A new initiative in the UK involves women who have been raped supporting others recovering from the same experiences of violation, anger, grief, shame and being effectively shut up by society as a whole. Why do these relationships work so well, and what can therapists learn from them?
This blog post from the UK feminist website www.thefword.org.uk relates vividly the experience of the aftermath of rape in Britain, where “rape is reported to the police every 34 minutes”. (And how many are not?) It describes The Amnia project, in which volunteers who have experienced sexual violence are trained to pair up with more recent “victims” and support them in the way other professional services simply do not do, if they are available at all — which is only too rarely.
This “peer supporter” initiative is an excellent way of tackling the particular difficulties in recovering from sexual attacks, difficulties which are down to the extreme nature of the violation and to the reactions of the community, and the meanings and messages such crimes carry in UK society (and, I imagine, in most societies).
The main message that sexual crimes carry is keep it secret. Nothing really happened. Nothing that you shouldn’t be able to handle by yourself, and preferably without reminding other people about the existence of such crimes. It could always have been worse. You could be pregnant (assuming that the “victim” is not), you could have been killed. Even when the outward message is to seek justice, even when justice is done, in the sense of the rapist going to prison, the woman who has been raped is supposed to carry on as if nothing had happened, to keep the actual experience of the event and what it comes to mean for her, a shameful secret.
What is it after all, your dignity and sense of physical, emotional, mental integrity? Never mind. Don’t disturb us. Don’t do anything to rock the status quo or make us, heaven forbid, scared or critical. Don’t remind us that they are not only mad strangers in the street but husbands, bosses, teachers, etc., etc.
This post quotes a volunteer who speaks in her own words with raw eloquence about the experience, of losing your spark, your spirit, of the rage and grief that comes with that, only to be silenced by others’ reactions — either shock, which hands you the responsibility of making it better for them, or dismissal, or a total lack of reaction, where people blank out what they have heard. Rape is everywhere and nowhere, people do not know how to talk about it or how to hear it. It is a hard word to say. The victim ends up carrying the weight of the taboo, the secret, as if she were herself a dreadful burden, a thing too terrible to bear.
Ongoing aftercare and time consuming support is clearly often necessary. There is a lot of processing to be done. The post stresses, though, how the crucial element in actually helping people to “get their lives back” after such a horrendous experience does not depend on specialist expertise but on simple things, a real understanding, a lack of power dynamic (which is always at play to some degree where professional help is concerned), small actions and gestures of respect. Also in these partnerships the supporter stands to gain as much as the one supported, as they use their experiences again and again for a positive end. The fact that the relationship is mutually empowering and positive must increase its power in a wonderful way.
This emphasis on the empowering and healing effects of support between equals, of understanding and the strength found in painful and difficult places, is a really welcome message to stress at this moment in time when it seems that helping professions are more and more concerned with dividing people into particular client groups and acquiring specialist knowledge on how to “treat” them. Not that knowledge does not have a place, although I would argue that most of it is simply the result of listening to people who identify as being from those particular “client groups”, and even then, it is hard to find somebody who belongs to only one of them, all of us being a complex intersection of many different experiences, tendencies, resources, and “problems”.
The fact that it is real understanding of the experience which is so supportive is something else for professional “helpers” to bear in mind. The inner act of drawing on your own experience, of looking at your own pain and not cordoning it off in order to concentrate on acquiring knowledge about “problems” is, I would say, bound to be helpful to the client. This inner “drawing upon” experience need not be explicitly shared with the client, and, in a more boundaried relationship (which certainly has its own specific pluses), it would probably not be. But somehow it is a part of the relationship. Maybe the primary job of a therapist is to keep a close connection to their own experiences of violation, shame, anger and various kinds of distress, to turn them into a specific kind of strength, to remain open.
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