout the entire interview, including before questions of assault are asked. Survivors of assault narrate their experiences with more anger, disgust, fear, and sadness, and less anticipation, joy, and trust than those who do not report assault experiences. We provide evidence that the negative sentiment associated with sexual violence is greater than having lost a parent and less than having experienced a significant financial hardship within the last month. We contextualize these findings with a qualitative evaluation of the interview transcripts, further substantiating our finding. Overall, this paper suggests that sexual violence is part of what we have called, drawing inspiration from the work of Beth Richie, a “matrix of harm” that structures people’s lives. While our finding is consistent with what we might expect given the negative life experiences and sequalae associated with sexual assault, it has important implications. Sentimental differences in narrating life experience are an important yet relatively understudied phenomenon, and experiences of assault are rarely asked about yet may be consequential to both quantitative and qualitative accounts of social processes.

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