Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Importance of “User Voices”

By Alissa Ackerman, PhD, David Prescott, LICSW, & Kieran McCartan, PhD

In the tech world, product testing is a must. To make sure a product provides a great experience for potential users and clients, it is essential that the product be tested throughout various stages of development. A company that releases a product that does not reflect customer needs will lose those customers. Likewise, restaurants that don’t solicit feedback from diners won’t stay in business long.

You may be wondering what this has to do with the Sexual Abuse blog; a lot actually! As we reconceptualize sexual harm/abuse from being a criminal justice issue to a joint public health/health/criminal justice issue, the idea of the service user becomes essential. You would never be able to do health research or development with only the practitioners, stakeholders and any research with service users being process, not outcome, driven; which is what we do in the sexual abuse/harm field. We need to understand the service user (both those who have been sexually harmed and those who have caused sexual harm) and make them part of the research process in order to develop a fully rounded service. At the 2017 ATSA Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, we heard from keynote speaker Patty Wetterling about the original impetus for the Jacob Wetterling Act and other modern sex crimes policies. Most readers would agree with Patty that these laws were created with the best of intentions. However, research has shown that the outcomes of current SORN are not the panacea we imagined them to be. We know this, as do most people who perform even a cursory Google search. More than anyone, individuals on the registry know it.

Individuals on public registries, their family members, and those who have experienced sexual victimization have an important role as “users”.  There has been some research that has incorporated the live experiences of individuals and their family members who are impacted by SORN (see Lisa Sample’s work). Most of this work has illuminated the difficulties inherent in community reintegration, as well as finding and maintaining stable employment, housing, and prosocial relationships; which is why outside of the USA any countries that have registers do not publically notify communities. The reality of the register is about “bait and switch”, it is about focusing on known offenders, who are less likely to reoffend, rather than helping victims or supporting prevention.   Conversely, there has been only one published study to date addressing the impact of SORN on those who have been sexually harmed (Bandy, 2015). This study found that individuals who have experienced sexual victimization see little reflection of themselves or their experiences in policies that were created with specific types of victims – namely children who were sexually violated and murdered by strangers – in mind. This has made it difficult for individuals who have experienced sexual trauma to seek help and support because their experiences were not like the cases memorialized in law. In addition, the white elephant in the sexual harm room is the fact that perpetrators can, not all we may add, experience Adverse Childhood Experiences (including, physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, etc.) which may contribute to their perpetration of abuse later in life; which means that victims get penalized twice.

User voices are integral to public policy, but sex crimes policy has negated, and in many ways silenced the voices of those most in need of a voice – namely individuals who have been impacted by sexual harm. Autoethnography is a qualitative methodology whereby the researcher uses the self as the research subject.  As a research method, scholars use their individual experiences to understand a particular phenomenon.  In the academic realm, autoethnography has been utilized by historically marginalized people: people of color, gender non-conforming people, and others whose individual voices have been silenced. This method allows for the experiences of marginalized and otherwise silenced constituents to use their experiences and voices as the subject of analytic research. Perhaps one paradigm best known for autoethnographic work is convict criminology, where individuals who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated use their experiences to further our understanding of the field.

The authors have worked in the areas related to the service-user’s voice. Kieran and David will be joining Danielle Harris to present data in this area at the ANZATSA conference in Auckland next week. David has published extensively in and outside of ATSA on the importance of routinely soliciting the feedback of those participating in treatment programs. At the 2017 ATSA conference, Alissa co-presented a collaborative autoethnography. In the paper, Alissa and her co-author Alexa Sardina discuss the analysis of their lived experiences as survivors of sexual violence and their independent paths to becoming sex crimes researchers. Although autoethnographic work may be criticized for a lack of objectivity, generalizability, and validity it reminds us that we are personally connected to our research. Alissa and Alexa conclude that despite being trained to be objective and unbiased, their personal experiences absolutely impact their understanding of sexual violence and sex crimes policy. Further, they articulate the importance of honoring both the professional expertise and the personal experience they bring to the table. The merging of both voices offers access to people who might otherwise dismiss either of us as “just a survivor” or an “out of touch academic”. 

This is particularly timely given much of the recent discourse on prominent figures being publicly accused of sexual transgressions. Last week we published a blog piece on the importance of honoring authentic apologies. The piece garnered landmark readership with some applauding our stance and others (via social media and in trainings) articulating the need to “take sides”. As someone who is a survivor of sexual violence, who has an established career as a sex crimes researcher, and a person who works directly with individuals who have sexually offended, Alissa argues that there are no “sides”. David and Kieran have said as much in writings and trainings. Indeed, those who perpetrate sexual violence themselves have higher rates of sexual victimization and other adverse experiences in their backgrounds.

The prevention of sexual abuse requires a multi-faceted approach that encompasses victim advocates, treatment providers, researchers, individuals who have sexually harmed, and individuals who have been sexually harmed. Prevention takes a village. To privilege one group of voices over others silences groups that could have important insight. People who use autoethnography must ask themselves whether their story is useful and how might others use their story in a useful way. Alissa believes that her experiences are useful for the field – David and Kieran agree that telling of these experiences is crucial to healing at all levels of society.

At the front lines of treatment and policy, it is clear that including the service-user’s voice can improve services, identify methods that aren’t working, and produce ideas for innovation. However, we need to be brave in engaging the service user voice as it may be seen as inappropriate, useful, biased and divisive by some groups (including, policy makers). Businesses in the tech world and restaurant industry know that once you respond to a customer’s feedback, you very often have a customer for life. It’s time for deeper listening to all who are involved these services. 

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