Sexual Assault Survivors and Online Communities Open Access
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Being sexually assaulted and the process of recovering from it are intensely personal experiences. Many factors can influence a survivor's recovery: his/her initial contact with law enforcement; the type of response from family and friends; and the outcome of the criminal justice process. Survivors often struggle with feelings of guilt over the assault and confusion about what to do next. Not all survivors are able to find adequate support for their recovery in conventional methods, such as from their family or therapists. If a survivor does have a supportive family, the family may not know the correct ways to provide that support. For some survivors the Internet is a supplemental form of support. A survivor may find that the Internet is an environment that provides support and resources, as well as a place to work through residual issues. The Internet allows for individuals in need of care, support, or direction to find appropriate communities online. Digital access can facilitate information and resources to address many needs and interests. Furthermore, it can provide anonymity, which allows people to search for and respond to their interests in confidence, safety and privacy. These people may be in varying locations and from diverse backgrounds, but still meet up virtually and anonymously. Conversations within these groups can and do occur without their members being in close proximity to each other or even knowing the location of their interlocutors. Individuals can use chat rooms and message boards to start or respond to a discussion about topics of interest or concern in order to swap ideas or compare stories. This grounded research study examines online communities as resources for victims of sexual assault and rape. This study will evaluate the reasons why a survivor would make use of an online community in the recovery process. The guiding question of this study is: How do sexual assault survivors use online message boards in their recovery? Additional sub-questions include: (1) Why are survivors turning to online, virtual communities as a resource for help? (2) How do users see online communities as a way to process events? It is the contention of this study that the online message board, here on the Pandys.org website, geared specifically to sexual assault survivors can provide support, information, and a sense of community. The use of the Internet to create a self-help community is not unique to sexual assault survivors. This grounded, qualitative study referenced literatures that examined two other self-help communities, as well as considering aspects of sociological theories of community, identity, and rationalization of abuse. There is, however, relatively little research about or theoretical analysis of online support communities, and no research examining and how sexual assault survivors use these communities. This study seeks to begin to address that gap.