People would have asked: “What were you wearing? How much did you drink?” And “Why didn’t you report him?” And so … shame & silence, over, and over, and over, again.
A nursing postgraduate berated me for ripping up the cervical smear test reminders; she never asked why, and I wouldn’t have told her. Life isn’t trauma-informed. If you’re called for a medical appointment, you attend it – obviously.
Later, I taught sexual violence (quite well) from behind a glass wall I could touch; it was smudged, misty, and made people look small, far away. 1 in 4 can be a dry, incredible statistic for some students’ essays: “these women”, “lives blighted”. There are graduates who seek careers “helping the vulnerable”. Behind the scenes and in front of them, there’s also the personally political; unexpected, precious gifts for listeners.
My own written self-disclosure in an editorial for an academic journal (after a lot of therapy, psychotherapy training, care from others who know who they are, and some much more personally-engaged teaching – I had a lot to learn), met with (among other things) a kind, whispered: “Is she alright?” (She’s the same as she was before you knew that; truly she is! If something’s funny, she’s still going to laugh.) Some twitter unfollowings; some wide-eyed horror (perhaps theirs and definitely mine) conveyed in some published poetry; more thinking, feeling, connecting, writing, sharing; very personal processes, incremental, meaningful …
Then, suddenly, surprisingly: #MeToo, #MeToo, #MeToo … Millions of voices and faces speaking truth to power. Telling or not, people are speaking; shame & silence seem to be shattering, over, and over, and over, again! 1 in 4 live, breathe – and we have, it appears, been underestimated (well, obviously). Some of us were film stars. Some of us, like me, were undergraduates. Perhaps there’s space here for anyone who feels they can use it?
It’s all so powerful, so positive, so very democratic – isn’t it? Maybe. But … where might people who speak (or not) turn next, when #MeToo is no longer “trending”, when it’s #NotAllMen, when “it mustn’t be a witch hunt” starts to be said, when some women are blamed for keeping fearful silences, when we hear the Metropolitan Police are revisiting their rape cases and that John Worboys is being released (hardly #TimesUp); when hearing, seeing, feeling anything else is just too much? Not everyone makes the cover of Time magazine; some #MeToos won’t have attracted a ‘like’; you can delete your unliked tweet, but not so easily what you may have unleashed: what then?
“… We only let them cancel an appointment twice, because they’re manipulative – no disrespect to them – it’s because of what they’ve experienced,” so said a psychotherapist at a sexual violence support service. “The ladies are chaotic,” so said almost everyone, as if reading from a prepared script, in another service for women. “What about going for a walk?”, sniffs a rape helpline worker. And at a psychotherapy placement interview: “We’re therapists – we have resolved all our issues” (all of them; ideally we never had any to begin with; I’ve written of intrusive questions at placement interviews).
Ordinary, everyday words – often from people who don’t seem to know, or say, any better. A distinction between ‘us’ (the supposed majority), and ‘them’ (the supposed minority, the ‘minority’ of the 1 in 4 – a bit like women used to be said to be a ‘minority’ perhaps). A polarity of ‘ok’ and ‘not ok’; ‘mental health’: you’ve either got it or you haven’t (and if you haven’t, here are some simple tips to help you get it back). Some lecturers attend training events to learn how to respond when students have ‘mental health’ issues, returning with pages of well-meaning notes; are their own stresses ‘mental health’ I wonder?
Change isn’t straightforward; the status quo of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and its many injustices are engrained, and located now, of course, in stretched services with particular agendas that often choose to see “irrational” individuals rather than rational responses to trauma in a social and political context.
But if society is now finally going to recognise (even if not necessarily now, then sometime soon; a cycle of #MeToo and #NotAllMen needn’t, mustn’t, persist forever), just how many people, just how many people, with all sorts of pasts and presents, have experienced sexual violence and its variety of aftermaths (and Liz Kelly’s (1988) classic text Surviving Sexual Violence draws our attention to the “continuum of sexual violence”; there are so many manifestations), mental health professionals (and those they influence) cannot now meaningfully persist in pathologising survivors as: #JustThem: ‘manipulative’ and ‘chaotic’ people (usually women); strange people wilfully objecting to the supposed comfort of a walk; not so very many people, certainly not people like ‘us’.
By noticing the sheer weight of numbers now, encompassing people from all sorts of places, all aspects of care could be caring, could be prompted to become more trauma-informed – the My Body Back Project (http://www.mybodybackproject.com/), for instance, is alongside women survivors having cervical screening (among other things). Eventually, even life could become more trauma-informed (imagine that): for there are probably more of us who have experienced sexual violence than those who haven’t. Being trauma-informed must encompass political activism, and political activism can take place in so many ways …
I’m writing and revisiting my testimony, as an academic & psychotherapist-in-training – an ‘expert’ and an ‘expert-by-experience’ rolled into one – on my own and with others, making a patchwork of lived experience about what happened to me and what it’s like now to share some of it, because the politics of writing feel more powerful than those of keeping silent; I find something new each time I write, it’s an unfolding autoethnography, a weaving together of pessimism and optimism – just as life isn’t cut-and-dried. It’s radical; risky; sometimes it’s painful …
… But my proposal (and I think this, too, in relation to psychotherapists and all sorts of ‘sensitive’ subjects) – is that more mental health professionals (from crisis team workers to psychiatrists, social workers to nurses) – also might say/write, be enabled to say/write (even if first/just to ourselves): Yes, I’m also in the 1 in 4 …
And being here isn’t a confession of weakness, or offered glibly as an inspiring tale of ‘overcoming’ (in comparison with failing ‘others’). It’s about actually creating a sustained culture of #MeToo, rather than an unthinking #JustThem; speaking, writing, thinking, feeling the unexpected (in the myriad of ways that we, not others, will choose) and gradually making it less so; raising awareness of trauma’s impacts (so everything doesn’t always need re-explaining at the worst times); making connections across the continuum of sexual violence, across humanity; exploring how language in society always seems to make divisive, inappropriate hierarchies and how can we start to even them out; questioning received, unimaginative notions of being ‘better’ with how we all really feel day to day; being fully present with one another; seeing and valuing differences and similarities.
It’s about solidarity, community. Linda Gask (2015), in The Other Side of Silence, started such a process with regard to depression, juxtaposing seeing patients with being a patient. So much more can be done for sexual violence; the time may well be right if we make it so.
This piece began as a (never acknowledged) poem sent to a psychotherapy organisation advertising a play exploring complaints against psychotherapists in what was termed the “age of accusation” – just as #MeToo exploded on social media. Hmm. Everyone can consider ways to be more aware; and if what I’m proposing here doesn’t resonate with you, think of something else and share it; engage, take action.
If you do consider ‘coming out’, know that it doesn’t mean having no ‘boundaries’ – if you back me into a corner wanting to know more than I want to tell, or you pigeonhole me as some sort of ‘victim’, I may bite – and so can you. But more honesty (in all sorts of ways) may help a movement towards long-overdue changes for the better in ‘us’ and ‘them’ mental health settings, and society, where sexual trauma is often missed, and people needlessly harmed. If this sounds idealistic … why not have ideals? So come on in if you can, the water’s lovely – well, either it’s getting warmer, or you cease to notice the cold.
Dr Deborah A. Lee is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Nottingham Trent University and an existentially-informed person-centred psychotherapist-in-training.
If you’d like to hear more about Deborah Lee’s work you’re welcome to email her: Deborah.Lee@ntu.ac.uk