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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Processes by which relationships shape responses to sexual assault disclosures Kendrick, Kristin Carol


Sexual assault is a common experience. When survivors disclose their assaults they are more likely to tell their peers than formal support providers. Peers’ responses have been found to relate to survivors’ healing processes. Increased understanding regarding why peers respond as they do provides greater opportunities to influence their responses to survivors through outreach and support work. Previous research largely overlooks how the peer-survivor relationship might relate to responses to disclosures of sexual assault. This research includes both formal and informal supporters to increase the range of relationships available for examination. Two studies were conducted. The first study surveyed undergraduate students to investigate associations between different aspects of peer relationships and: a) emotional distress experienced after a disclosure, and b) social reactions provided to the survivor. The second study interviewed a subset of the peers involved in Study 1 as well as counsellors and support workers. Qualitative content analysis of interviews was used to increase understanding about the processes by which responses to disclosures of sexual assault are shaped by relationship characteristics. Findings suggest that relationship characteristics and type matter in disclosures of sexual assault. This dissertation advances research about sexual assault disclosures in three important ways. First, it contributes to understanding about divergent social reactions to sexual assault disclosures by including a wide range of relationships at the time of disclosure, ranging from no prior relationship to close friendships. Second, it examines various supporters’ perspectives of how their thoughts and emotions might relate to their reactions to survivors. Little research has investigated a range of supporters’ views of why they react in the ways they do. Third, this dissertation contributes to knowledge about how to improve support to survivors and the people to whom they disclose. Without better understanding of how supporters’ experiences relate to their responses, working with peers and formal supporters to help them respond in more helpful ways is difficult. Results are discussed in terms of their implications for prevention and intervention efforts and recommendations for systems of support.

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