Disenfranchisement and Ambiguity in the Face of Loss: The Suffocated Grief of Sexual Assault Survivors

AuthorTashel Bordere
Published date01 February 2017
Date01 February 2017
T B University of Missouri–Columbia
Disenfranchisement and Ambiguity in the Face of
Loss: The Suffocated Grief of Sexual Assault
Grief, loss, and social injustice are vital ele-
ments in the distinct yet intersecting stories of
sexual assault and post-assault survivorship. Yet
survivors must frequently cope in isolation or in
programs and therapeutic settings informed by
literature that does not consistently account for
grief and loss as central to their experiences.
Utilizing a feminist framework, I review and
critique literature on sexual assault survivor-
ship and loss with focus on factors related to
disenfranchisement and suffocated grief among
young adult females. I also explore how these
factors further complicate grief and mourning
processes. Implications for socially just and cul-
turally appropriate research and practice with
bereaved sexual assault survivors are provided.
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold
story inside you.
—Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on the
Road, 1969
Sexual assault survivors are among the most dis-
enfranchised populations, coping with narratives
of multiple losses, uncertainty, and grief that fre-
quently go unacknowledged (Doka, 1989). An
alleged perpetrator gleefully walked across the
stage at college graduation, cheered on by an
Department of Human Development and Family Science,
University of Missouri-Columbia (borderet@missouri.edu).
Key Words: Grief, loss, sexual assault survivors, social jus-
tice, young adult females.
audience, some of whom, aware of the assault,
applauded nonetheless. Meanwhile, the assault
survivor, disoriented and betrayed by a system
and society designed to protect offenders, strug-
gles with grief that is suffocated by a system
lled with penalties (Bordere, 2016b) around
missed days at work, delayed class assignment
submissions, and oppressive stigma stemming
from the assault. The survivor is left to con-
tend with losses of trust and physical and emo-
tional safety. She faces the agony of knowing
that despite the perpetrator’s nefarious actions,
he will experience the freedom to participate in
a life of possibilities and protections with few or
no social, educational, or legal sanctions—a lux-
ury that, in an instant, was violently seized from
the survivor.
This article is a call for more activist research
(see Cancian, 1993) employing feminist per-
spectives and promoting social change that
benets female sexual assault survivors (here-
after survivors). There is a need for more
social justice research and practice “promoting
social change and performing social action that
advance psychological prevention, psychoedu-
cation, and well-being” (Warren & Constantine,
2007, pp. 231–232) for survivors. Such work
moves beyond the standard practice of writing
research largely for the purposes of disseminat-
ing information to academicians or colleagues
(Cancian, 1993).
Although grief, loss, and social injustice are
inextricably intertwined with sexual assault
survivorship, few empirical studies, conceptual
Family Relations 66 (February 2017): 29–45 29
30 Family Relations
models, and programs address these issues as
interrelated. A small body of literature conjoins
sexual assault and grief (e.g., Schultz & Harris,
2011; Whiston, 1981), and even less scholarly
attention has been paid to grief support as a
socially just practice in sexual assault survivor-
ship (e.g., Bordere, 2015). These disconnects
in the literature have looming implications for
our ability to meet the needs of sexual assault
survivors in educational settings, programming,
and policy.
In this article, I review, critique, and synthe-
size literature and knowledge on grief, loss, and
sexual assault. I utilize social justice, cultural
contextual, ecological systems, and feminist per-
spectives to argue that sexual assault (i.e., sexual
violation occurring in adulthood) is a non-death
loss experience. An important premise underly-
ing this article is the notion that support for loss
is a basic right or “unearned entitlement” of sur-
vivors (McIntosh, 2007, p. 281). In the course of
discussing disparities in the experiences of indi-
viduals and families affected by sexual assault,
I explore losses commonly associated with sex-
ual assault and issues of disenfranchisement and
suffocated grief that serve to further complicate
meaning-making and coping processes for sur-
vivors. In doing so, this article delineates rele-
vant grief and loss concepts and applies them to
literature on survivorship.
G, L,  C F
 S A S
Grief is a normal response to loss and is indeed a
part of sexual assault narratives. The experience
of grief, in general, is universal and entails
internal (e.g., cognitive, emotional) and external
(e.g., physical, social) processes. Although
universal, grief is contextual and expressed
in diverse ways (Bordere, 2016a; Rosenblatt,
2007). Further, grief stemming from loss is
rarely uncomplicated, especially when the loss
is associated with sexual assault survivorship.
A multitude of intersecting factors complicate
the grief process for survivors, posing unique
challenges for navigating life.
Losses in Sexual Assault Survivorship
Losses associated with sexual assault are num-
erous, cumulative, and multilayered. The pri-
mary loss is the loss of one’s pre-assault life
and worldview. There are also a multitude of
secondary or accompanying losses that may be
both visible (e.g., friendship loss) and invisible
(e.g., loss of trust). Secondary losses in sexual
assault include, but are not limited to, loss of
trust in self and others, such as beliefs about
the goodness of others (Ranjbar & Speer, 2013;
Shakespeare-Finch & Armstrong, 2010); loss
of self-identity, freedom, and independence
(Whiston, 1981); loss of control and autonomy,
such as in the timing of reporting (Ranjbar
& Speer, 2013); loss of a sense of safety and
security (Frazier, Conlon, & Glaser, 2001;
Whiston, 1981); loss of positive self-concept or
self-esteem (Macy, 2007; Van Bruggen, Runtz,
& Kadlec, 2006); loss of nances and job
(Frazier et al., 2001); loss of social capital
such as friends and social networks or intimate
partnerships (DePrince, 2005; Frazier et al.,
2001; Zamir & Lavee, 2014); and loss of sexual
interest and other sex-related losses (Stappen-
beck, Hassija, Zimmerman, & Kaysen, 2015;
Whiston, 1981).
In interchanges with the legal system, there
may be multiple losses. There may be a loss
of ability to present one’s case in court (Payne,
2009). Among cases that make it to trial, sur-
vivors may lose the ability to tell the assault
narrative in a coherent and meaningful way
because stories of survivors are often dismantled
in court, where survivors are instead expected
to respond to yes–no questions (Herman, 2003).
Additionally,there are losses of privacy and time
in legal proceedings; court trials often continue
for months or even years with no clear ending or
resolution (Herman, 2003), which may prolong
or delay grief (Parkes, 1998). The grief process
may be further complicated in cases where there
is a loss of conviction; survivors are revictim-
ized when the verdict reached is experienced as
Sexual assault survivorship also entails non-
nite loss in that there is a continuous presence
of loss that is often hidden, invisible, and
ongoing in nature. The “ongoing sense of loss
may be exacerbated because the circumstances
surrounding the loss result in recurrent pain,
grief, or intense distress involving, for example,
shame, self-consciousness, or social isolation”
(Schultz & Harris, 2011, p. 240). This ongoing
sense of loss is often met with great uncer-
tainty in the aftermath of experiences such as
sexual assault. Boss (2010) has described this
uncertainty as ambiguous loss, which refers to
losses that are unclear, traumatic, and externally

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