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Danielle Fernandes

February 1st, 2024

The emotional journey of researching sexual violence

0 comments | 3 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Danielle Fernandes

February 1st, 2024

The emotional journey of researching sexual violence

0 comments | 3 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

This blog post discusses the emotional challenges of researching sexual violence. The content delves into the researcher’s own journey, highlighting the emotional and psychological hurdles encountered while engaging with the sensitive subject matter. Please be advised that the post may contain allusions and descriptions that could be triggering for some readers. Reader discretion is strongly advised, and we encourage those who may find such content distressing to approach the material with caution or consider skipping this particular entry.

This personal reflection explores the fraught emotional journey of researching sexual violence, from confronting personal experiences to grappling with the complexities of victimhood. In this introspective piece, Danielle Fernandes describes the struggle and pursuit of balance amid the intense emotional involvement of sexual violence research.


As a doctoral student researching sexual violence, it’s no surprise that this work is emotionally charged. After all, I chose this topic of research because of a personal emotional connection to the subject, having experienced violence myself. My own experience served as a powerful motivator, propelling me through the highs and lows of academia and grant applications. While I expected the emotional weight that this topic carries, I didn’t anticipate the complex flood of feelings it would stir within me.

I soon discovered that researching sexual violence can be even more emotional, as it forces you to confront your own experiences, reflect on your position and deal with the emotional fall-out. As Harriet Martineau once said, a researcher unable to emotionally understand the subjects of their research is “like one who, without hearing the music, sees a room full of people begin to dance”, and following her advice, I am attempting to listen to the music.

Confronting my own experience

Exploring stories of sexual violence, particularly those involving drugging and assaults during unconsciousness, was profoundly triggering. These narratives forced me to confront my own experiences in similar, unsettling situations where uncertainty clouded my recollections. I’ve struggled with acknowledging my own victimisation, aware that doing so would make it undeniably real. Accepting this reality would mean confronting the dormant emotions I had long tried to suppress.

My struggle to come to terms with my status as a potential ‘victim’ has also left me grappling with feelings of impostor syndrome. As a sexual violence researcher with a background in psychology, I’ve questioned whether I should have it all figured out. How could I possibly create a safe space for participants to share their experiences if I couldn’t find my own voice? How can I preach survivor empowerment, if I am too scared or ashamed to face my trauma?

Acknowledging my position

During a group discussion about victim blaming, one participant described holding herself to stricter standards of blame for ‘being victimised’ than she would for others experiencing violence. As she spoke, I felt a prickle of discomfort realising that this reflected my own attitude towards myself. While I always pride myself on rejecting victim-blaming rhetoric, the sad truth is I do self-scrutinise and hold myself responsible to avoid ‘being victimised’.

Reflecting on this line, ‘Hold myself responsible to avoid ‘being victimised’’, implies both a degree of control over the situation as well as an inherent helplessness as a victim. This conflicting sense of power and powerlessness as a survivor-victim mirrors my experience of studying sexual violence. While my position as a researcher creates an illusion of control over the research and its impact, a sense of helplessness looms over my work. For someone driven by tangible impact, the lack of momentum in addressing root causes and the slow pace of structural change can be deeply frustrating.

The emotional toll

My proximity to this line of work constantly exposes me to numerous cases of violence, which, when coupled with a sense of powerlessness, stirs feelings of anger. These emotions occasionally spill into my personal life, where I find myself growing impatient with acquaintances and friends who do not fully grasp the difficulties faced in reporting and recovering from victimisation. While I don’t find it necessary or helpful to be permissive of ignorance, I do question how much of my irritation is magnified by my emotional proximity to the topic.

This emotional immersion in narratives of sexual violence has also heightened my awareness of the ever-present danger of sexual transgression. I’ve noticed it ripple into my own anxieties and fears. When I walk past bars or nightclubs that were noted as breeding grounds of sexual harassment by my research participants, I experience a sense of anxiety. When navigating train stations that are particularly notorious for violence, I find myself glancing over my shoulder—a symptom of my growing apprehension.

Navigating the emotional journey

Considering the toll of carrying these complex and distressing feelings, is it worthwhile to embrace the ‘emotional turn’ in research? Well firstly, as much as I may self-theorise, the reality is that emotions exist in research, whether we acknowledge them or not. Every researcher brings emotions and beliefs to their research, and this will influence every decision, from the research question and design to engaging participants and disseminating results.

Acknowledging that emotionality is a core aspect of the research process, I am left wondering how to manage these emotions. As I grapple with concerns about fear and anger becoming unwelcome companions in my everyday experiences, I am cautious about letting my work bleed into my personal life. To navigate this, I attempted to establish boundaries between my role as a researcher and my personal identity, to create a semblance of emotional distance from my work. However, I am now faced with the challenge of maintaining a tricky balance: self-care in the wake of the emotional turbulence of sexual violence research, while embracing this connection with my research and the individuals who share their stories with me.

While I haven’t found the answer, I have come across a silver lining. Amid this emotional complexity, I feel empathy, which adds context and depth to my experience. Denial, in its acknowledgment, reminds me of the challenges survivors face when recognising and addressing their own victimisation. Helplessness and frustration underscore the urgency of my work and the need for meaningful change. Anger fuels my determination to advocate for survivors and challenge the status quo. Beneath it all, empathy connects me with survivors and helps me create an environment where they feel heard, understood, and supported.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the Department of Sociology, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: tigermad from Getty Images Signature

About the author

Danielle Fernandes

Danielle Fernandes, a doctoral candidate at the Research Center of Gender, Diversity, and Intersectionality at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, explores sexual violence experiences through an intersectional perspective. Her focus lies in participatory action research, collaborating with communities and individuals to co-create solutions for health and social challenges. Additionally, Danielle is a Public Voices fellow of The OpEd Project and AcademyHealth.

Posted In: Doing Sociology | Gender | Sexual Violence

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