7 lessons from a year of fighting victim blaming in sexual violence

Content Warning for discussion of sexual violence, abuse and victim blaming.

Written by Jessica Eaton | VictimFocus | Tweet @JessicaE13Eaton

So today marks the end of my first financial year in business with VictimFocus. Just over a year ago, I resigned from my full time job and decided to take on victim blaming and poor practice in sexual violence, alone. In a way, I took on a real complex mixture of work. I work at the sensitive intersection of forensic psychology, radical feminism, anti-psychiatry and children’s rights.  I am a researcher, a writer, a speaker, a student, an activist and an individual – which is already complicated enough without being a young female striking out on her own. Being a female in business or leadership presents unique challenges, whether you are a hairdresser or an accountant. But what happens when you’re under 30 years old, female and starting up a business with the sole purpose of challenging systemic oppression, blame and harm?

I’ll tell you what happens: A lot of good and a lot of bad.

I am going to share some key lessons I have learned from the last 12 months in business, activism, feminism, social media and research.

  1. Victim blaming is very ‘in’ right now 

One of the reasons I decided to create VictimFocus and to dedicate my career and my PhD to understanding and reducing victim blaming is because I already knew that it was very common. Years of working in the criminal justice system and then rape centres in the UK had taught me that it didn’t really matter whether the victim was a 9 year old girl or a 90 year old man, they were all blamed and they all had some issues around self-blame.

However, being able to spend an entire year dedicated only to victim blaming, on top of the three years I have spent doing the PhD meant that victim blaming was not only appearing to me as ‘common’ but it was beginning to appear as all encompassing. Not just that, but, dare I say it, quite fashionable. The mass media run headlines that say ‘Woman drank 10 jagerbombs on the night she was raped and murdered’, daytime TV run public polls asking ‘Can a woman be to blame for rape?’ and social media is filled with threads, articles and groups that blame, hate and ridicule victims of sexual violence. In 2017, The Fawcett Society found that 34% of women and 38% of men felt that a woman who was raped was completely or partially to blame for what happened to her. However, it is probably higher. Especially considering we have to consider the level of SDR (socially desirable responses) will be in that data, in which people have given the answers they *know* they should say.

Victim blaming is in the movement pushing women to take self defence classes to fight off a rapist. It’s in the new concealed weapons in jewellery and bracelets for joggers. It’s in the anti-rape knickers being sold on the internet. It’s in the police posters telling women not to drink too much over an image of an unconscious woman with her knickers around her ankles. It’s in the hundreds of episodes of NCIS in which 100% of episodes in the first 10 seasons, blamed the victim of sexual violence (Magestro, 2015). It’s in the field of CSE, in which children are shown films of children being raped and murdered as a ‘preventative measure’ so the children will learn to ‘spot the signs’ and ‘reduce abuse’. It’s in the courts, where we allow defence barristers to rip destroy victims in front of the jury and the gallery, asking them whether they wanted it, whether they enjoyed it, what they were wearing, why they didn’t tell anyone and whether they are doing this for compensation or lawsuits. It’s in the children’s courts, where children who have been sexually exploited are being removed from safe families and placed hundreds of miles from home instead of us tackling the offenders. It’s in academia, where we search endlessly for characteristics and life experiences that we think ’cause’ sexual offenders to target and rape their victims. It’s in the medical model of mental health, in which we tell women and girls who have been raped and abused that they have personality disorders.

We have a serious, global problem here. Victim blaming changes perceptions of child and adult victims which change the tone and outcomes of media reporting, interventions, therapeutic support, family support, justice, reporting rates and a whole host of things.

        2. Victim blaming is not getting less common, it’s getting more acceptable 

This one is a very important lesson to learn, because it means we won’t get swept along with the ‘We are so much better than we used to be’ crowd. I remember reading some research at the beginning of my PhD that said that victim blaming and rape myth acceptance was reducing and had already reduced significantly. What I read didn’t ring true. Maybe for that sample, or that study – but out here in the real world, it didn’t seem to be reducing at all. However, I did say to my supervisor: “I think victim blaming is just evolving. People are getting savvy to these psychometric measures and studies.” They know they are not supposed to answer ‘strongly agree’ to ‘Women who wear slutty clothes deserve to get raped’. They know that. But when you give people scenarios, media cuttings, vignettes or case studies, victim blaming doesn’t reduce at all. In fact, it is frequent. (See McMahon & Farmer, 2010 for a great review of this).

What I have learned this year is that the language of professionals and the public is evolving to become more socially acceptable, but their blaming isn’t reducing.

Handy victim-blaming swap table

2018-03-30 (1)

See what I mean? Victim blaming is not reducing, its just getting more socially acceptable and more palatable to hear. Victim blaming is being re-framed as concern for the individual’s behaviours. Where there was once insulting accusations and crass words, there is now arguments about how the victim should take responsibility for their own safety. This applies to children as well as adults at the moment – something I am changing.

I have a great example from the Stuebenville Case, too. A comment was made to the press that the 12 year old victim ‘should have known’ she would be raped and questioned ‘why she was hanging around with older boys anyway’. There were also some other comments about her ‘looking older than 12’ before going on to say that they hope she can learn from this mistake and change her behaviours in future. This type of victim blaming is now extremely common and I am seeing it on a daily basis.

It doesn’t matter that it sounds nicer. It is still blaming victims of sexual violence for sexual violence. It still erases the actions and decisions of the offender.

     3. Challenging victim blaming gets mixed, but strong responses 

Ha. That might be an understatement. Those of you who have heard me speak or have worked with me know that I often joke that I am the official National Pain in the Arse. I have learned this year that some people are ready for my work and some people wish I would just fuck off and live in a cave with no access to civilisation or technology. I’m not talking about trolls on twitter or the guys that send me pictures of their dicks (that has it’s own special section under number five). I am talking about professionals in my field. I am talking about people who are actively working in psychology and child abuse. People who listen to my arguments and then twist them into Strawman responses so they don’t have to reflect on the mistakes we have made over the years.

I often say to my friends that when I set off on this journey 12 months ago, I was very naive. I genuinely thought that if I said ‘this resource blames children, we need to change it’ or if I said ‘this assessment actually places the responsibility of being abused on the victim’ – that professionals and organisations in the field would care about that, and then change their practice to make sure they were not doing any further harm to victims of sexual violence. Sadly, this has not been my experience.

However, that said, the few voices who attempt to fight against my movement and my work are drowned out by the hundreds of thousands of people who read this blog and the tens of thousands who follow and engage with me on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and … real life. The last year has taught me that the majority of the field is absolutely ready for a revolution against victim blaming. Practitioners on the front line are sick of children, women and men being blamed for being raped and abused. Professionals are tired of their client’s cases being NFA’d because they had a drink, were wearing a playsuit or because they have a learning disability. Activists are disgusted with the victim blaming in the media. Workers are horrified that they might have caused harm by using victim-blaming CSE films with children. The field has embraced my work in a way I never thought possible.

Huge decisions have been made because of my work this year – companies, charities, local authorities, individuals, universities, students, volunteers, families – they have all made decisions to change their responses to sexual violence and abuse and contacted me to discuss it.

     4. Authenticity and integrity is vital in activism and feminism 

This year has seen a real attack on feminism – and on females. This year has also seen my own work attacked and criticised with no real counter-arguments. Not just my work, but my character, my appearance, my own life history and my personal circumstances have been relentlessly attacked by so-called ‘professionals’ in my own field. This year has resulted in the sacking and no-platforming of brilliant females in politics, science, education and writing.

This year in business and in activism as a feminist and as role model, has taught me that authenticity and integrity to who I am and what I stand for is the most important value I have. Authenticity is really important to me.

At some point, I had to make a decision as to whether I hid who I truly was, my life history and my experiences – and presented myself as this uber-professional speaker and writer who knows her stuff – or whether I paid homage to my roots and who I really am and what I have really experienced.

After much deliberation and worrying, I decided that I should be proud of who I am and where I come from. I should be proud of every swear and every scar. Thousands of people relate to me because they can communicate with me. Some people don’t like me being authentic and talking openly about stuff – but I don’t particularly care what they think. Live authentically or not at all. I have a responsibility to be a role model to tens of thousands of people now – and I will not spend that time faking who I am and trying to escape my roots to appear to be ‘better’.

This year, I began to love my roots more. I spent years trying to escape the clutches of poverty, teen pregnancy, drugs, violence, abuse, harm and stigma from the council estate. Now, I realise it is my biggest asset. I began to love my working class roots this year. I love every swear word that comes out of my mouth. I love every word I mispronounce. I love every tattoo on my body. I love the fear I get when a police car drives up my street. I love the values and experiences because they have given me the exact foundation I need to be a brilliant psychologist and activist.

I learned this year that standing up for what you believe in can be a fucking nightmare sometimes, but integrity has to be rock solid to achieve change when it comes to oppression and harm in society. I learned that my commissioners and my followers can see my integrity and can hear my authenticity and that is why this movement is working. I would like to also take this opportunity to show my solidarity with the women in the radical feminism movements who are standing up and speaking truth to power. Love you.

      5. Social media is a cruel mistress

Aye social media has nearly done me in this year. The upshot of people joining a movement and feeling your work is that thousands and thousands of strangers contact you every single day. I get around 54.5k impressions on my twitter alone per day. I get over 30k readers of this blog every month. I get around 250 emails a day to my email inbox and probably another 100 per day to my social media pages.

Challenging victim blaming of women and girls gets me some serious shit on social media. I went through a period of time where I was getting rape and death threats every day. Dick pics every day. A guy sent me gifs of a woman being beaten and raped. Another guy sent me gifs of porn from different sock accounts. Someone put all my contact details on an MRA forum and I was inundated with messages on every platform telling me that I was ugly, fat, disgusting, evil – everything you can think of from MRAs telling me that they would rape me to make me less gay (I’m not gay) right the way through to the MRAs sending me pictures of myself where they had cut my head off and said that that was the only way they were able to rape me because my face was ruining their hard on.

My block and mute list is like a fucking census.

This year I really did see a side of humanity I have never seen before. I knew people could be vile because I had seen it happen to celebrities like Lily Allen – but I had never experienced it. It has made me really quite careful on social media now. I don’t announce where I will be speaking anymore and I don’t tag exactly where I am. I tweet where I have been once I have left. So instead of saying ‘Today I am at London Met teaching about victim blaming’ I say ‘Great day at London Met today, teaching about victim blaming’ and wait until I have left to say anything.

Sad to have to think about things like that. I dunno how celebs with millions of followers cope.

However, social media has also been absolutely amazing for my campaigns, my business, my book and for meeting brilliant people from all over the world. I am going to USA this year to lecture on psychology of victim blaming – the commissioner found me on social media. I have also been invited to keynotes, projects, boards and contracts from people who have followed me first on social media.

I have met and spoken to incredible people on social media this year and their brilliance far outshines the shit I have dealt with. Which brings me to my final two points.

     6. Self-care can be really hard 

On paper, I practice excellent self-care. I have massages every fortnight. I have three hours of clinical supervision per month with my amazing supervisor. Shout out to her (I have no idea how she hasn’t kicked me out yet). I also created a beautiful space for myself; a library and an office. I took on staff so I could share the load with someone else. I sleep in late (which sounds great but is really problematic cos… schoolrun). I book holidays where I sit on beaches and do fuck all or go snorkelling with my kids and husband. I am definitely trying to do the whole self-care thing. Most of the time it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

The speed my mind works at, and my work rate is a gift and a curse. I can generally write about 13k words a day and it will be decent first draft quality but would need good editing. I can solve problems quickly. My mind is bursting with ideas – so much so that I have had to learn to keep a separate diary of ideas and plans. That does seem to help.

However, when you have legit plans to take over the world you end up like The Brain from Pinky and The Brain and shit gets a bit wavy sometimes. Especially when you’re just trying to juggle your job, your PhD, your life, your kids, your marriage and then some arsehole sends you a picture of his dick or some jealous idiot tweets relentlessly about you for months.

This year I have learned that this field is amazing and also disturbing. There’s so much good but there is so much bad. Lots of people would prefer me to just report on the good and forget about the bad as if it is inevitable. But it isn’t inevitable. I was accused this year of ‘airing dirty laundry’ of the field on twitter. To that I say – wash ya damn laundry. Better yet, don’t let it get this dirty in the first place. Honestly, it’s like having a conversation with a teenager that keeps stuffing their dirty socks under their bed and then moaning that they don’t have any clean socks – and then when you find their dirty socks they say ‘Why are you snooping around in my room!!?’

 

      7. Support networks are super important

This year has been extra-special for me. The first year I have been in business on my own has been exceptionally successful and next year is almost fully booked now. However, its also been difficult, tiring and stressful.

There is no way I could have got through this year without the support networks I am building. I have such a range of people who support my work and me as an individual. My husband is amazing. That man. Someone give him a fucking medal. He is like Man 2.0 – and that’s coming from a radfem who refuses to celebrate men who do exactly what women do and then get massive praise. Considering I met my husband at a cash point queue in a city neither of us were from, we’ve done alright. I have so much respect for him and he has my back.

My kids are amazing – they are the next generation, so watch out. Even when I’m dead you’ll have two more to deal with. You lucky lot. No rest for the wicked yano.

My friends listen to me talk utter shit for hours to them. I have so many friends in my life, many of which I have met through work or activism but have become women I have on speed dial. Many of you don’t know each other, but I can tell you now that we are the funniest bunch of fuckers I have ever known. Someone needs to give us a TV show. Love you.

I have a huge network of support in the Radfem community and I honestly couldn’t be without you lot. You know who you are. I am so proud to know you and to have you as my friends, you absolute warriors. The strength you give to me is immeasurable.

I also have a wonderful support network in the anti-psychiatry and social-model of mental health communities, who remind me why we are fighting against the labelling and oppression of the working classes. Your work is inspirational and will go down on the right side of history.

Then I have this huge wider following of women and men, professionals and public, students and academics, parents and adult children from all over the world who write to me and talk to me about their work, their ideas, their problems and their aspirations.

This year, I have learned that a support network this strong means that shit can get thrown at me and I will just keep getting back up, sometimes because I am strong enough to do it myself and sometimes because I have the strength of thousands of people when I have all of you behind me.

And sometimes because some of you drag me back kicking and screaming and tell me to sort my shit out. Haha.

Thank you to everyone who has commissioned me, written to me, oublished my words, heard me speak, supported me and loved me in my first year of operation. Bring on next year, eh? This year was for practice.

Written by Jessica Eaton

Tweet: JessicaE13Eaton

Email: Jessica@victimfocus.org.uk

Web: http://www.victimfocus.org.uk

 

#CSEDay18 Blog – How the field of CSE has changed in the last 12 months and where it’s going next 

Content warning for discussion of child sexual abuse, rape, assault and victim blaming 


Last year I typed out the words ‘The entire field of child sexual exploitation (CSE) is underpinned by victim blaming’ and tweeted it. Like everything that comes out of my brain in this field, some loved it and some didn’t.

For #CSEDay18 – I am writing this blog. It’s for the thousands of people who follow my work and are helping to change the field (Yeah, you rock! Keep fighting!). It’s for the observers and readers who never contact me but read every word I say, go away and have a think (Thank you for reading and thinking!). It’s even for the people who read my blogs and then spend months trying to discredit me and my work (You probably won’t like this blog either).

This blog is about highlighting what has been achieved by encouraging the field to become more self-critical and more evidence based than ever before. Sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for the trees but the field has made serious progress in the last 12 months and shit’s starting to get exciting and innovative!
I’m a one-woman-whirlwind because something had to be done. I’m not the type to collude with, or observe bad practice or harm. Some people really like that and some people don’t. It doesn’t really matter if people like it or not. We have to put all that aside – because this is about stopping the blaming of children who are sexually abused and exploited.

So in one year, what has been achieved – and where is this movement going next?

 

1. Influencing the withdrawal of CSE risk assessment toolkits 
I remember how pissed off people were when I started talking about CSE toolkits not working. When I started pointing out that it’s technically impossible for a boy to score as a high as a girl because the tools are female centric and that black and Asian kids are not identified using these tools, based on white teens. When I started saying that the categories made no sense and the indicators were evidence of harm already occurring to the child. However, we are a year on and people are really starting to get behind this now. Everywhere I go in the UK, more and more local authorities and national charities are realising that the tools don’t work – not only do they not actually work as they say they do but they blame children for being sexually exploited, abused, raped and trafficked by adults. Whether it’s ticking a box that says ‘sexualised dress’ as a ‘factor’ for CSE or whether it’s calling a child ‘high risk’ after she’s already been raped – it’s a mess. We have to face it. None of it makes a jot of sense and more and more influential organisations and individuals are spreading the word that we should not be using these tools. Lots of areas are ready to withdraw them for good and I am working with certain senior organisations to help everyone to withdraw them safely.

And loud and clear for the people creating and rolling out these tools with no empirical, independent evaluation – you should know better and you have the money to do better; so do better.

 

2. #nomoreCSEfilms campaign 
That’s right, if I hadn’t pissed off enough people, then I accidentally created the #nomoreCSEfilms campaign (because I didn’t understand how to use hashtags and then everyone else started tweeting it lmfao) which led to hundreds of people writing to me about their experiences of harm from CSE films. Even though I had spent years being totally confused about why anyone would show a film of a child being raped to a child who has been raped, I had never had the chance to safely ask children about it. Plenty of professionals were telling the field that children thought watching child rape was really helpful (not surprising that these are the people still trying to sell and share these ‘resources’). One day last year, I listened to a completely organic conversation between children of different ages and sexes as they discussed their experiences of being made to watch films and drama that impacted them negatively. Very negatively. Even resulting in self harm and panic attacks.
That was enough for me. The first rule of our jobs is ‘do no harm’. These films had never been tested, evaluated or had any ethical approval and yet were (and still are in some cases) being used with tens of thousands of children.
Thankfully, the campaign really took off and influenced thousands of practitioners and organisations to withdraw all use of CSE films with immediate effect – to protect children from the potential of any further harm. Local authorities, police forces, national charities, residential units, private companies all wrote to me or called me in to help them stop using these resources with children. Two production/drama companies even commissioned me to help them rewrite and edit their work so they could make sure their resources were not harming children and were being tested properly before use. The CSE films report ‘Can I tell you what it feels like?’ was read by thousands of people and sparked at least 4 MSc dissertations and 2 PhDs to my knowledge. Thanks to thousands of my followers, to professionals in my networks and to people I have never even met – we have made such an impact this year that very soon, showing children a film of child abuse as an ‘intervention’ or ‘preventative’ method will be a thing of the past. Like frontal lobotomies of traumatised and oppressed people. We look back on it and think ‘what the fuck were we thinking?’ CSE films will forever go down in history as one of those things and soon, no child will be shown films of child rape, abuse and murder as an intervention.

 

3. CSE is CSA 

Yep, another way of pissing off people who claim to be specialists in CSE is to remind them that CSE is actually just CSA and that describing CSE as an ‘exchange’ is just victim blaming. Nice, subtle, hygienic, palatable victim blaming. I started to question why CSE was defined differently to CSA when I was sitting discussing cases with people from around the country – and they all sounded a lot like child sexual abuse – and yet they didn’t seem to see the overlap. In fact, I noticed that CSE was being used instead of ‘rape’ or ‘sexual assault’ or ‘grooming’ or ‘abuse’ or ‘online abuse’ …and the acronym was becoming meaningless. What really peaked me was when I asked professionals what the difference between CSE and CSA was and all they could give me was media stereotypes about massive Asian gangs and teenage white girls. Not only that, but I watched over the years as experienced and skilled social workers were told they weren’t ‘specialist’ enough to do direct work in CSE and they had to pass it to the ‘specialist CSE team’ (who had been given 2 days of CSE training and gripped their CSE films and CSE toolkits for dear life because they were shit scared as well). What happens when you create a new form of abuse, that’s actually a very well researched and documented form of abuse and tell everyone it’s new and it’s on the rise?
Well, you get mass panic and then you get vultures swooping in and claiming to have all the answers having never actually read anything from the 4-5 decades of child sexual abuse literature we already have. You get people reinventing the wheel. You get politicians saying that we need to invest money into understanding CSE whilst completely ignoring CSA. You get people deskilling social workers and then selling their skills back to them with resources and training that’s based on anecdotes.
When I struck out on my own, I made sure that I was always reminding everyone from the general public to the heads of authorities that CSE is CSA and that by overcomplicating it, we had caused a victim stereotype in CSE that meant we were missing thousands of cases and mishandling the ones we already had. Not only this, but intrafamilial CSA became a thing of the past – everyone stopped talking about it. To the point where I now have authorities calling me to say that their staff have had 6 years of constant input on CSE and are now failing intrafamilial abuse victims as they’ve had no training or resources in CSA for years. Now, a year on – more and more authorities and national charities are moving back to CSA. I know the organisations who have set themselves up to be the font of all knowledge in CSE are reading this and are probably somewhere between furious and shitting it but this HAS to be what is best for children, even if you have to change your services or eat a bit of humble pie. Loads of services are already doing it and have done it very well actually – so what’s the point in insisting that CSE is a separate and different phenomena to CSA?

 

4. ‘Risks’ and ‘vulnerabilities’ in CSE are just more victim blaming of children 
This one takes longer to unlearn and I am just finishing some of my most influential work on this. I must also say that it was RiP Director Dez Holmes who first believed in me when I said ‘I don’t think vulnerabilities or risks cause CSE, I think sex offenders cause CSE. Assessing risks and vulnerabilities of the child simply detracts from the fact that an adult is abusing them. I don’t think the evidence does actually show us that these vulnerabilities or risks lead to CSE.’ Dez and RiP as an organisation are extremely person-centred and evidence based and I was taken seriously. That’s how it ended up in the published revised evidence scope. That’s how it started influencing hundreds of organisations this year and last year.

However, it’s not easy to unpick embedded learning about risk and vulnerability. Many practitioners are taught that the child is targeted by a sex offender because of their vulnerabilities or risk taking behaviours and that by changing the child, changing their characteristics, personalities, behaviours and vulnerabilities, the sex offender will not abuse them. If you think that sounds a bit fluffy that’s because you’re right. Sex offenders who are abusing children do not stop abusing children because you’ve stopped the child wearing the ‘sexualised dress’ you didn’t like (which is usually crop tops and skinny jeans these days. Sounds like rape myths to me but hey-ho…)

The fact is, children can have ten vulnerabilities and still not be abused by anyone. Conversely, children can have zero vulnerabilities and still be abused. This theory that vulnerabilities somehow lead to CSE holds no water and yet we use it to judge children and their parents. All of our interventions are based on this deficit model of the child causing their own abuse.

Thankfully, this year is different and more and more organisations and practitioners are beginning to understand that the only person to blame for CSE and CSA is the sex offender. It does not matter how ‘vulnerable’ that child was, it was never ever their fault or their responsibility.

 

5. Trauma informed practice over educative responses to CSE
Over the years, standard practice responses to CSE have been raising awareness and then teaching the child about grooming, consent, healthy relationships, e-safety and some other useless shit you don’t want to hear about if you’re being abused every day.
I know that sounds harsh but we have to be more self critical. So many practitioners are being told to show children resources or teach them about E-safety and are then pulling their hair out because none of it is working the the child is still being sexually abused every day. If you were being trafficked and raped, given drugs or threatened not to tell – do you really think a professional sitting you down and telling you about consent or e-safety would change all of that for you? Even if you sat there and thought ‘oh shit, what’s happening to me isn’t consensual’ – how would you have the power to escape the abuser? Just because you now know that what is happening to you is wrong doesn’t make you powerful enough to leave abuse. After all, you’re a kid.

 
The problem is, that in CSE, education has been seen as the magic bullet. ‘If you educate children on CSE and grooming, they will be able to spot the signs and protect themselves from abuse.’ STOP. Stop and say that sentence to yourself again. No. It’s wrong. It’s victim blaming. Education is brilliant, I support sex and relationships education from the earliest age possible – but I’m also realistic enough to know that education won’t protect a child from a sex offender who is determined to manipulate them. You can’t put that level of responsibility on a child. It’s victim blaming.

 

All over the UK, specialist commissioned CSE services are paid to deliver 6-8 weeks of direct work with children who are at ‘medium-high risk’ of CSE (roughly translates to: already being abused, see other blogs for more detail). Those 6-8 sessions are educative in nature and the majority of all CSE victims receive little to zero therapeutic support in their processing of the sexual violence or their recovery long term.

 
When children disengage from the educative sessions, they are seen as problematic and can end up in trouble – sometimes even blamed for going back to the abuser. When children start acting out or start self harming – they are seen as mentally ill or disordered. When children withdraw from school and friends because of the impact of repeated rapes, we get all confused about why they hate school all of a sudden.
There has been very little trauma informed work in CSE at all over the years – and children have been penalised and diagnosed with psychiatric disorders simply for showing completely understandable trauma responses to extreme distress.

 
Last year I started to really push the messages about trauma, social models of mental health, anti-labelling and understanding sexual trauma in children. Hundreds of organisations and professionals have now changed their entire ethos of working with children – having gained vital knowledge and empathy for children who are showing extreme behaviours – which they now understand to be coping mechanisms or the expression of extreme distress – rather than behavioural problems or disorders.
This is a massive leap forward and there are influential organisations and large national charities now changing their practice towards a completely trauma informed, child centred way of working.

 

So there you have it – one year makes a massive difference. 

 
#CSEDay18 will come and go but people like me and others in this movement will stay. The people who follow and agree with my work will stay. We are more than people realise. I’m the mouthy one doing all the speeches and the writing but thousands of people stand behind me. We will keep fighting the blaming of children who have been sexually abused. We will keep challenging untested and unethical practices with children. We will spread the word about trauma informed working. We will stop the use of prescriptive, untested risk assessments on children. We will challenge the victim stereotypes and the perpetrator myths.

Change should not be viewed as scary or challenging – it should be viewed as growth and evolution. We have made some huge mistakes in CSE but they are fairly easy to put right. We will make mistakes in the future too – and then we will be reminded by someone that there are better ways of working and we will stop, think, and then improve. Our theories, knowledge and practice will keep changing and keep developing over time. Now is not the time to stay static, clinging to old, untested ways of working. Children deserve the highest quality and the most evidence based way of working that we can possibly give to them – ways of working in which their needs and their potential is put first.

It’s been almost a year since I wrote that tweet and after a busy year, we are getting somewhere. Momentum is huge. Potential is enormous. Maybe next year I will write to you and tell you that the victim blaming of children who have been sexually abused is almost completely wiped out of professional practice, the toolkits are in the bin, CSE films got banned and children have access to ongoing therapeutic support.


Where is this movement going next? Who knows? 

(Okay that’s a lie, I know exactly where it’s going and it’s fucking epic.) 

 

Written by Jessica Eaton

Tweet @Jessicae13Eaton

Email jessica@victimfocus.org.uk

Web: http://www.victimfocus.org.uk

#IWD2018 – Are women victims, survivors, none or both… and does rape really make us stronger?

CW: rape, mental health, trauma, violence

Written by Jessica Eaton and Anon

8th March 2018 – International Women’s Day

 

I would like to dedicate this special edition blog to all of the women and girls who never felt like a survivor, who don’t like the word victim and are searching for a way to understand who they are and how they feel after sexual violence. To the women and girls who live with the effects of abuse and rape, navigating their way through the narratives of how a female ‘should’ behave and ‘should’ recover after sexual violence. Love to you all.

I would also like to express my admiration for the young woman who wrote the letter to me, and the woman who supported her to do so. I hope I have done a good job presenting your pertinent questions and your rage. Rage on. 

 

How important is the label of ‘survivor’? What about ‘victim’? What about the narrative that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’? What about the message women are given, that being raped or abused somehow makes them a better person in the long run, having lived through and ‘survived’ such traumas?

These are not neutral words and phrases, they are laden with meaning, politics, promise, religion, belief and culture. People from one side claim that we should be using the word ‘survivor’ – people from another side claim that we should be recognising victimhood. The battle of linguistics and empowerment after male violence rages on.

For International Women’s day, I am privileged to present and discuss the outstanding writing of a young woman who wrote a letter to me (below) on the 28th January 2018.

I was checking my emails back in January when I came across an email from this young woman, who had been raped and abused; she asked me to read her writing and whether I would publish it for her. As I read, I became enthralled, as I am sure you will. Her writing is clear, her thoughts are punchy. She argues about some things I have been wrestling with in my own writing and in my own PhD. What does our language tell us about women who are raped? What does it tell us about the man who raped her?

For a long time now, I have felt uncomfortable with both ‘survivor’ and ‘victim’. When I started to write up my PhD, I wondered what word I should use. Rather than taking a guess, I started to search the literature for explorations of linguistics in rape and sexual violence.

There is considerable debate around the way that women are described following sexual violence.

Are they a ‘rape victim’ or are they a ‘rape survivor’?

‘Rape victim’ is generally argued to be disempowering, static and negative for the recovery of the woman (Hockett & Saucier, 2015) and focusses wholly on the negative experience and consequences. Campaigners and academics proposed that changing the language to ‘rape survivor’ empowers the woman, is more future-focussed and elicits less blame responses than ‘victim’.

However, the reality is that the experiences and psychological state of women after rape cannot be contained within the dichotomy of ‘victim or survivor’ – trauma, and humans, are much more complex than these two labels.

For example, work by Maria Lugones (2003) in line with the feminist humanist perspective, argued that women often identified as one of the labels, the other, both or neither. It often changes throughout their lives, too.

When I speak about this, I often teach professionals that they should not attempt to define women. They should not tell a woman who feels like a victim of her rapist that she is a survivor. They should not tell a woman who feels like a survivor of sexual trauma, that she is a victim. There is also no continuum a woman should move across – she doesn’t start off as a victim and then become a survivor – this is simply untrue.

And yet, here are just some examples I found online:

Women spend decades processing and exploring what happened to them. They may well feel like a victim for years, then eventually start to identify with the word ‘survivor’ – but what happens when the ‘survivor’ starts being triggered by something new, or has nightmares again? What happens when she suddenly feels like a ‘victim’ again? Has she somehow gone backwards in our expectations of her recovery? Is she failing?

What about the women who strongly argue that they are victims of repeated, serious crimes. Trafficking. FGM. Rapes. Child abuse. Exploitation. They argue that they don’t feel like a survivor, because their traumas have changed their lives forever. Are they lesser because they don’t feel like a survivor? What if they never feel like a survivor? What’s wrong with that?

And what about the narrative around the rape making her stronger? Making her a better person? Making her more resilient? Where does that leave her? This is something the young woman wrote to me in January. Was the rape a gift? Was the rape bestowed upon her?

How does that position the guy who raped her? She writes to me:

What does this tale of perseverance say to our rapist? That his dick made us stronger? That we have him to thank for our fortitude and our survivor mentality? That he has somehow bestowed upon us the ability to transcend adversity and find tranquility. That the grit and courage we so powerfully embody wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t raped us?

And she is right. What does this mean? Even in rape, he is positioned as the giver of resilience and newly found courage. She has every right to be so angry at this narrative that women are fed. Are we supposed to thank male violence for making us who we are today? Are we supposed to be grateful that women are raped and abused, because it made them stronger?

In her letter to me, this tenacious young woman talks about trauma recovery too. She questions the rhetoric of traumas making us bolder and better in the future and the assumption that everyone moves towards recovery, in some sort of linear fashion, through some imaginary stages. It reminds me of all of the ‘stages of recovery’ models. The ‘stages of grief’ models. The ‘stages of recovery from abuse’ models. Why do they all go in a line? Why are they all so straight and pretty and simple? Why are women supposed to move from one, to the other, to the other, nice and steady? From denial, to anger, to sadness, to blah blah blah all the way to acceptance and then to survivor. Survivor is the goal isn’t it? Can’t be a victim, must be a survivor. Can’t stay angry too long, must get to acceptance of your abuse. And all the arrows on those models flow in one direction – forward. Never backwards, or sideways, or a massive scribble. We can’t possibly flow those ways, because then we are failing in trauma recovery.

And what happens to the women who struggle? Rightly so. What happens to the women who are too scared to get back into a relationship? The women who are too scared to go to the shops alone? The women who have flashbacks during sex? Well, we know what is happening to those women – they are told they are mentally ill or have personality disorders. They are known as ‘troubled’ or ‘unstable’. Scores of women and girls with long sexual trauma and abuse histories are being told that their personality is disordered or they have a mental health issue because they are not recovering in line with our white, western, elitist, medicalised models. Their traumas took too long for the models. Their trauma recovery time limit expired, didn’t it?

So, enough of my thoughts. Read the words of this brilliant young woman and think about the way we are fed social norms of ‘survivor’ and ‘recovery’ – and the way we are taught that living through rapes and abuse make us better women.

****

Dear Jessica

I am not thinking of one time, or one person. I am thinking of hundreds of times, and god knows how many people. How many men. How many… Rapists.                

 Mute. That is the best way to describe it. It feels like someone is strangling me from the inside. All of those people that treated me like a ‘thing’ have their hands clenched round my voice, round my neck, gripping tightly. Gut-wrenching and head spinning; it feels like the air inside my body has gone.

It feels like you have been thrown into a whole new dimension. Everything is the same, but nothing is the same. Things keep moving, people keep living but you have stopped. You don’t keep going.

You’re just there. You see things, people and yourself in a very different way. You can’t get back to ‘normal’ because you have lost your normal. Normal meant trusting, normal meant not being harmed. You now know it can happen to you – this world doesn’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe.

 I kept quiet. My voice vanished. I learnt to blend into the background. To be invisible. I did not learn to do this at the hands of the many who decided to harm me, those who decided I was worth nothing. But I got lost in the system, I was let down by the system. I spoke. With my voice feeling crushed, I shared the fact I was a victim. I felt vulnerable, but I did speak. I wasn’t believed. I was questioned. I was blamed. That added to another hand around my neck, clenching my voice tighter, persuading me to stay silent. My worth was confirmed. I was nothing and no one felt that I deserved help.

 My voice is becoming less restrained, as I learn that I can talk, I am believed and that I deserve help. But I am defined by nearly 20 years of abuse, 20 years of being told I am nothing. 

As a “victim” we are forced to define our pain. We get told to “heal” and this great weight of pressure is forced upon our shoulders to “move forward” and “let go of the past”. I have been told to survive. In fact, “survivor” has become the preferred label to describe our plight. A line has been drawn in the sand and we must choose, I am either a victim, drowning in this assumed weakness and frailty, or a survivor; proudly thriving in my newfound strength. But I cannot be both.

 Society has spoon-fed us the false assumption that we will all reclaim our trauma and go on to lead stronger, braver, bolder lives than we would have if we weren’t raped. Society is quick to encourage us to embrace the resolute tenacity of a survivor. It forgets that we’ve been bruised, beaten and penetrated, in every way a person can be. It forgets that healing takes time and that this isn’t just a heartache or a loss. “You are resilient”, they say. “You will rise from the ashes of your pain with more power than you ever knew you had”…

 Wrong.

 What does this tale of perseverance say to our rapist? That his dick made us stronger? That we have him to thank for our fortitude and our survivor mentality? That he has somehow bestowed upon us the ability to transcend adversity and find tranquility. That the grit and courage we so powerfully embody wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t raped us?

 What does it say to the victims who don’t feel whole and healed? To those who still wake up screaming in the middle of the night plagued by memories of their abuse. To those triggered by a sound or a smell or place. What does this jargon say to those who remain broken beyond repair, to those who haven’t publicly rebounded and come out the other side “proud of who they are.”

The unfortunate reality is that healing doesn’t have a distinguishable end. Healing is irreconcilable pain. It is instability and loss and grief and fear. It is shame so deep it pulls on every single part of your body, pushing every muscle down until you feel so small that you simply want to scrunch up as tight as possible and stay there – completely and utterly still. It is trauma that sleeps under your skin, only to manifest in ways you could never imagine, in ways that will stay with you your entire life.

Fear will follow you everywhere. Going for a smear test? Never happening. Even going to the Dr’s alone is a task that now appears unbearable. Changing in the changing rooms, feeling exposed – it feels sickening. Laying on your bed and waking in the night to see you’re in the exact position that you experienced the hurt. You panic. Scrunch up tight. Close your eyes and scream in your head that you would do anything, ANYTHING for this to simply vanish. Your trust in the world has been stolen.

Rape is not a singular thing, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum and it will never just be “something that happened”.

Written 28 January 2018 – Name protected

Thank you so much for reading.

In Solidarity, Jessica and Anon

@JessicaE13Eaton