English Ph.D. Dissertations


A Revisionist History of Loving Men: An Autoethnography and Community Research of Naming Sexual Abuse in Relationships

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


English (Rhetoric and Writing)

First Advisor

Lee Nickoson (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Hyeyoung Bang (Other)

Third Advisor

Daniel Bommarito (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Sue Carter Wood (Committee Member)


It is believed that over 90% of sexual violence cases involve situations in which a victim knows their attacker. Yet, cultural depictions of sexual assault and rape focus primarily on furthering the violent `stranger-in-the-alley’ narrative, than representing the majority of victim's lived experiences. This disconnect contributes to many victims of sexual assault, specifically within romantic relationships or friendships, struggling to recognize what happened to them as rape or as something else. Researchers refer to this as rape ambiguity or unacknowledged rape, where a victim cannot define what happened and thus internalizes victim-blaming rape myths. Yet, the role of relational context is rarely acknowledged in examining this disconnect, and the impact this has on recognizing and naming experiences is broadly overlooked.

Blending an evocative autoethnographic method – detailing the author’s personal experience with sexual abuse within relationships – with the findings from qualitative community-based research, this project asks how sexual abuse has become normalized in intimate heterosexual relationships and what impact this has on a female victim’s ability to name her experiences. Grounded in feminist theory and utilizing The Listening Guide, participant narratives are presented in the form of voice poems, with a critical focus on language. Findings highlight a trend of male-centric relationship dynamics, manipulation, and sexual coercion as normalized within heterosexual relationships. Additionally, the rhetorical discourse of sexual assault and rape as inherently violent is cited as a disruption to naming experiences as either term, due at least in part to concern over labeling male partners rapists. Implications of this research suggest a greater need for gender equality in heterosexual relationships – with a specific need for consent communication to involve sex positivity grounded in the normalization of female desire – further education for young women and men on healthy relational dynamics, and an overall expansion of available language for naming incidents of sexual violence.