Sexual Violence 1/5: Challenging the Myths
Myths about sexual violence are as rife as sexual violence itself – and can easily obstruct therapy. In the first part of a new series, Erene Hadjiioannou, author of a forthcoming textbook, addresses common misconceptions and explains why therapy must engage with internalised myths as well as survivors’ truths.
The prevalence of sexual violence within society means that psychotherapists will work with survivors of this issue, wherever they are placed in the mental health system. As a trainee, two of the clients I met in my very first placement lived with the effects of historical and current abuse every day. Currently, survivors make up at least 50 per cent of my caseload at any one time.
Sexual violence crosses the borders of personal demographics such as culture, gender, and sexuality, meaning that anyone can be affected. A significant amount of my experience in this area has been within women’s services, but over the years my practice has become much more diverse. Therapy Leeds is explicitly LGBT+ affirmative, which means I meet transgender, non-binary, and people of queer-aligned sexualities who are dealing with trauma. This is in addition to heterosexual and/or cisgender survivors.
I have seen the difficulties in making use of talking therapy when words are re-traumatising, inefficient or lacking. It occurs whether the client is English-speaking or otherwise. I have also found that myths about sexual violence are as prevalent as sexual violence itself, and that both the therapist and client bring these into the room when working together.
What is sexual violence, and what myths persist?
Sexual violence is any act, from one or multiple people to single or multiple others, consisting of intended and/or actual sexual contact – without seeking, considering, or respecting consent.
It can occur between strangers. But more commonly it takes place within pre-existing relationships of many kinds, for instance between acquaintances, family, and partners in committed relationships – as seen in the huge global increase in domestic abuse during the pandemic.
Despite variations across societies, the complex phenomenon of sexual violence is frequently presented in a reductionist, binary way. Specifically, sexual violence is often considered to only be perpetrated by a cisgender man towards a cisgender woman, who are strangers to each other. When I’m asked about my work, many people are shocked to learn that perpetrators are most often parents, siblings, partners, friends, and adults in professional positions of authority. There is also a pervasive view about the correct way to respond to sexual violence: fight back physically and verbally, and report to the police straightaway.
The reality of sexual violence is that perpetrators are, for the most part, hiding in plain sight. We do not see the true scale of sexual violence reflected in the rates of reporting or the (extremely low) conviction rates of the criminal justice system. Rather, we see it in the ways people are not able to participate in their own lives. Absences from work, being unable to parent, and not being able to get out of bed are examples of this. Sexual violence forces our bodies and minds into survival mode, which produces a range of automatic, uncontrolled responses.
Addressing myths about sexual violence with clients
What does this mean for survivors of sexual violence, and therapists who wish to fully understand the phenomenon? I have found that the power of myths to challenge the process of recovery often becomes an important part of therapeutic work.
As with trauma, we can hold myths about sexual violence in an embodied way. They can be expressed in ingrained societal practices such as crossing the street to avoid a stranger that seems unsafe, questioning whether to walk home alone at night, and even finding ourselves thinking, ‘I shouldn’t have been drinking so much…’
These myths are so strong that the societal narrative then silences the personal narrative, making the truth about sexual violence unknown – sometimes even to those with lived experience.
Myths about sexual violence can obstruct therapy long before a survivor makes contact with a therapeutic service. Myths are a barrier to personally understanding that what happened wasn’t one’s fault. Myths are a barrier to recognising relational dynamics as abusive between people that we know. Myths are a barrier to seeking support and to feeling confident that support is what we will be in receipt of when a disclosure is made.
I wanted to begin this series on working with survivors of sexual violence by addressing the subject of myths, because they present significant challenges to the progress of therapeutic work. Many myths help to perpetuate a victim-blaming stance, which persists internally (within the self) and externally (in relationships and the wider world). Therapy needs to address both the internalised myth and the survivor’s truth. In this way it can push back against blame, shame, and guilt, as well as empowering the survivor to frame their experiences through their own perspective.
Psychotherapy with Survivors of Sexual Violence: Inside and Outside the Room, by Erene Hadjiioannou, will be published by Routledge in September.
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