The acknowledgement of sexual abuse and violence -as far as we can feel and understand its impact now - could be a major step forward in preventing sexual abuse. This prevention might even reach out to areas of a non-sexual nature thanks to a rise in the awareness of boundary crossing behaviour. In this blog, I wish to invite practitioners in particular to reflect not on the more obvious and acknowledged situations where people wish to work with their experiences, but on a perhaps much larger group of people also affected, in various other ways. I also wish to invite thinking about how we could meet clients whilst working on this rather complicated area of past experiences, that with certainty touch upon our own experiences, beliefs and constructs.
Respecting another’s integrity, both physical and psychological, is a major step in breaking patterns that have existed for many centuries, if not, then for as long as humans have been around. We have become sensitized and aware of how immense the impact on one’s well being can be, after the realization that the safe world wasn’t as safe in the moment boundaries were crossed. #Metoo has opened up a lot of stories; many people had the courage to ‘come out’ and to become visible, lifting the secret for others who didn’t have that courage or discounted their experiences (‘it was only once’, ‘I was only harassed, not raped’, ‘it wasn’t me that was touched, it was my mother who this happened to’). New rules and regulations are put into place to secure people and for them to rely on institutions that for a long time covered up stories.
These aspects that should contribute to a higher level of safety can potentially create for any person involved in this, an additional burden by being re-exposed to their memories while they might have longed to bring their memories and felt experiences to a more quiet place internally. Partners, parents, children and other loved ones might enter into a world they were unaware of in order to have a relationship with and enter into their own process regarding the other person’s experiences. This is a phenomenon I see happening in my practice more and more in recent months.
So how can therapists work with clients bringing their experiences to therapy? What approach would support the understanding of those involved around the confusion, disorientation, anger and pain? Not to forget how parents, siblings, children and partners could be the client that present themselves as they have been affected or indirectly become survivors themselves? How could the professional guide survivors through this landscape that the client finds him-them-herself lost in?
Based on a relatively recently published model to work with sexual abuse and violence in psychodrama by Peter John Schouten (pjschouten.nl, in Dutch), the concept of traumasexuality was introduced. Traumasexuality meaning the sexuality of survivors that has been effected by events and experiences and in that sense traumatized. The sexuality is no longer free and no longer solely belonging to the person, the internalized perpetrator prevents the survivor becoming the owner of their sexuality. Mechanisms might be put in place to block the flow of the Eros energy.
This model lets itself be applied within the working model of Psychosynthesis. The Psychosynthesis model provides even more potential in working through the clients’ experiences. Some of these experiences need to be redefined and decontaminated, others might need to be met and acknowledged in order to lift the confusion they have caused in the client’s world and therewith can potentially affect other people’s lives in both a sexual and non-sexual way.
How does this relate to the practitioner?
When working with abuse and violence, more is needed from any practitioner. Firstly it’s important for a practitioner to meet and know one’s own experiences with boundaries: since so many people are affected by SAV, how has it impacted one’s own senses and does it still? Secondly, it’s important to explore internalized and deeply rooted beliefs about the relations society has made between our sexuality and other people’s sexuality. What myths and beliefs are around? We might think that we are not affected by them and yet might they have an influence on a subtler and less conscious level? How do we get in touch with those deeply rooted processes? Thirdly, how can we stay sane and in a neutral position, in which we still keep in touch with the client’s experiences as well as his or her truth and experience of the situation, yet not becoming overly involved in a way that limits the space to understand the client’s experiences in a much broader frame of reference, including the way the events have impacted other areas of their being in this world? However unsettling the client’s stories are, how can we keep that space?
In the end, the work is to facilitate people to process and come to peace with disrupting experiences, or to come to action and bring the story into the world in order to stop the potential risk of perpetrators continuing to act out their issues. The work aims to assist the regain of respect for one’s own integrity, to re-establish the capacity to communicate boundaries and to stop the passing on of violent experiences onto others. As in some cases, past experiences can make us impose what is done to ourselves onto others causing new boundaries to be crossed.
To engage in these processes, we need people who are willing to step into them, to be afraid, to be disgusted, unsettled, angry and even hurt by the events that have happened. We need to not turn away, to look any client into the eyes when they share their experiences, being a witness to that which never should have happened in the first place. So, in a way we need therapists to allow themselves to be affected and to keep standing, as those who survived their situation are still standing. To take a third position and to sometimes - perhaps less therapeutically - judge and identify the protections that were needed, and were not in place. To meet complicated loyalty issues and bring the client to a place of understanding why they could not act even though this might have led to a different outcome of events.
Moreover, and sadly enough, sexuality in some cases triggers curiosity. It can be a human need to speculate on the causes leading to the events. Sexuality touches upon the darker sides of the human psyche. Within families, social structures, workplaces, it might even lead to debate and judging, sometimes from internalized parts where violence is actually justified based on norms and an essentialist viewpoint where the sexual drive and instinct is considered a given, a wild beast that needs to be tamed and moreover not to be awoken.
In this case the survivor of violence is made into the perpetrator by presumably having created the circumstances where the actual perpetrator has been lured into his or her deeds; and in worst cases the facts can lead to a re-experience of the events that is as harming as they were in the first place.
As practitioners part of a world where these events take place we can meet our responsibility. We can take the responsibility by never looking away and in meeting people and their experiences.
Written by Giel Luichjes who will be leading a 2 day workshop on Working With Sexual Abuse & Violence on 1 - 2 September 2018.
Giel is working as a psychotherapist in Amsterdam in private practice. He has specialised in working with gender and sexuality, including sexual abuse and violence. Giel is a Psychosynthesis trainer in Sweden and The Netherlands. He has a special interest in existential psychotherapy and social constructivism in trying to understand complex social phenomena and more down to earth: the dynamics in human relations.