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Helen Anderson (Queen’s University, Canada)

The Role of Narrative in Recovery from Sexual Violence


One of the most fundamental distinctions between human beings and other animals is our potential for moral agency, in that we possess the unique ability to determine for ourselves what it means to live a good life and how we should act in order to achieve this.  Unfortunately, in systems of dominance and oppression, humans can be denied this most basic ability to make choices about their own lives.  In this paper, I am interested in examining how an individual comes to acquire agency in the face of extreme subordination, such as in the case of sexual violence.  I wish to look at the role that narrative plays in helping an individual reclaim control over her life, and how understanding the role of narrative can help us better understand the nature of agency in general.  In using the term 'agency', I am referring to an individual's ability to act intentionally towards a future goal, which requires that the individual be able to perceive herself/himself as the cause of her/his actions.

            My particular interest in examining the concept of agency here is in relation to the case of rape survivors, in terms of what is required in order for them to re-establish a sense of autonomous agency that may have been lost as a result of their traumatic experience.  While I realize that both men and women can be victims or perpetrators of sexual violence, in this paper I will be dealing only with the female survivors of male-perpetrated sexual violence.  This is because I feel that sexual assault perpetrated by males against females is a phenomenon distinct from other forms of sexual violence, in that I perceive it to be a product of the sexist and misogynistic attitudes prevalent in many societies, which I will discuss in more detail later.   

            At the moment I would like to consider how a rape survivor's ability to make sense of her attack is a crucial step in regaining a feeling of control over her life.  I want to suggest that the ability to characterize or impose meaning on an event through narrative can constitute some sort of control over the situation, and that what meaning is imposed matters, in that it influences the degree of control an individual has. By the term 'narrative,' I am referring to how one makes sense of the events that occur in her or his life, and how these events are understood in the context of one's life as a whole.  In his article 'The Idea of a Personal History,' Jonathan Jacobs offers a useful explanation of personal narrative as a critical part of developing one's sense of identity.  He understands personal narrative as: 

            [A]n account of a person's life that the individual supplies to himself.  The

            main claim here is that how a person thinks about his life history plays a

            constituting role in unifying it.  A personal narrative is a conception of one's

            life through which an individual achieves a perspective on the course and

            orientation of his life.[i]

Furthermore, as Susan Brison states, 'unlike passively experienced traumatic memories, a narrative requires a narrator, an agent who makes choices about what to tell and how to tell it.'[ii]  Like Jacobs, I believe that how a narrator chooses to tell her or his story is very important, in that some stories are better or more useful than others.  I want to suggest that the most constructive post-trauma narrative, the one which best fulfills an individual's claim to agency, is a narrative of forward-looking responsibility, a concept that has been introduced by Claudia Card and that I will discuss in more detail shortly.[iii]

            My discussion here is based on the contributions of three authors in particular:  Susan Brison, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, and Claudia Card.  Susan Brison, a sexual assault survivor herself, discusses through her own experiences how rape can cause a shattering of personal identity, as it creates a disruption of and discontinuity between the past and the present, as well as a gulf between oneself and others.  According to Brison, the beliefs that a survivor of sexual violence always held to be true and meaningful are suddenly called into question by her traumatic experience.[iv]  This is further illustrated by Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, who explains that in the aftermath of rape, nothing seems to be what it once was for the survivor.  A survivor of sexual violence becomes unable to hold onto previous assumptions about the world, such as:

            [T]hat the world is a good place and that other people are kind and trustworthy. 

            [Rape survivors] can no longer assume that the world is meaningful and that

what happens makes sense.  They can no longer assume that they have control

over negative outcomes or will reap benefits because they are good people.  The

very nature of the world and self seems to have changed; neither can be trusted,

neither guarantees security.[v]

            Yet as Brison argues, by constructing a post-trauma narrative, an individual gains power over the way in which her attack is characterized, which in turn gives her power over the attack.  Rather than just passively enduring traumatic flashbacks and embodied memories of the event, sexual assault survivors can take control of their own stories through the active construction of a post-trauma narrative.  Brison states that:

            [B]y constructing and telling a narrative of the trauma endured, and with the

            help of understanding listeners, the survivor begins not only to integrate the

            traumatic episode into a life with a before and after but also gain control over

            the occurence of instrusive memories.[vi]

She demonstrates to us how coming to understand one's experience of sexual violence can be a powerful tool in reconstructing a sense of agency, although she does not discuss how different ways of imposing meaning on an attack may affect one's sense of control differently.

            I turn now to Ronnie Janoff-Bulman's work on self-blame in order to better understand how narrative can restore an assault survivor's sense of control, as well as how different narratives may accomplish this differently.  As Janoff-Bulman explains, a rape survivor's self-blame can stem from a double bind that she finds herself in after her attack.  A survivor of sexual violence may be caught between viewing herself either as a helpless victim, vulnerable to further assaults, or as an agent who had some control over the situation, often interpreted counter-productively as being the blameworthy cause.  Janoff-Bulman demonstrates how a sexual assault survivor's story of self-blame can be a response to feelings of helplessness and confusion, motivated by a need to understand and assert control over her life.  To be forced to question all her prior beliefs at the same time can cause great psychological stress for a rape survivor, as well as a sense of self-annihilation.  The primary concern for rape survivors therefore is recovery, not the accuracy of how they account for the assault.   

            According to Janoff-Bulman, self-blame is often a survivor's attempt to make sense of a senseless victimization.  The survivor needs to explain to herself, 'Why me?' and as Janoff-Bulman states, a survivor of sexual violence "commonly answers this question based on our socialized assumptions about the world being just and predictable:  if something bad happens to someone, the victim deserves it either because of his/her personality or his/her actions."[vii]  If a survivor can posit herself as the cause of her rape, then the event is transformed from a random, unpreventable occurence to an outcome contingent on and  explained by her actions.  As Andrea Medea and Kathleen Thompson note:  "If the woman can believe that somehow she got herself into the situation, if she can make herself responsible for it, then she's established some sort of control over the rape.  It wasn't someone arbitrarily smashing into her life and wreaking havoc."[viii]

            However, although a rape survivor may attempt to assert control over her life and her assault by taking blame for it, I argue that such an understanding of sexual assault is detrimental to the rape recovery process.  This is because narratives of self-blame not only distort the concept of guilt by excusing the criminal while blaming the victim, but these narratives are also focused on unchangeable events of the past, limiting a survivor's ability to act in response to the situation.  Janoff-Bulman seems to recognize only one way of taking control over an assault, which is to hold oneself to be the morally relevant cause of the attack.  However, I argue that taking forward-looking responsibility can allow us to envision a way to escape the double bind of rape, by allowing survivors to take control over their lives in a way that avoids self-blame.      

            In her book The Unnatural Lottery:  Character and Moral Luck, Claudia Card makes an important distinction between backward-looking blame and forward-looking responsibility by stating that in looking backward, we focus on issues such as guilt, blame, desert of punishment, etc., although looking forward allows us to assume responsibility for creating the shape of the future.  Card clarifies, however, that, "when we take responsibility for something, there is no assumption that we produced it,"[ix] and furthermore, that, "overcoming and resisting our own oppression requires us to take responsibility for situations for which others could not reasonably hold us responsible for."[x] While focusing on the past can limit an individual's control because she is unable to change what has already happened,  focusing on the future permits an individual to influence what is going to happen and what has the potential to happen.  I argue that by constructing a narrative about taking up responsibility for the future, an assault survivor can assert her agency not only by working towards the prevention and eradication of sexual violence in society, but also by taking control over the role that sexual violence plays in her life as well as in the lives of others.  Rather than saying 'I could have done this, I should have done that,' by taking forward-looking responsibility, she is able to assert 'I can do this, I should do that.'

            However, as Andrea Medea and Kathleen Thompson point out, solving the problem of rape requires more than simply working from within existing institutions.  It requires an entire overhaul of societal attitudes towards women.  Quoting from Susan Griffin's article "Rape:  The All-American Crime,"[xi] Medea and Thompson assert that "'rape is not the isolated act of an aberrant individual, but a crime against women that is encouraged by a sexist society; that women are seen in our culture, not as whole human beings, but as objects and authorized victims of male aggression.'"[xii]  They go on to argue that:

            Women can reform laws, regulate police and hospital treatment, train themselves,

and yet so long as women are treated as less than human beings, they will be raped. 

Rape is only a symptom of the massive sickness called sexism, and the sickness itself

must be cured.[xiii]   

            As I hope to have demonstrated in this paper, gaining control over a situation is dependent on being able to make a judgment about the sort of event that has occurred.  And until we are able to characterize and identify rape as a phenomenon of a sexist society, we wil be unable to fully control it.  This characterization can only be achieved through awareness and education, which includes learning how to hear the narratives of women in a way that validates their subjectivity and claims to agency. 


[i] Jonathan Jacobs, "The Idea of a Personal History," International Philosophical Quarterly, 24 (1984) 179-188, p. 179

[ii] Susan J. Brison, "Uses of Narrative in the Aftermath of Violence," On Feminist Ethics and Politics, Ed. Claudia

Card (Lawrence:  UP of Kansas, 1999) 200-225, p. 201.

[iii] See Claudia Card, The Unnatural Lottery:  Character and Moral Luck, (Philadelphia:  Temple UP, 1996).

[iv] See Susan Brison, Aftermath:  Violence and the Remaking of the Self, (Princeton, Princeton UP, 2002).

[v] Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions:  Towards a New Psychology of Trauma, (New York:  Free Press, 1992) p.62.

[vi] Susan Brison, "Outliving Oneself:  Trauma, Memory, and Personal Identity," Feminists Rethink the Self, Ed. Diana Tietjens Meyers (Boulder:  Westview, 1997) 12-39, p. 23.

[vii] Janoff-Bulman, 125.

[viii] Andrea Medea and Kathleen Thompson, Against Rape, (New York:  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1974) p.105.

[ix] Card, 29.

[x] Ibid, 41.

[xi] See Susan Griffin, "Rape:  The All American Crime," Feminism and Philosophy, Ed. Mary Vetterling-Braggin, Frederick A. Elliston, and Jane English (Totowa, N.J.:  Littlefield, Adams, 1977) 313-332.

[xii] As cited in Medea and Thompson, 140.

[xiii] Medea and Thompson, 130.