Friday, May 13, 2016

Complexity and vulnerability in sexual harm more than a ‘zero sum game’

Over the last few weeks I have attended a number of conferences and training sessions related to sexual harm, both national and international, with two things striking me time and time again, complexity and vulnerability. The field of sexual harm is a challenging one filled with a range of complex individuals, complex situations, difficult narratives and vulnerable groups [both perpetrators, victims and at risk populations] which really reinforces the need for reflection, discussion and engagement across the field and society as a whole.

Sexual harm is a complex topic that society does not always want to fully engage with and often downplays its significance on a personal level, we see widespread/meta societal discussions going on around it, policy debates and punitive/rehabilitation arguments. However, when we get to a personal level there is a degree of denial mixed with over reaction, from “not in my backyard” to not discussing healthy sexual relationships at home or in school. To me it is often reminiscent of cancer conversations where people will acknowledge that cancer is real and out there, that they may be at risk but that it will never happen to them; acknowledgement without acceptance. Often when we, individually or socially, discuss sexual harm it is often in a reductionist fashion that only emphasises a one dimensional perspective on perpetrators (from the mad vs evil debate to the “monster label”] and victims/survivors [from rape myths to the vulnerable/incapable victim discussion]; which does neither of them any good. This complexity comes to therefore when we talk about victims/survivors and perpetrators in more depth because they are multi-faceted and not singular.

You can have a perpetrator of sexual harm who has neither a family history of abuse nor significant adverse life experiences, but you can also have a perpetrator who has been a victim of sexual abuse or abuse and neglect more generally. You can have a person who downloads Child Sexual Abuse Imagery who is on the path to committing a contact offence, whereas another Child Sexual Abuse Imagery downloader may not be. You have a range of mental illnesses, anti-social behaviours, learning difficulties and trauma being played out across the perpetrator population as predicating factors; whereas with others it might be a combination of problems with circumstance and decision making. The most challenging thing for most is that the perpetrator, like all of us, can wear different hats, being seen as positive/kind/respectable in one light and abusive/manipulative in another; the complexity of trying to untangle and rationalise these roles poses problems for victims/survivors, friends, family and society. When it comes to perpetrators it is sometimes more comfortable to label them as a “monster”, “mad” or “evil” as opposed to thinking that “here is a person who is a good employee, a talented performer but is anti-social and engages in problematic and abusive behaviours”; however, that is what the Good Lives Model teaches us to do in treatment but it’s not always getting translated into the real world afterwards. It is challenging to see people who commit sexual harm in multi-faceted ways, but they are multi-faceted people and these needs to be recognised for treatment and reintegration to be successful.

In respect to victims/survivors the same logic applies that all victims are in some way vulnerable, unable to overcome what is happened to them and surrounded by rape/sexual harm myths that in some way blames them for what happened to them. That the one discourse in their life that completely frames them is the sexual harm one and its fallout. This is not the reality across the board. Different victims/survivors react to sexual harm in different ways; different victims/survivors disclose at different times, in different ways and for different reasons; victims/survivor’s engage [or not] in treatment in different ways, with some wanting justice and punishment for the perpetrator, whereas others want closure for themselves and an understanding of why this happened to them. The most challenging thing for most is that the victim/survivor is getting past the narrative of “once an victim, always a victim” and that this discourse defines them. The complexity of being a victim/survivor ties in with the realisation that you can be positive, strong, adaptive and whole again; that you may have experienced sexual harm, but that you have accepted it; and that you can move on and embrace other parts of your life. When it comes to victims/survivors it is sometimes more comfortable to label them as a “traumatised” or “broken” as opposed to thinking that “here is a person who has experienced sexual abuse/harm but has moved on got a qualification, become a good parent, developed a positive social relationships is”; however, that is what the counselling, treatment and support teaches them but it is not often translated into the real world afterwards with many not disclosing their experiences, or only disclosing them, for the reaction that they know they will get.

This complexity among perpetrators and victims/survivors needs to be recognised and the one dimensional view of challenged. This is starting to change with different media outlets changing the way that they approach the reporting of sexual harm cases, professionals becoming more involved in the dialogue and us, as a society and individuals, being more open to discussing the realities of sexual harm [especially in terms of identification, prevention, intervention, rehabilitation and reintegration]. The most important thing to remember, and emphasise, is that sexual harm is not a ‘zero-sum game’ where players are simply defined by their experiences and roles and that these factors are not the sole determinates of their future life or progress.

Kieran McCartan PhD

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