Media and Communication Ph.D. Dissertations


"That's a very big deal": An examination of the social support process for victims/survivors of sexual assault

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Media and Communication

First Advisor

Sandra Faulkner (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Ashley McCoy (Other)

Third Advisor

Lisa Hanasono (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Laura Stafford (Committee Member)


It is estimated that one in five women and one in 71 men have experienced attempted or completed sexual assault (Black et al., 2011), and these numbers might be higher given that only 10% of victims/survivors of sexual assault disclose their assault (U.S. Department of Justice, 2000). With more victims/survivors coming forward, it is important to understand how to best support these victims/survivors as previous research has indicated that a victim’s/survivor’s support system can play a large role in coping (Ullman, 1996). Through interviews and open-ended surveys of couples and individuals, I address this need by examining how non-assaulting, romantic, significant others offer social support to their victim/survivor partner after a disclosure of sexual assault. I argue that social support is a transactional communication process in which both the partner and victim/survivor exchange social support after a sexual assault disclosure. After analyzing the data through a grounded theory approach, I created a model which illustrates two paths in which partners can support victims/survivors, and the paths are predicated on how the partner interprets the victim’s/survivor’s disclosure. The findings of the study indicate that emotional support (e.g., listening, empathizing, offering words of encouragement) was the most common form of social support given to victims/survivors from their partners followed by network support (e.g., connecting victims/survivors with a therapist) and informational support (e.g., giving advice). Additionally, I found that when partners are silent, do not focus on the victim’s/survivor’s emotions and needs, and/or become overly emotional about the disclosure, it can be difficult for victims/survivors to discuss and process their trauma with their partner. In addition to this the model of social support, I offer five best practices and tips for partners who need to provide social support to victims/survivors of sexual assault: 1) recognize your partner’s disclosure as an important moment for them, 2) emotional support is key, 3) reassure your partner, 4) mirror your partner’s emotions, and 5) recognize that support needs will change over time. Together, these five best practices shift the partner’s attention to the victim’s/survivor’s needs and can help the coping process.