Although quantitative methods search for explanations, qualitative methods seek understanding (Comstock, 1994; Guba & Lincoln, 1994). Knowledge consists of consensus among informants regarding the meanings of their experiences. One method of gaining such knowledge is discourse analysis. Discourse refers to a “system of statements, practices and institu­tional structures that share common values” (Hare-Mustin, 1994, p. 19). People know what they know because they share common discourses about the nature of the world. A dominant discourse within a society defines what is true and why it is true. From this perspective, often referred to as social construction (Gergen, 1985; Schwandt, 1994), people construct the world around them by learning the meanings given by language, history, and culture. Discourse analysis, then, is a qualitative method of analyzing the themes that occur when people talk about how they define what has happened to them and why it happened. It is a means for understanding subjectivity, the construal process (Ross & Nisbett, 1991), or the way a person understands and interprets her world. Qualitative methods adhere to the position that in order to address problems of everyday life we must first understand the social situation (Comstock, 1994).

Although quantitative research on rape acknowledgment asked women about their own experiences, the participants were not free to tell their own stories in their own words. For example, although Kahn et al. (1994) asked participants to write their rape scripts, they did not allow for multiple scripts. The assumption was implicitly made that women have a single, dominant rape script. Likewise, Andreoli Mathie and Kahn (1995) asked participants what happened during and after their assault, but pro­vided them with categories and dimensions on which to make check marks; participants were not given the opportunity to use their own words, cate­gories, and dimensions. Furthermore, the data gathered about women’s experiences using a quantitative approach do not allow the researcher to see the context in which the assault occurred. The complexity of a woman’s actual rape experience is ignored when a single aspect of that experience, such as assailant force, is measured alone without taking into account the woman’s relationship with the man, her past relationships and experiences, her goals and fears, her beliefs and attitudes about men, women, love, and sex, and so much more that put her experience in context.

A growing body of research suggests women’s sexual experiences can­not be understood by looking at isolated categories and classifications of experience (e. g., Thompson, 1995; Tolman, 1994), and that methods such as discourse analysis may be superior to traditional empirical methods in psychology for understanding the complexities of women’s experiences, in­cluding sexual assault. Lynn Phillips (1995) recently conducted 2- to 5- hour in-depth interviews of 30 women college students to learn about their experiences with romance, sex, and violence. The participants were all self – defined feminists. All but a few participants had one or more experiences that would legally be considered rape, but none of them called themselves a rape victim. In other words, most of these women were unacknowledged victims. Through her interviews, Phillips extracted a number of dominant discourses these women possessed about sex, love, victimization, and gen­der. She found three interrelated themes: how to be a “good woman,” the nature of sexual danger, and the nature of victimization. For each theme she found two conflicting dominant discourses. These are listed in Ta­ble 6.

Phillips’ (1995) use of discourse analysis leads to a very different way of viewing the unacknowledged rape victim than is found with quantitative research. We quote her at length:

TABLE 6

Themes and Dominant Discourses Relating to Sex, Love, Victimization, and Gender Found by Phillips (1995, 1996) in Her Interviews

With Women

Theme

Dominant Discourse

Example

Good woman

Pleasing woman discourse

Liberated woman discourse

“A woman is feminine, virtuous, pleasing to men," which is in conflict with

“A woman is entitled to be sex­ual and to full equality in a re­lationship.”

Sexual danger

Normal vs. danger­ous sex dis­course

Male sexual drive discourse

“Normal sex and coercive, dan­gerous sex are completely different and clearly distinct,” which is in conflict with “Men possess an instinctive sexual drive that once aroused must be satisfied.”

Victimization

Sex as victimization discourse

True victim dis­course

“Sex is inherently victimizing to girls and young women,” which is in conflict with “Real victims are virtuous, good girls who avoid danger and fight back assailants.”

Explaining their reluctance to consider themselves victims, the women pointed to the complicated circumstances surrounding their own ex­periences. Echoing the normal/danger dichotomy discourse and the true victim discourse, they suggested that “real” victimization was clear-cut, leaving their sometimes murky, and always contextualized, experiences somehow outside that category. While they were quite willing to de­scribe the pain, fear, and humiliation they endured, they stopped short of labeling their experiences, except to say that things “went badly.” Here we see an unexpected twist on the well-intentioned, popularized feminist notion that rape is about violence, not about sex. Since these women’s encounters were seldom simply about violence, they did not count them as real cases of victimization.

At the same time, confronted with the victim/agent dichotomy posed by the sex as victimization discourse, these women express a com­pelling dilemma: they can be either a victim or an active subject, but not both. Within the terms of this discourse, then, an acknowledgment of their victimization would require them to forfeit their “status” as an agent. Coming of age in an era where the liberated woman discourse tells them to be strong and autonomous, these young women place a premium on their ability to appear “together,” in control, and “grown up.” If victimization and agency are dichotomous, then naming them­selves as victims would represent a threat to their sense of self.

Thus, we see women’s reluctance to name personal victimization fueled by at least two inter-locking phenomena: 1) the need to preserve agency, encouraged by the liberated woman discourse; and 2) the lack of fit between their complex interactions on the one hand, and the sim­plicity presumed by both the normal/danger dichotomy discourse and the true victim discourse on the other. These two concerns come together dialectically to inform the woman’s thought process: their situations are complicated, so they must not be real victims. And as agents they cannot allow themselves to be framed as victims, so the complexities of their own experiences must preclude them from falling into that category. Viewed in light of their development into young womanhood in an individualistic society, the tendency to minimize one’s victimi­zation begins to make sense. Rather than representing an acceptance of male aggression, this tendency may be seen as a strategy for pre­serving a sense of self within a culture which seeks to oversimplify such complex phenomena as selfhood, gendered power, and sexual violence. (Phillips, 1996, pp. 10-13)

Walker, Gilbert, and Goss (1996) offered further evidence of the existence of the male sexual drive discourse. They found that men and women shared the common beliefs that men have uncontrollable sexual drives when they are aroused and women should acquiesce to the men’s needs. When role playing negotiating a date or sexual intimacy, these beliefs were common discourse themes. By making women feel obligated to fulfill men’s needs, the male sexual drive discourse may lead women to see themselves as ful­filling their role rather than seeing themselves as a victim of rape. Having the man continue his sexual advances through to intercourse may be viewed as the natural progression of events, rather than as a violation of the woman’s desires.