Friday, December 4, 2015

“Dancing through the puddles to eradicate sexual harm” talking prevention with Cordelia Anderson.

Cordelia has been working in the field of sexual harm for nearly 40 years traversing the landscapes of research, treatment and victim advocacy with a focus on prevention, reduction and support. Cordelia believes that the best way to prevent sexual harm is to fully understand its causes, the perpetrators and its victims; we need a holistic, informed and multi-dimensional approach. In order to develop a shared, systematic approach to preventing sexual harm we need to recognise that that what are often seen as different [opposing] sides of the sexual harm field [treatment providers vs. victim advocates vs. criminal justice professionals vs. the ‘public’] are not actually opposed, instead they are actually complementary and we need to get better at drawing them together through language as well as action. Which means that in order to prevent sexual harm we need to be able to see the being picture, we have to be able to dance between the disciplinary ‘puddles’ [like Cordelia has across her career], or get out of our silos, of sexual harm.

At the core of Cordelias’ work is the belief that sexual harm is preventable, that we should be working towards eradicating it rather than just simply reducing it. The language of public health and health care was used a lot in the interview with Cordelia pointing out that sexual harm is not a distinct and separate [a one-off occurrence], but rather connected to a range of social, psychological, cultural and developmental issues [so part of an eco-system or constellation of issues]. Preventing sexual harm is tied to public health, criminal justice and social justice; we need to understand why and how it happens before we can stop it.

Interestingly, using the health analogy I asked Cordelia if sexual harm could be considered as part of a disease model like cancer or HIV to which she responded “sexual harm is endemic, not an epidemic”. She expanded upon this answer by asking me to consider why society has not responded to sexual harm fully in the past? Why society is willing to accept that some people will be the victims of sexual harm? Who controls and directs the conversations about sexual harm? Are we willing to challenge these individuals, organisations or platforms on the messages that they convey? We need to examine the social attitudes to sexual harm and its ‘acceptability’ before we can eradicate it; therefore it seems that it is both endemic and an epidemic. Although, the eradication of something so prevalent in society seems like a tall order, or even impossible, she believes that it is possible if we all work systematically and collectively on the issue.

In discussing her career Cordelia points out how far we have come since the 1970’s when sexual harm was not really discussed [especially in respect to children] to the stage where we are at now where it is more widely discussed and more fully accepted. She points out that we know more about the causes of sexual harm and its impact than ever before, with on-going research and treatment solidifying the base [i.e., the importance of attachment, the impact of child abuse and neglect on development across the lifespan, the importance of family dysfunction] as well as revealing new fields [i.e., attachment, desistence, trauma informed care]. We still have a way to go to completely eradicate sexual harm; but we are moving in the right direction and will continue to do so the more that we share information across our silos.

Cordelia believes that in order to eradicate sexual harm there are certain actions that we should be carrying out, or should be happening more often, including, [1.] continuing to breakdown disciplinary silos so that we can see the big picture; [2.] that victim advocates and other professionals who work in the field of sexual harm recognize that they are more effective when they
work together; [3.] that society has to own the problem of sexual harm, not passing it off to professionals, as that is the only way that we will eradicate it; and  [4.] we have to be critical, constantly critical, of current approaches to eradicating sexual harm asking whether they are suitable and/or fit for purpose.

Talking with Cordelia was interesting and refreshing, especially given that the sexual harm field has finally caught up to the multi-disciplinary approach to prevention that she has been advocating for the last 40 years.

Kieran McCartan, PhD

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