Jennifer Stewart is studying how sexual assault survivors understand their trauma in the context of the #MeToo movement—“a time period in American history that’s quite different” from any other, she said.
Over the past year, Stewart, a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at Fordham’s Graduate School of Education and an adjunct lecturer in Hunter College’s psychology department, interviewed 16 women who said they had experienced sexual assault during their college years. Stewart wanted to see how the current climate affects the way they’ve processed their own assaults and how they might feel about reporting them.
“Jen’s work is very timely and poignant,” said her mentor, Fordham professor and psychologist Joseph G. Ponterotto, Ph.D. “This is an intense, qualitative long-interview study, and the results are riveting.”
The 16 women are anonymous college students across the U.S. who spoke with Stewart through Skype, FaceTime, and, if possible, face-to-face. Their conversations, typically an hour long, are currently being transcribed and analyzed, but conclusions are starting to take shape, said Stewart.
The work has formed the basis for her dissertation. Before conducting research for the project, she also completed a pilot study, for which she interviewed eight sexual assault survivors about their recovery process.
Last year, she was invited to present her pilot study at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention. In a recent interview, Fordham News spoke with Stewart about what she’s learned so far.
How is your research different than what’s already out there?
There’s a lot of research on how sexual assault can psychologically and physically affect victims, but there isn’t much research on what’s happening with sexual assault victims right now. We’re in a time period in American history that’s quite different. We’re talking about sexual assault in a nationwide conversation. It’s in the news, it’s on social media, it’s in the political world. So it’s everywhere you turn, and I was really curious to see how that’s affecting survivors.
Tell me about your research.
I do qualitative research, which is interview-based. You interview people until you have what’s called a saturation, where the same themes are coming up over and over again. Like, this is coming up so much that we can assume it’s an experience a lot of people are having. When they start to come up in three-quarters of the interviews, you’ve hit saturation.
You spoke with 16 different women. How did you find them?
Facebook, actually. I recruited through Facebook college groups. I joined a lot of groups, posted, and people reached out to me.
What did your interviews focus on?
How #MeToo has affected how they understood [their assault]and how their assault has affected how they view #MeToo in general.
What were the biggest themes from those interviews?
It seems like sexual assault survivors are in support of #MeToo and feel more comfortable talking to friends on campus about their experiences because there’s this open dialogue that’s been happening.
But they are significantly less likely to report to authorities in the context of #MeToo after seeing all the people who stood up and reported, but nothing happened. Many of the women I spoke to were like, why would I talk? What’s the point? I’m going to go through all this legal hassle, I’m going to get put in the spotlight and questioned on whether or not what happened was real, and nothing’s going to come of it. So what’s the point of reporting anything, legally?
This April, you’ll be defending your dissertation. Outside of Fordham, what do you hope to do with it?
Using this to inform policy would be great. I don’t know what that will look like yet. But there’s always an implications section in a dissertation. Now I have this research—cool. What does it mean? Let’s use this to help make a change somewhere.
What are some key takeaway points from your research? Something that could help a loved one dealing with sexual assault?
Reporting [to authorities]is really triggering for a lot of people. It can be helpful to recount stories for healing, but usually not immediately after. Imagine going through a car crash and barely surviving and then someone saying, “Can you tell me all about the details of the car crash?”
Social support is really, really important in terms of how somebody will react after a trauma. A lot of research has shown that positive social support is better [than no social support or negative support]in terms of reducing PTSD symptoms. [Many pilot-study participants] said the best reactions they had gotten were someone saying, I’m so sorry this happened. I’m here for you if you need me. If you want me to go with you to report, to get some health tests done—whatever you need, I’m here. I think that often times, we hear about sexual assault a lot, but don’t really know what to do when someone tells us it happens. You can’t change that it happened. You can’t fix it. But you can support people, whatever that looks like for every person. That’s something I’d love for more people to know.
I think we need less victim-blaming and more listening to people when they speak out about things like this. The number of people who falsely report is so small, but those are always the cases that get publicity. Then people are like, oh, well, look at all of these women trying to ruin men’s lives. We need to be more open to hearing what survivors have to say and believing them.
Two years ago, you earned an M.S.Ed. from Fordham, and by 2021, you’ll also have your Ph.D. What’s one of the biggest things that the Graduate School of Education taught you?
There’s a big focus on multiculturalism and social justice in my program, which I love — and that’s what I chose Fordham for. It’s taught me to be curious about other people’s experiences, to never make assumptions. Even though I’ve worked with a lot of sexual assault trauma, everyone’s experience is different.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.