Over the years, our field has talked a lot about the use of language and the power of narratives in the field of sexual abuse. Words have impact. Words matter. We often discuss whether we should use “victim” or “survivor” to discuss people whom have been directly impacted by sexual abuse and whether we should use labels at all. We have also discussed terms such as “sex offender” or the broad array of first person language that has emerged over recent years to describe the individuals that have committed sexual abuse. Likewise, there is the question of whether therapeutic activities should be called “treatment” or “management”. However, the one thing that we have not really discussed (and possibly one of the most important) is “reintegration” vs “integration”. This may seem like a minor semantic difference, but it’s more than that. It is an important debate, especially in terms of the experience of those who have victimized and those who have experienced sexual violence. This language can affect society’s view of each as well as the work that professionals do in the field. It is a conversation about transition and desistence.
The issue with reintegration is the addition of the prefix “re”. It indicates a return or a re-entry—this poses a problem? It assumes that they have been integrated into the community to begin with. In talking with anyone who works in the field of sexual abuse, it is common to hear them discussing their work in terms of changing people, changing attitudes and, most importantly, changing behaviors. The common thread that winds through discussion among police, probation, parole, treatment providers, and counsellors who work in the field of sexual abuse is that the person who has committed the abuse comes out of their service (i.e., prison, counselling, treatment, etc.) different, that they are a changed person. Herein lays the problem with the “re” in reintegration: We are not returning the person to the point that they were at pre-offence or pre-sentence, because that is a problematic and potentially harmful place. We are trying to integrate people who have committed sexual abuse into society, to successfully integrate many of them for the first time. What we see with these men (it’s mostly men that we are talking about) is that their lack of integration (whether socially, culturally, personally, psychologically or emotionally) contributed to their sexually abusive behavior in the first place. We are trying to help them move forward into a positive, productive, and engaging life, not back to the lifestyle that they had before.
Thinking about integration versus reintegration enables us to view integration as being about the society, community, and individual’s social network working together to support the person. In contrast, reintegration too rarely looks beyond a return managed by professionals to similar circumstances. Therefore, we propose a view of integration that includes professionals playing a role, but that they are not alone in doing it. Integration is everyone’s responsibility, were as reintegration is often seen as the responsibility professional services. Past blogs have focused on the language that we use, what it means, and what its outcomes are. If we want people to take responsibility for their behavior and change we need to use language that reflects this goal.