October 31st, 2014
Vikki Reynolds, PhD, is an activist/therapist, facilitator, and instructor, who works to bridge the worlds of activism and community work and counselling. Vikki’s experience includes supervision and therapy with refugees and survivors of torture, mental illness and substance misuse counsellors, anti-violence workers, housing and shelter workers, activists, as well as work alongside gender and sexually diverse communities. Vikki’s talks and writings are available for free download at www.vikkireynolds.ca.
I want to speak a bit about language. Here is a fabulous quote from Afro-Caribbean Canadian poet and activist Dionne Brand: “No language is neutral…. .Each sentence realised or dreamed jumps like a pulse with history and takes a side.” Activism inspires me to aim to use language in ways that resist abuses of power, and avoid using language in ways that hold women responsible for their own suffering. Words don’t kill, but language can create the conditions for violence. And language alone will not deliver a socially just society.
We need to resist professional talk of things “hidden inside of the heads of individuals.” The brain is involved in language, but in my work I hold this idea alongside my knowing that a brain is contained within a particular body that is moving in the world—it is gendered, racialized, colonized, classed, judged across many domains of identity and is subject to power. Oppression doesn’t happen to women in their brain. It happens to women in the real world. We need to name these forms of violence for what they are, and not hide behind the psychological language of individual women as damaged, and we need to work to resist and transform rape culture.
Linda Coates and Allan Wade write about language and violence. They outline four ways language is used:
- To conceal violence
- To obscure perpetrator responsibility
- To conceal victims’ responses and resistance
- To blame or pathologize victims
I’m going to use an example from my work as a counsellor in a live-in substance misuse program with a young women. She was sent there for her substance abuse issues, mystifying the fact that she was the victim of violence. I was teaching a trauma course at that time, and asked if I could share her story of resistance, which she agreed to. My purpose was partly to get her appropriate witnesses. She gave permission knowing she was helping other people in the future who were the victimized by violence.
This young women told me that she was “an addict,” who had been told by various professionals and others in her life that she had to “deal with her issues” in order to get her life back from drugs and alcohol. She held great shame about her willing participation in an “inappropriate sexual relationship” with an older man. She was mortified when this sexual relationship became known to other adults, and she denied it, and she had no answers to the questions she had been asked about why she allowed it to continue. She had been told that there might be something really wrong with her, and in fact she had been told by a worker that she was psychologically damaged, mentally ill, to be engaging in this kind of inappropriate sexual relationship.
In a very short time talking with her it became clear to me that this young woman had been the victim of ongoing sexual abuse by the father in a foster home.
Violence is concealed when sexualized violence is termed an “inappropriate sexual relationship.” The violation of her sense of safety, her right to be a child, and other ongoing horrors are left unnamed in this kind of language. The perpetrator of this violence did not appear in her account, and his actions were absent in any of the referral information as well. Nowhere was there any account of her resistance against these ongoing attacks or acknowledgment of her responses to them. The idea that there was something wrong with her, possibly psychologically wrong, and that she was to blame for this violence, was offered as the reason for us meeting therapeutically.
All the referral language pathologized her. Coates and Wade suggest that in the context of helping relationships we should use language in the following ways:
- To reveal violence
- To clarify perpetrator responsibility
- To elucidate and honour victims’ responses and resistance
- To contest the blaming and pathologizing of victims
I asked if this was a relationship she had wanted to participate in. She said that she was five years old when the attacks began. She said that he had told her that this was what it was to show love and that she had no other teachers. She said that she felt special and was given gifts for the first time in her life by this man. However, as she got older she came to understand that this was inappropriate, and she was ashamed of herself. She continued to participate in this relationship because she had so many other siblings in the foster home and wanted to keep her family together. I asked her if this was an “inappropriate sexual relationship” and she said that she did not think so; she thought that it was “a man continually hurting a child.” I asked who should be holding shame for these attacks, and she responded, “The man.” I asked what it said about her that, in her own words, she “sacrificed” herself in order to protect her younger siblings from violence and keep her family together. I asked her how a five-year-old girl could defend herself against the attacks of a 40-year-old man. I asked her how drugs and alcohol took advantage of this violence.
Following this part of the conversation she let me know that she felt understood. She had great interest in the conversations to come, about how she resisted “full on,” and how as a five-year-old girl she kept her family together. She also thought that this way of talking was going to make it very hard for drugs and alcohol to continue to take advantage of her. She was not interested anymore in figuring out what was wrong with her, and she thought that the best label for herself might be superhero.
After being sexually assaulted, a woman can easily get a diagnosis of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and while this might be useful in terms of getting some needed help and maybe even understanding her experience, it labels the woman with a mental illness. All of the ways women fight back against rape and sexual assault are hidden, and instead the psychological talk speaks of women as if they are acted upon but never actors. Many acts of resistance are reframed as symptoms of mental illness, such as dissociation, when in fact it is possibly an act of resistance that saved her life, as she chose to leave her body when under an attack she couldn’t defend herself against.
I have a problem with so much resistance being labelled disorder. Who is disordered or mentally unwell is the man who attacked the woman, but she gets the mental illness diagnosis and the stigma that can come with that. I’m not suggesting all these ways of being are working for her now, or preferred, but I’m advocating honouring resistance, not pathologizing symptoms. Some workers think of these responses as PTSD amazingness, and speak not of vicarious trauma, but the vicarious resistance they experience working alongside women who have so courageously, intelligently, and skillfully resisted sexual assault.
When a man uses a weapon or his own physical strength against a woman and terrifies her or says he will kill her, and she prudently and courageously and amazingly stays still and silent, she is fighting for her life. This is what feminist-informed readings of resistance to sexual assault can look like: It’s not not fighting back, and it’s not consent.