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Sexual Violence 5/5: Therapy as Activism

What are our social responsibilities when working with survivors of sexual violence? If we don’t extend our attentions beyond the therapy space, are we in danger of compounding victim-blaming and perpetuating cultural silence? In the concluding part of her series, Erene Hadjiioannou encourages therapists to raise our voices – and step outside the room.

One of the factors that enables sexual violence to occur on the prolific global scale that it does is silence. Silencing of survivors' truths occurs from the moment violence is perpetrated against them, to the many ways that their truths are distorted and unrecognised by others when they speak out about their lived experiences. The low conviction rates in the UK criminal justice system and societal myths are two examples of the latter.

If therapeutic interventions only extend to the survivor themselves then our work in facilitating real change for and with survivors is minimised. Therapy, as a result, becomes useless outside of the rooms we work in. Limiting the remit of therapeutic interventions also reinforces a victim-blaming stance in implying that it is only survivors that need to do the work, rather than perpetrators and a silencing society.

I believe therapists are well positioned to push back against the various forms of silence that perpetuate sexual violence both inside and outside of the rooms we work in. I call this our social responsibility. Simply being available to hear (not just listen), bear witness to the truth of sexual violence, and respond supportively is a form of activism in the face of the issue. For therapists who also take action in individual and collective ways outside of the therapy room, the reparative nature of our work can extend further outwards.

Responding to survivors' truths, inside and outside the room

The reality of sexual violence is that many survivors are disbelieved, ignored, shamed, and put at more risk by others when they disclose what happened. Therefore, the power that has been misused against them continues in various forms in personal relationships, communities, and formalised systems. 

Not being responded to adequately when disclosing means that blame, shame, and guilt for being on the receiving end of sexual violence becomes an automatic response. These mis-placed internalisations of responsibility for what happened often create real barriers to accessing therapeutic support. 

Under-funded specialist services and long waiting lists can compound these oppressions to the point of disengagement and, at worst, losing hope of recovery. Myths can also play into the internalised blame for what happened, making it a non-problem that one simply has to get over even if they are clear something is wrong. Without a supportive dialogue of any kind, survivors remain unaware that their truth is valid.

I encourage therapists to start practising their social responsibility by stepping out of therapy rooms to invite survivors in. This can include awareness raising campaigns to fill silences with the truth of sexual violence, which assists in myth-busting to alleviate blame, shame, and guilt.

Adapting psycho-education to fit the needs of specific communities and delivering this in the best ways for them bypasses some of the inaccessibility of specialist support, perhaps also encouraging them to consider accessing traditional therapeutic support at a later date.

My own experience includes public speaking, awareness-raising in my local community, lobbying to change the guidelines on pre-trial therapy, and writing for a number of online and print publications on the truth of sexual violence. 
I want to end this series with a note of caution, and a note of encouragement. Using one’s voice only to be shut down is a painful experience that too often goes hand in hand with sexual violence. It is not unusual for psychotherapists engaged in the challenge of working with the traumatic impact of sexual violence to experience disempowerment, in relation to their clients’ struggles as well as the global scale of the issue. 

But in becoming allied with survivors – including in their fight to be heard – we can collectively push back against the problem of sexual violence, amplify the truth and challenge the myths, reposition power, and allow those with lived experience to shape the therapeutic field. 

Psychotherapy with Survivors of Sexual Violence: Inside and Outside the Room, by Erene Hadjiioannou, will be published by Routledge in September. 


Erene Hadjiioannou

Erene Hadjiioannou is a UKCP Integrative Psychotherapist. She has worked with adult clients since 2010 in statutory, third sector, higher education, and private settings, and is currently solely based in her private practice, Therapy Leeds. Between 2014 and 2018 Erene created and co-ordinated two specialist services for women with complex needs (offenders, and survivors of sexual violence).

Erene's work is firmly based in relational, humanistic, and empowerment perspectives and she incorporates activism into her work around sexual violence, believing that as practitioners we have a responsibility to advocate in service of our clients and our shared world. You can view her writing and speaking engagements here. Erene is part of a steering group for the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on pre-trial therapy. She covers this topic, and a range of others, in her book Psychotherapy with Survivors of Sexual Violence: Inside and Outside the Room.

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