Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Chwalisz, Kathleen


This is a qualitative investigation into women’s awareness of sexual violence during emerging adulthood. Sexual violence refers to any sexual act that is experienced as a threat or violation and takes away an individual’s ability to control intimate contact (Adams, 2005). Current estimates suggest that one in six adult women in the United States has been the victim of rape or attempted rape in her life (Department of Justice, 2015). Women in emerging adulthood (18-28 years old) are three to four times more likely than all women to experience sexual assault, and sexual violence is more prevalent than other crimes on college campuses (Cantor, Fisher, Chinball, Townsend, Lee, 2015). Given the ubiquity of sexual violence, some researchers (e.g., Brison, 2002; Adams, 2005) have argued that the threat of sexual violence harms women. There is a growing body of literature, essays, documentaries, and news reports documenting college women’s experiences of sexual assault. However, the dearth of empirical psychological literature on the impact of women’s knowledge of the possibility of sexual violence impacts them has implications for practitioners and researchers working with women affected by sexual violence. Therefore, a phenomenological approach using semi-structured individual interviews was used in this qualitative investigation of how women in emerging adulthood are aware of the possibility of sexual violence. The study was guided by the following questions 1. How do women in emerging adulthood encounter sexual violence in their lives? 2. How are women in emerging adulthood taught to think about, prepare for, and deal with unwanted sexual encounters? 3. What social forces perpetuate rape culture? Six women in emerging adulthood and enrolled in university courses were interviewed for this study. During the interview process, participants described how they learned about sexual violence, how they think about it in the present day, how their awareness impacts their movement in the world, and how sexual violence impacts their relationships with others. The content of the interviews was analyzed using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) as described by Smith, Flowers, and Larkin (2009). Results from the data analysis yielded four superordinate themes: (a) Lack of dialogue about sexual violence, (b) Living with the possibility of sexual assault, (c) Discrepant understandings of sexual violence, and (d) Sexual assault and interpersonal relationships. These themes reflect an awareness of sexual violence that is informed by dominant representations of what sexual assault looks like. Participants’ narratives reflect the struggle of trying to understand their own experiences of sexual violation in a culture that represents narrow depictions of what counts as sexual violence. The participants also expressed hope and optimism for change in the future.




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