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How To Better Support People Who Have Experienced Sexual Violence: Normalising Living With Experiences of Sexual Violence

This is not the report I expected to submit when I was applying for a Churchill Fellowship. I thought I would be writing a relatively technical, academic document aimed primarily at commissioners and funders of support services for people who have experienced sexual violence. My aim was to build a case for more holistic, relationship-centred support services. Through my time in New Zealand I came to realise that I hadn’t spent enough time properly considering the nature of the problem I hoped to solve. Why is there currently so little support available for people who have experienced sexual violence? I’d tried to jump straight to solutions – providing case studies of different types of services effectively meeting people’s differing needs. In failing to properly diagnose the underlying reasons for the current dire state of support services (both in terms of accessibility and quality), it is unlikely my approach would have been particularly effective in achieving change.

Sexual violence remains deeply taboo. It can feel nearly impossible to talk openly about how experiences of sexual violence affect you. It can be hard to accept that someone you love has experienced sexual violence. It is even harder to tell people that someone you love has been engaging in harmful sexual behaviours. Sexual violence is prevalent. Yet it is a topic which remains shrouded in shame and mystery, with even professionals sometimes feeling awkward and unconfident about how to approach it. I have come away from my time in New Zealand convinced that the only way to improve things is to start normalising living with experiences of sexual violence. To be very clear, I am not saying we should normalise sexual violence itself. It is deeply harmful and entirely unjustifiable. But we need to remove the stigma associated with having experienced sexual violence, or having a loved one experience sexual violence. Hidden harms are always more dangerous. Shame and secrecy prevent people from accessing help and create more opportunities for those who engage in harmful sexual behaviours.

The thing which shocked me the most during my time in New Zealand was how frequently strangers, entirely unconnected to my research, would tell me about their experiences of sexual violence. This was unprompted by me. I was careful to be relatively vague about what I was researching unless directly asked for more details, to avoid inadvertently upsetting anyone. This might sound contradictory to my assertion that sexual violence remains taboo, but in fact it demonstrates the point. These people were confiding in a sympathetic stranger, someone they’d met in a shop or a gallery or on a walk, someone they knew they’d never see again. Generally it didn’t appear that they were sharing with friends or family or seeking specialist support. They were clearly still greatly impacted by their experiences – emotions were raw even when discussing events of over 60 years ago – but for the most part they were trying to manage alone.

The eye opening thing for me was realising how surprised I was by each disclosure. I was in New Zealand conducting this research because I was aware of high levels of unmet need for support services. Yet somehow I still wasn’t prepared for so many of those I came into contact with to disclose experiences of sexual violence. Intellectually I knew about prevalence, but emotionally I hadn’t truly believed it.

And so this report is going to be something a bit different to what I had originally planned. How do we start normalising living with experiences of sexual violence? By talking about living with experiences of sexual violence. Instead of a target audience of commissioners and funders, I’m hoping this report might be read by people who have also experienced sexual violence, as well as the people that support them. There are so many of us1 and yet frequently we feel alone. Instead of asking “why me?” (which counsellors and social workers tell me is something people commonly struggle with), I’d like us to explore together “what’s next for us?” I’m hopeful that this report and follow up work might contribute towards this shift.

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