Danielle Arlanda Harris, PhD, Deputy Director Research, Griffith Youth Forensic Service, Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University
Toni Cash, Manager, Practice Advice and Support Team*
Kerri Wyeth, Manager, Practice Response Team*
Kieran McCartan, PhD, Professor, University of the West of England-Bristol
(*Both teams located within Practice Connect under the Queensland Department of Child Safety, Youth, and Women).
The #metoo movement has been called a watershed moment in the way that we think about, respond to, and prevent sexual abuse and harassment. People are talking, which is fabulous. We want people to talk, but language matters, and we need to use the right words.
The Weinstein “event” has led to an increasing number of “brave men and women” coming forth to share their stories. Those stories have been differentially described as revelations, allegations, accusations, disclosures, and delusions. Similarly, the responses by those alleged to have abused have included denials, excuses, justifications, apologies, lies, and responsibility taking. Individuals have been named, shamed, fired, silenced, and “tried by twitter.”
Talking heads are now engaging in nuanced public discussions about the difference between sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, and sexual harassment. These are not the same thing, they do not have the same consequences, or carry the same penalties, and should not be viewed similarly. We have discussed the semantics of sexual abuse, harassment and the #metoo movement on the ATSA blog before. Here, we consider the specific phrase of “sexual harm.” It is challenging to expect members of the public or non-related professions to understand as well as use terminology correctly when even those in the field struggle with language.
We acknowledge the need to use person first language (Willis, 2018) and are beginning to opt for the apparently clunkier “person convicted of a sexual offense” rather than the more pejorative “sex offender” (or worse “predator”). As Nicole Pittman reminded us recently (ATSA conference, 2017): “they’re worth the extra words.” As we continue to negotiate our use of language, it goes without saying we must navigate both legislation and legal jargon as it is used across numerous jurisdictions in multiple countries but also the most sensitive of topics where euphemisms are rife.
ATSA is an international community. Many of us work and travel abroad often. One can always get mileage out of the flip flop/thong/g-string situation. Since returning to Australia for example, Danielle has had to relearn the language—both legal and practical—to engage in respectful discourse. It was during this process that she came to learn of the challenges and, in some sectors, very strong views about the use of the phrase “sexual harm.”
“Sexual harm” is frequently used as a catchall phrase intended to include various types of violence, abuse, assault, and harm that results from sexual abuse or violence of a sexual nature. The idea of harm—as opposed to other language (i.e., abuse, trauma, etc.)—comes from the field of Zemiology, based on the idea that “harm” is more proactive and adaptive than other terms. It is thought that it is therefore more helpful for people who have experienced sexual abuse or assault and people who have sexually abused others and/or committed sexual offences to move on. However, the word “harm” is divisive in the field of sexual abuse, especially from the perspectives of criminal justice and victim advocacy groups who argue that “harm” lessens the impact and consequences of exactly what a person experiences as a result of sexual abuse.
According to the Queensland Department of Child Safety, Youth, and Women, the harm that a person experiences as a result of sexual abuse is either:
(1) Emotional/psychological harm,
(2) Physical harm or,
(3) Both emotional/psychological and physical harm.
By way of example,
- If a 16 year old girl reports to her Child Safety Officer that her arm was broken three years ago during an argument with her stepfather, she would be referred to a medical practitioner to ensure that the arm was set properly and the break has healed (thus treating the physical harm) and would likely also be referred to a counsellor to attend to the emotional stress and trauma caused by the same incident (thus treating the psychological harm).
- If a 16 year old girl reports to her Child Safety Officer that she was vaginally penetrated three years ago by her stepfather, she should similarly be referred to a medical practitioner for an internal exam to ensure that there is no lasting damage, that her vagina has healed (thus treating the physical harm) and would also be referred to a counsellor to attend to the emotional stress and trauma caused by the same incident (thus treating the psychological harm).
Basically, if we understand the harm to be physical then we can target our intervention to the physical harm. Examples include getting medical treatment for damage to the child’s genitals or anus, or diagnosis and appropriate medication for the sexually transmitted infection that the child has contracted.
Likewise, if we understand the harm to be emotional then we can target our intervention to the emotional harm. Examples here include providing counselling to help the child understand that it was not their fault that the sexual abuse happened to them; or offering assistance that might also focus on the potential risk that the young person poses to others, including safety planning and counselling.
To be clear, “sexual violence” describes the behaviour that someone is responsible for committing. The “harm” is the resulting impact on the person who has experienced the sexual violence. Quite simply, when someone experiences violence, their resulting physical harm can be treated by a medical doctor and their resulting emotional harm can be treated by a counsellor. The challenge with the use of the phrase “sexual harm” is that it can lead to confusion over how best to help the actual harm that the person has experienced. By observing the presence of the resulting physical and emotional harm that results from the commission of sexual violence we can offer a clear direction for interventions that best cater to the needs of the individual and the actual harm they have experienced.