A Guide To Failing Sexually Abused Children

Hazel Aged 9
Me, aged 9. I’d already been a victim of sexual abuse for 7 years when this photograph was taken.

 

CW: Child Sexual Abuse, Rape, Incompetence
Help:  https://www.rapecrisishelp.ie/find-a-service/
https://www.samaritans.org/ireland/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/
https://www.mentalhealthireland.ie/need-help-now/

Yesterday, Sarah McInerney wrote a piece in The Times about my late friend, Shane Griffin, and how he was let down by a number of systems in Ireland: The Eastern Health Board, the HSE, TUSLA, and the judiciary, to name a few.

It was a lovely tribute to a lovely man and it mentioned how the abuse children suffer is compounded by the neglect they (we) are then subjected to by the very institutions that are supposed to mind them (us). The problem I have with the piece is not the piece itself,  but the fact that it tells us nothing new, and it amounts to nothing more than a bit of hand-wringing, and an invitation (which was taken up by many on Twitter) to have a big, online, hand-wringing fest.

We have known for years that children who are sexually abused in Ireland have their abuse compounded by the further abuse and neglect of those who are supposed to help us. The Journal has been reporting on this for years – just have a look at this and this and this and this and this  : All pieces giving details about children who were sexually abused, and how their suffering was compounded by government agencies, individual social workers, doctors, psychologists etc. who did nothing and who were promoted for their lack of action. Our government, our government agencies, and individual social workersdoctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and others who work for those agencies are complicit in the abuse, neglect and suicides of people in this country. No one is held accountable, and victims struggle to survive in a country that doesn’t support us.

For example, if (God forbid) your ten-year-old child were sexually assaulted and you went to get help for them. This is what would happen:

  1. You would phone somewhere like CARI, St. Clare’s Unit, or St. Louise’s Unit, or your local social worker, begging for help.
  2. You would not receive help.
  3. The service / social worker you contacted would, in turn, contact TUSLA and report the information. (Note: If this isn’t done online – bearing in mind that only 20% of HSE workers have access to the Internet – the documents will be returned. Estimates vary on how long this will take.)
  4. TUSLA would put your child on a waiting list to be assessed. This waiting list is currently years long.
  5. A social worker from TUSLA would interview your child and decide whether or not they were lying about the abuse. They call this determining whether or not the allegations are ‘founded’ or ‘unfounded’. (More about this below).
  6. If they decide that your child is not a liar, your child will be referred to CARI to be put on their waiting list for help.
  7. If you wanted to access services through the HSE, you would have to involve the Gardaí, as well. St. Clare’s and St. Louise’s Units will not put you on their waiting lists unless you have done so.

Don’t forget that, for the years you’re waiting for help, you’ll have been dealing with a child whose mental health is suffering, you’ll have been grappling with your own pain and feelings of guilt, fear, and your mental health will also be suffering. Your child may be suicidal. Your child may be self-harming. Your other children, and your partner / spouse will also be suffering in a similar way.

If the abuse was perpetrated by a member of your family, the mental anguish will be compounded. There will be no help or support for your abused child, you, or your family members unless you know how to find a competent therapist and pay for therapy yourself.  Good luck with that.

Founded / Unfounded

Whether or not your child gets help depends on whether or not a social worker in TUSLA says they’re allowed to access this help (such as it is). How do they do this? Well, the truth is that nobody knows. Social Workers in Ireland receive no training in how to determine the veracity of a claim of abuse. Nor or they trained in how to treat abuse victims or victims of trauma. (That is changing, however, as Dr Joe Mooney has just introduced a module in UCD for those studying there.)

I’m not being at all flippant when I say that they may as well just flip a coin to decide whether or not a child’s allegations are taken seriously. If you think I’m joking, have a look at the PQs (Parliamentary Questions) 445 – 447 asked by Róisín Shorthall at the end of 2018 and the Minister’s response.

Just today (January 13th, 2020), I got word from a friend – I’ll call her Anna, though that’s not her real name – who contacted TUSLA in 2010 to report abuse she had suffered when she was a child. Make no mistake, this is a brave thing to do. Anna was raped 3-4 times a week, from the age of 14 until she was 17. She is aware that she is not the only person this rapist raped. One other woman has had conversations with Anna about being raped by this man, too, but she’s afraid to go to the Gardaí. Of course, he’s an upstanding member of his local community in Wicklow, so when he was asked – more than eight years after the abuse was reported – if the allegations were untrue, he denied it.

And that was that.

Anna’s mental and physical health are suffering because of the damage this man did to her, which has been compounded by services which are supposed to put ‘Children First’. Anna no longer lives in Ireland because she can’t bear to live in a country that cares so little for raped children. I cannot say I blame her.

Getting Personal

I’m not going to pretend to be objective. I’m not going to pretend this isn’t personal. Because it is personal. I am one of the children who was let down by the system. I have encountered nothing but obstacles from every institution, service and individual – with the notable exception of one social worker who alerted me to the fact that a file on me existed. This she did, almost as an aside at the end of a conversation in 2010. It took me two years of constant requests before I was given access to my (heavily redacted) files.

This letter refers to a case conference that took place in November 1988. I was, at this time, 15 years and two months old.

Case Conference Nov 1988 croppedI think it’s worth noting that I never, ever met a single one of the people present at that ‘case conference’ – except for Imelda Ryan.

This is borne out, in part by this (heavily redacted) letter from Rosemary Cooke, who was at the meeting referred to in the correspondence above:

I Have Never Had Contact With Hazel

At the same time, she declares herself the key worker in my ‘case’.

I remain the key worker

And, as you can see from the top line, she asserts that there is ‘little social work intervention possible.’ This woman is still in practice, by the way, and has added the role of ‘Mediator’ to her suite of offerings.

It would actually be funny, if it weren’t so serious.

Let me draw your attention to lines 21, 22, 23, and 24 of the first document. Please bear in mind that everyone at that meeting knew I had been sexually abused by my elder brothers, and was being sexually abused by my father. It was further accepted that the younger children in the house were also at risk of being / were being abused.

But, as you can also see, my mammy didn’t want my daddy to leave the house. So no one interfered. Fifteen-year-old me is referred to as being ‘very disturbed’, ‘not liking my father’ and wanting him ‘out of the house’. It is absurd that this is even noteworthy – or that it is noteworthy, but no further explanation is required. ‘Dr’ Ryan suspects this is a plot on my part. Imagine being 15 and wanting a rapist out of your family home in order to protect yourself and the other children in the family! Clearly quite the little plotter. I was the only person prepared to do anything to address the situation. That should not have been my job. Please also note that I am vilified for disclosing that I was suicidal (line 24). Please also note that, even though the Gardaí were referred to – though I still have no idea how they were expected to ‘control the family’ – they were never contacted by anyone about this abuse until I knocked into my local station when I was 18.

But let me go back to the ‘psychiatrist’ involved – the woman who was supposed to have my welfare at heart. Bear in mind, I was between the ages of 14 and 16 when I was attending St Louise’s Unit. Bear in mind that it was confirmed I was being sexually abused (or, in today’s parlance, my allegations were ‘founded’) . Yet, here is a sample of things that she said about this very scared, very vulnerable teenager:

‘Hazel is “seeking attention”, and has on more than one occasion, cut her wrists’. (Letter dated (05.12.1989). Could you imagine the audacity of a suicidal teenager trying to kill herself. Clearly, still plotting!

Perhaps even more disturbing, however is this gem:

Actually, it's called rape

I’m particularly disturbed by the use of the term ‘sexual intercourse’. Even in the 1980s, ‘sexual intercourse’ with a child was called rape. I would expect a professional, in a letter to other professionals, to use correct terminology. Maybe I expect too much.

I have reams of documents recovered from the HSE and St. Louise’s Unit, but I won’t bore you by reproducing them all here – I think you get the gist.

Of course, I am the first to admit that I am no spring chicken and these documents date from the late 1980s and early 1990s. BUT the system is still the same – actually, you could even argue that it’s a bit worse because ‘self-referrals’ like mine was, are no longer accepted by these units. Imelda Ryan was the director of this unit until a few years ago (2016 if my memory serves me correctly) when she retired. The culture that she inculcated is still very much alive and well in the Unit. In fact, this disdain for victims is evident in almost every single service that is meant to care for us.

The problem is the system, and the culture that supports it. It would not be easy to overhaul the system: There would be huge resistance, and we’d have to change the culture in which we live and operate. But that’s not really the Irish way, is it? We’ll continue, instead, to wring our hands with bone-crunching intensity and cry at the funerals of our friends. Friends whose deaths were entirely preventable if only we had competent people in positions of power. Or even people who cared.

16 Days Of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (Day 10)

Image result for controlling behaviour

Content warning: Coercive Control, Intimate Partner Abuse

It’s Day 10 of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence and I’m reminded of the SAFE Ireland Conference I attended last year: That conference brought home to me how the violence and abuse I endured when I was married had affected me more than I’d realised. It was listening to other women and their stories that finally brought home to me how much damage had been inflicted on me by my exes.

I’d been single since the second week of August, 2003 (two days after I found out I was expecting my second child). For the most part, I’ve been very happy to be single. I live a full life, enjoy my children, have wonderful friends and am always busy.  Every now and again, though, I think it might be quite nice to have someone who regularly accompanies me to events, who can hold a conversation, who is blessed with intelligence, and who might be a contender for romantic partner. When I get into one of these moods, I end up on one or other of the (frankly, horrendous) dating apps. I rarely stay very long, but the last time I peeked over that particular parapet, I was pleasantly surprised.

At this juncture, I want to tell you that I thought long and hard about publishing this post: I felt that, having been through what I’ve been through, and knowing what I know, I am the last person who would end up in yet another abusive relationship. My reluctance to share this was multifaceted:

I’m ashamed.

I’m ashamed that – given how much I research, speak, and write about, abuse – I didn’t see it until it was too late. I’m ashamed that I managed to ignore the signs – or that I didn’t see the signs in the first place. I’m ashamed that I acted in exactly the same way as so many other women in abusive situations do. Not because I think I’m in any way better than they are – either in the superior, or the recovered sense – but because I thought I’d learnt that lesson already. I thought I’d figured out how to stand up for myself in situations where there was even a whiff of nastiness. I was wrong.

As well as that, my pride is squirming slightly. I am writing in full knowledge that there are those who will read this and gloat. I know there are those who will read this and bloat with puffed-up delight that I have fallen foul of yet another man. There are those who will gleefully share this post and rejoice at the fact that I have been involved (again) with a man who has scant respect for me (or, come to think of it, women in general).

I’m also feeling a bit dim. I didn’t spot the coercive control that Saradhi subjected meto for what it was. I could kick myself. My marriages had been so dreadful – my life had been in danger on more than one occasion – that I thought anything less than the overt abuse (verbal, psychological, financial, physical, sexual and others) I’d been subjected to in those relationships wasn’t really abuse. I was wrong.

More than these, however, I am aware that every time I write, or speak, about my own experiences, I speak directly to other women who have experienced similar. I speak directly to women who felt their own shame; experienced their own bruised pride; questioned their own intelligence; blamed themselves for their own abuse. I reminded myself that every time I open up – other women open up to me. And that is why I do this – because abuse thrives on secrecy and abuse thrives on keeping the victim shamed, and abuse thrives on the silence of the abused. Knowledge is power, and the sharing of knowledge empowers those with whom it lands.

To give a very specific example of what I mean when I write ‘coercive control’:

Saradhi said he was very pleased that I was pursuing my PhD. He said he was very proud that I was working on such an important project. He said he was aware that I needed the time and space to work. He said that he understood it was the most valuable thing – apart from parenting my girls – that I was doing.

That’s what he said. 

I know enough, though, to know that what a man says is not nearly as important as what he does. What he did was interfere with my study time as much as he could – and he always presented his demands, expectations, and manipulations as perfectly reasonable, in some cases as downright loving, so it was hard to argue with him.

I am quite the night owl, and I enjoy reading and writing late at night. He, however, was not a night owl – especially not during the working week. That was fine with me – I was quite happy for him to go to bed before me.
‘But I can’t sleep without you,’ he would whine.
‘You slept perfectly well without me for nearly 40 years,’ I reasoned.
‘Yes, but now I know you’re there, so I don’t want to have to go to sleep without you. I’d miss you too much. I couldn’t sleep if you weren’t there.’

I thought about this, and decided I could manage a compromise – I’d go to bed at the same time as him, and just read in bed. But he was having none of that.
‘I can’t sleep if there’s any light in the room,’ he explained. ‘That’s why I have blackout curtains.’
‘Can you wear a sleepmask?’ I asked.
‘No. That wouldn’t work. They’re never dark enough.’
‘They are if you get a decent one. I’ll get you a proper one.’
‘No.’

Proffering my next solution, I agreed to go to bed at the same time as him, I agreed not to read while he was in bed, but said I’d get up early in the morning and get a few hours’ work done then. That, however, wasn’t acceptable to him, either.
‘I can’t sleep at all if you’re not there. If you get up, I won’t be able to sleep on.’
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to suggest that he didn’t necessarily deserve more sleep than I did.

When I was home and trying to work, he would constantly interrupt me – and then berate me if I displayed irritation. I explained that my research involves getting into a particular ‘zone’ and working there. I need to engage my brain in order to make sense of what I’m reading, to make connections across literatures, disciplines, my own research, and my own lived experience. Then, I need to figure out how to make sense of all of those resources, and write that down in a comprehensive manner. He had no understanding of this –
‘That’s just too far beyond what I’ve studied,’ he told me. ‘I’ve never done anything like that.’
As if, because he hadn’t done it, it wasn’t valid. I was less and less able to do what I needed to do with him around.

On a few occasions, I stated that I had a particular, specific piece of work to do and needed a specific period of time in which to get it done. After agreeing that I would have the time – uninterrupted – to do what I needed to do, he broke that agreement every single time. He was doing something to keep himself out of my hair – but would suddenly need my help. Even if I explained that I was busy, he would assert that what he was doing was for my benefit (or for our benefit), and I needed to muck in.
‘It’ll only take ten minutes,’ he said to me one time, when he knew I was up against a hard deadline.
Two and a half hours later, the job was finally finished, and I was released from my obligation.

So – I had to go to bed at the same as he, and I wasn’t allowed to read or write in bed. I wasn’t allowed to get up early. I wasn’t allowed to carve out time for myself at all if he was in the same physical space as I was. If we were in the same building, he demanded every drop of my time, my energy, and my attention. I literally couldn’t expect to go to the bathroom on my own. Expectations of such privacy were called out by him as indicative of my inability or unwillingness to ‘share myself’ and ‘to be intimate’. I shouldn’t, he told me, ‘be so shy as to want to hide anything from him’. (This was also why he used to seek out my old journals, correspondence, and even notes from my kids to read and pass judgement on – in spite of my repeatedly telling him that unless something was addressed to him, or given to him, he was not allowed to read it.)

To deny any part of myself that he wanted would, he told me, be ‘just selfish’. And we all know that women are trained – from birth – not to be selfish. We are trained to be selfless, giving, accommodating, generous, self-sacrificing. It is expected of us. I should have remembered that. I should have remembered that the first time I felt uncomfortable. But, here’s the thing, I couldn’t quite articulate why I felt uncomfortable. What I’ve realised since, however, is that that doesn’t matter. Why I felt uncomfortable was not nearly as important as the fact that I did. I didn’t need to qualify, or quantify, my levels of discomfort. As someone once said to me ‘If it feels wrong, it is wrong’.

While I didn’t remember it in my most recent relationship, I will remind myself that ‘I don’t feel comfortable’ is enough. ‘That makes me uncomfortable’ is enough. If someone wants more details it is enough to say ‘I’m not sure. All I know is I don’t like it.’ Anyone who presses for more, can just jog on.

I have been silenced and censored before and, falling prey to the strictures of the societies I have lived in, I have even silenced and censored myself.  On occasion when I knew I couldn’t explain, or articulate what I needed to say, I have said nothing – feeling that unless I could produce hundreds of words arguing my position, or unpacking my feelings, they weren’t valid, and didn’t deserve to have life breathed into them.

What I didn’t quite realise when I was living through it was that this jealous demand for every ounce of me, and this intrusion on my precious time was a form of coercive control. I had come across coercive control before, but it was in conjunction with other types of abuse – so I didn’t recognise it this time. I’ll recognise it for what it is the next time, though! (Even as I fervently hope that there isn’t a next time).

 

PSA: This Is What A Rapist Looks Like

CONTENT WARNING: CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE, RAPE, INCEST.

Cormac on Tinder Tweet

This is a tweet I sent nearly two years ago. I’d joined Tinder to see what all the fuss was about, to see if I could find someone to you date because I was fed up going to events on my own, or with a friend, or one of my own kids. Not that there’s anything wrong with my friends, or my kids; but sometimes, it’s nice to have a straight, male, companion. It can be fun to have a straight, interesting, intelligent man to share experiences with, to discuss cultural events with, to look forward to seeing – to flirt with.  Anyway, there I was swiping left more often than right, and up pops one of my brothers.

Now, of course anyone who wants to be on Tinder can be there – but I got a huge fright that night when my own brother was suggested as a potential match for me. Not least because he is one of the brothers who abused me for years when I was a child and a teenager.

Of course, we all have stories of coming across friends, friends’ spouses / partners, neighbours, colleagues etc. on Tinder. What additionally startled me about seeing my brother pop up, however, was the fact that he a) lives in France and b) claims to be happily married. Of course, he was clearly home to visit his mammy (if you look at the date, you can see it was just before Christmas), and of course, people can separate, divorce, or have open marriages. But knowing that this particular person is a rapist (he sexually abused, and raped me – orally, anally, digitally, and vaginally for years); abusive; manipulative, and has a number of personality disorders, I was concerned for the safety of any woman who might come across him and innocently agree to meet him.

Two years ago, I didn’t have the presence of mind to take screengrabs, but when he popped up on October 1st last, on another site, I did. They’re reproduced below:

Badoo #1 Badoo #2Badoo #4Badoo #3

The only good news here is that Cormac claims to live on his own – which means that his wife, Orna, has finally seen sense and left him. If that is the case, it really is a shame she didn’t do so ten years ago, when their children were still young, and she learnt of the abuse her husband had inflicted on me. It’s a shame she didn’t do that before she decided to stand with him during the days of his trial in the High Court. The only other possibility is that he’s lying and trying to cheat on her. Either way, their marital situations are of no interest to me – but protecting other women from a predator is.  Like all abusive men, he is attracted to ‘kind’ women; a phenomenon that Don Hennessy discusses in his book ‘How He Gets Into Her Head’.  It’s also interesting to see that he declares he’s ‘gentle by nature’ – I’m not entirely sure that any rapist can be ‘gentle’. I remember him using torn bits of black sacks as ‘contraceptives’ when I was a pre-teen and young teenager. There was nothing ‘gentle’ about that. I remember his fingernails tearing my vagina, and I can’t say it was ‘gentle’. I remember his penis tearing my anus, and there was certainly nothing ‘gentle’ about that, either.

Maybe we just have different definitions of the word.

In any event, consider this blog post nothing other than a public service announcement – women (and men) please avoid this abusive man at all costs. You’re worth more. You deserve better.

 

In Favour of Intolerance

Image result for intolerance

Fourteen-year-old Ana Kriegal was sexually assaulted and murdered on the 14th of May last year. Two boys, aged thirteen at the time, were found guilty of the crimes against her.

Since the verdict was reached last week, there have been many column inches devoted to the case. There has been mention of how this is an ‘unusual’ case, how it shows the ‘dark side’ of Ireland. Such statements, however, are unhelpful and untrue. This is Ireland. This is the Ireland I grew up, this is the Ireland I now live in. I have seen people wonder how we ‘get boys like this’, but the truth is we create them.

Lack of education around pornography and sexual relationships has been cited as part of the problem – and I don’t discount these claims. The problem is, however, that it’s too easy to point to the obvious and suggest that it provides the complete picture. It doesn’t.

Irish society creates and condones the behaviour of these boys, and boys like them. Because – don’t kid yourself – these boys are not an aberration. Their attitudes towards, and treatment of, women and girls, is not unusual in Irish society. And it’s their attitudes that fuelled their behaviour. Yes, murder is still unusual in Ireland. Thirteen-year-olds murdering people is also still an unusual phenomenon, but thirteen-year-olds sexually assaulting girls is not nearly as unusual as you might like to think.

If Ana had ‘just’ been sexually assaulted and not murdered, think how the media and the public would have reacted. Without a doubt, she would have been unmercifully victim-blamed, in exactly the same way as every other victim of rape and sexual assault over the age of ten is blamed for their own victimisation. At this point, I would like to respectfully suggest that we need a cultural sea change so that the disgust we feel at crimes of sexual violence is directed towards the perpetrators of sexual violence, rather than their victims.

The problem is not with individual children or even individual families – the problem is with the whole wider society. I know this will not be a particularly popular statement, but – as my friend and colleague, Dr Jessica Eaton says – ‘our systems won’t change by protecting ourselves from our own shortcomings’.  And we have shortcomings galore in this society.

Bullying is endemic in Irish culture. We have learnt that Ana Kriegal was bullied online, and in person. People – adults – were aware that she was being bullied, and they chose to do nothing. Before she started secondary school, her resource teacher told Ana’s parents that she was worried for the child’s welfare. Ana was suicidal before she left primary school. She was bullied by children a few years older than she before she even started secondary school.

Nothing effective was done to stop the bullying because we tolerate bullying in Ireland. It flourishes in Irish schools, in Irish companies, in Irish businesses, in Irish institutions. It is a top-down phenomenon, and it thrives because our systems support it: Look at how we treat whistle-blowers, and how we treat victims of bullying.

We neither teach nor model empathy, kindness, and compassion. Such traits are seen as weaknesses. Instead, we tell ourselves and each other that ‘Boys will be boys’, that victims need to ‘toughen up’, be ‘less sensitive’, and learn to ‘cope’.  They are told that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’, even though every person with a pulse knows that simply isn’t true.

The word ‘resilience’ is also bandied about – as if resilience is a good thing, instead of another stick with which to beat victims. In case you’re confused, the word ‘resilience’ suggests that whatever circumstances exist to cause a person’s upset are established; and it is, therefore, incumbent upon an individual to look after themselves. As if the display of symptoms is synonymous with weakness. As if ‘vulnerability’ and ‘weakness’ are interchangeable.

Yes, Boy A and Boy B caused Ana Kriegal’s death, but we caused them. We – as a society – taught them how to behave.  We – as a society – support bullying, victim-blaming, victim-shaming, rape-culture, and male entitlement.

Entitlement is an unhealthy personality trait that can lead to greed, aggression, a lack of forgiveness, hostility, and deceit.  Specific to sexual assault, the lack of empathy and feelings of entitlement may lead individuals to believe that they deserve sex when they want it, without considering the wants and needs of the other person. Research informs us that when entitled individuals do not get what they want, they become hostile or violent.

We live in a society where we attempt to induce outrage and empathy by saying things like ‘Imagine if she were your daughter / sister / niece / cousin / friend’: By so doing, we rob the victim of her personhood. By insinuating that we can only see the victim as worthwhile or empathetic if we can, somehow, re-imagine her as someone like someone we may know speaks volumes about our inability to view a person as worthwhile simply because they exist. That, alone, should be enough without additional qualifiers – real, or imagined.

We need to create a society that is intolerant of bullying, misogyny, victim-blaming, victim-shaming, male entitlement, and rape myths. We can only do that by modelling such intolerance.

 

 

Safety Device

SAfety Device

(Content Warning: References to Child Sexual Abuse, link to graphic piece on the effects of Child Sexual Abuse)

It’s been an interesting few weeks. As some of you may know, there is a Fear Nua* in my life and I’m enjoying all sorts of things that, for many people are ‘normal’ but for me are beyond any experiences I’ve had to date. It’s all good, though. It’s all good.

I’m not about to gush about him, because he is a far more private person than I am – and I respect that – but also because so much of what’s going on is private and personal to us and to the third entity that is our relationship.

I will, however, say this much: I’ve been learning an awful lot from him. One of the biggest lessons I’m learning is my own value, my own right to be, and my own right to be who I am. I’ve also been crying a lot more than usual, but they have been happy, and / or healing tears. Like last week, when I suddenly had a thought that had my eyes leaking; I’d resigned myself, years ago, to the thought that I would die without ever knowing the love of a good man, without ever knowing what it would it be like to be in a relationship with a man that wasn’t abusive. I really believed that I would die without being in a relationship where I was valued for who I am – or that I would ever be with a man who enjoyed being with me, rather than one who merely wanted to possess me, and crush me. Now, I know that’s not true. And, oh! The joy of that. The absolute fascination with being with someone who values my ideas, my opinions, my thoughts, my mere presence is something I know I can’t adequately explain.

A few days after we met, he mentioned, in the course of conversation, that he had been researching how to be with a woman who had trauma as a result of child sexual abuse. He wanted to know how best to react, how best to treat me, taking my history into account. Reader, you could have knocked me down with a feather. Never, ever, ever, has a man I’ve been with, or even a man I’ve been married to, shown the slightest bit of interest in finding out how they could make being in a relationship easier for me. I knew, then and there, that he was A Keeper.

Then, yesterday, he presented me with the bracelet you see pictured above. It’s a safety device, and I’ll explain why.  Having already read this piece, he was anxious to work with me to ameliorate the effects any way he could. We were making progress, but then he had an idea. He reminds me that I have chosen him. That I choose him, repeatedly, every day, every hour, every moment that we are together. That I could choose to walk away, but I am choosing to stay because I am choosing him. As he is, likewise, choosing me. He needs me to feel safe. To know that I am safe with him, everywhere, all the time, no matter what. He would prefer if I stayed present when we’re together, because he is no threat to me, and I need to know that, and be able to remember that, and remind myself of that any time I feel I need to.

This bracelet serves that purpose: by simply seeing it, I am reminded of him, reminded that I am always safe with him. Touching it has the same effect, and – if I move my wrist slightly – the tags you can see chime gently, providing an aural reminder.  As my friend Jane Mulcahy noted, tweeted to me ‘It’s v lovely & delicate, H. Like affection, intimacy & trust.’  I think she put it perfectly. This piece of jewellery has the added bonus of being beautiful. A bit like himself, really.


*In Irish,
Fear Nua (pronounced Farr Nooa) means ‘New Man’.

 

 

A Surge of Pain

Image result for woman in labour

 

I’ve written before about language, birth, and women survivors of child sexual abuse. I’ve mentioned how words matter, and certain words are very upsetting for those of us with a history of child sexual abuse.

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of sitting with a pregnant woman and her husband. As a survivor herself of child sexual abuse and multiple rapes in her teens (sadly, revictimisation is a phenomenon that is not uncommon), she’s doing all she can to prepare herself for her impending birth. Part of that preparation included having a chat with me. We spoke about language and how words matter in labour. She used the word ‘surges’ and I had a reaction to it that I didn’t quite understand. Until now.

‘Surges’ is a word that is used to describe uterine contractions in labour. It was popularised by Ina May Gaskin and adopted by many in the birth community in the past few decades. It is deemed more ‘positive’ than using ‘contractions’, and sold as a reframing of the pain of labour, and it’s never sat comfortably with me. Here’s why:

As abused women, we had our experiences – our lived, physical, experiences – ‘reframed’ by our abusers. They would touch us and say things like ‘That’s nice, isn’t it?’, ‘You like that, don’t you?’, ‘I would never hurt you,’ etc.  Their words were incongruent  with our experiences and that – in and of itself – is damaging and needs work to undo. Telling abused women that calling contractions by another name will make them a more positive experience isn’t helpful. For the vast majority of women, labour hurts. That’s the bald truth of it. The extent to which it hurts, and how we deal with the pain, is individual. Personally, viewing labour pain as ‘pain with a purpose’ helped me. It wasn’t like a migraine (migraines are more painful), where pain doesn’t produce anything except more pain for at least 24 hours.

I think that midwives and doulas working with women who have a history of abuse might want to discuss the merit of using ‘surges’ instead of ‘contractions’ with their clients. Then, the women themselves should use the word that suits them best;that they are most comfortable with.

Labour hurts, and it doesn’t do women who have experienced abuse any good to tell them otherwise. What is helpful is talking about how to get through the pain, how to be present for it, and how the best thing about labour is that it ends. And that it ends with a baby in your arms. The wonderful woman I met with earlier this week also made the point that there is a difference between ‘pain’ and ‘harm’. As abuse survivors, we associate pain in our bodies with (often long-term) harm, yet the pain of contractions is not harmful, and reminding ourselves of that can be hugely helpful in getting through it while still remaining present, grounded, and participative in our own labours.

Not Consent – Exhibition

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Today, the third of the sixteen days of activism to combat violence against women and girls, I’d like to draw your attention to an exhibition that is taking place from tomorrow (Wednesday, 28th) until Sunday (December 2nd).

Called ‘Not Consent’ – as a direct reference to the recent rape trial in Cork where a pair of knickers similar to those worn by the victim (not, as was reported, her actual underwear, because the Gardaí were unable to find them) were shown to the jury with the clear message that there is a certain type of clothing that intimates that a woman wants to have sex with anyone, anywhere.

Victims of sexual abuse are sick of the victim blaming, which is a huge part of the rape culture within which we operate in this country. We are fed up of being told that what we do (or don’t) wear contributes to our being assaulted. We reject, categorically, any and all such suggestion. To that end, Ruth Maxwell, Priscilla Grainger, Shaneda Daly, and myself, are organising an event to highlight that women and men are assaulted regardless of what they are wearing. Clothes don’t rape people. Rapists rape people.

Please, if you can, pop along to Street 66 from 6pm tomorrow. Further details of the event are here.

It Takes A Village (To Abuse A Child)

It takes a village

CONTENT WARNING: Child Sexual Abuse, Incest, Incompetent Agencies, Child Neglect

In much the same way as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child, as well. It takes adults in positions of trust and authority to turn a blind eye. It takes people who have concerns not to voice those concerns. It takes family members who have a feeling something is wrong to do nothing about those concerns. It takes professionals who know based on information they are presented with, and privilege to have, to do nothing with this information. It takes people who know the child is not lying to intimidate, and (attempt to) silence that child. Even when that child becomes an adult (as is the case for many adult survivors of child sexual abuse).

For me, my family was the first site of abuse: I was sexually abused by my father, Christy Talbot, and my two elder brothers, Nigel Talbot and Cormac Talbot.  Sexual abuse was a part of my life in the home from the time I was three until I was 19.  I was sexually assaulted (up to, and including oral, anal, digital, and vaginal rape), by one or other – sometimes more than one – of these males up to five days/nights a week when they were living under the same roof as I.

With apologies to Tolstoy, each dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way, but a  hallmark of all dysfunctional families is that it is static. A static family dynamic means that in order to ‘protect’ and preserve the family norms, each member must resume the role assigned to them when the family is together.  To people who were not raised in toxic, dangerously dysfunctional, abusive families, this may seem bizarre, but collusion is very important to the family members who so collude because it means:

  • They don’t have to confront their own part in the abuse – for example, my mother does not have to deal with the fact that she took, and continues to take, the side of the abusers (my father and brothers) over the side of the abused (me)
  • No confrontation of their own possible abuse – I was not the only one in the family who was sexually abused, although my abuse was the most severe. If they refuse to admit that I was abused, then my abused siblings don’t have to deal with the fact that they were, too. Their ideas of who they are remains unchallenged because they are not confronting all of their own realities and histories
  • They don’t need to seek help for their own psychological disorders / mental health difficulties. By continuing to deny that they were were abused, that they abused, and / or that they facilitated abuse means my siblings and extended family members do not have to work on their own healing. This is hard, ugly, work and not everyone is able to – or wants to – commit to it. 
  • Their childish view of people as binary – ‘good’ or ‘bad’ remains unconfronted – casting people as either heroes or villains, rather than looking at their complexities, allows my family to cast themselves as ‘heroes’ and me as a ‘villain’. They think that, because there are so many of them, and only one of me, they must be right, and I must be wrong. But – remember Galileo?!
  • Appearances are kept up – for narcissists (like my mother), this is hugely important. When all that matters is what other people think, cruelty to your own children is an acceptable trade-off to keep up appearances. Their health and well-being can easily be sacrificed on the altar of public opinion, if the opinion will view you favourably.

Collusion within the family was aided by collusion on the part of clergy, medics, social workers, and the psychiatrist I was sent to in St Louise’s Unit in Our Lady’s Hospital in Crumlin. As you can see from this document there were a whole slew of people having meetings about me – but none of them (save Imelda Ryan) ever actually met me. Highlights from this ‘Case Conference Report’ make the following observations: 

  • This is a very disturbed Family who need (sic) help – That help was never provided.
  • They are all under enormous strain, and playing very dangerous games – This is not elaborated on, and there is no indication what the ‘dangerous games’ were, or why the vulnerable children (of which I was one) were removed. 
  • The Gardaí will have to be involved – to try to maintain a control over the family – the Gardaí were never involved until I went to them as an adult. 
  • Joint interview to be arranged – Rosemary being present to obtain an objective sense of the situation – Rosemary was, apparently my social worker. I never met her. 

Mind you,  according to her LinkedIn profile, Rosemary is still in practice. Maybe I should contact her and ask her if she’s actually learnt how to do her job in the intervening years.

Imelda Ryan – who is so incompetent and ignorant with regard to the effects of child sexual abuse, and how it presents that she is a real danger to children – was appointed to TUSLA’s National Review Panel. (I’ll have more to say about her and it at a later stage.)

Given that child sexual abuse is endemic in Irish society, those of us who value children and want what’s best for them need to step up and speak out. Every child is the responsibility of every adult. Children are not (just) our future. They are our present – they are their own future. We, as adults, need to treat them as the precious beings they are and be the village they need to support them, to nourish them, to ensure that they are provided with what they need to thrive and reach their potential. Ignoring their pain, colluding to keep them in sites of abuse is a far cry from being that village. 

Uninvited Women

The Uninvited Women.png

Today – International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – marked the publication of the first edition of the Uninvited Women Journal. I was thrilled to have a piece in it, which is reproduced below. The other contributions were written by inspiring women from diverse backgrounds and cultures. I encourage you to follow the link above, and read their stories.

VICTIM BLAMING, SHAME, AND MALE ENTITLEMENT: HOW THEY CONTRIBUTE TO A RAPE CULTURE IN IRELAND.

Like any culture, rape culture is a collection of elements. Three of these elements are victim blaming, male entitlement, and shame. The latter foisted on the shoulders of the victim, not the perpetrator. Victim blaming occurs when individuals blame elements of the victim’s behaviour to hold the victim at least partially responsible for their own assaults. It is often maintained by strong religious ideology. Shame, as an emotion, is socially constructed, and intertwined with disgust: The origins of disgust can be traced back to when our cave sisters and brothers rejected toxic foods because they triggered a sense of disgust. As human beings became more sophisticated, we projected our sense of disgust at certain actions and behaviours onto the actors of those actions and behaviours – creating shame within them.

Shame, then, has become linked to the idea of ‘normality’ and ‘acceptability’. I believe we need a cultural sea of change so that the disgust we feel at crimes of sexual violence is directed towards the perpetrators, rather than their victims.

Male Entitlement. Entitlement is an unhealthy personality trait that can lead to greed, aggression, a lack of forgiveness, hostility, and deceit. This sense of entitlement may lead individuals to believe that they deserve sex when they want it, without considering the wants and needs of the other person. When entitled individuals do not receive what they want, they may become hostile or violent: Higher rates of self-reported sexual aggression have been found among college males who also reported a higher sense of entitlement.

THE IRISH CONTEXT

I have three words that explain – to a large extent – how victim blaming, shame, and male entitlement manifest in an Irish context. Those three words are Roman, Catholic, and Church. The rise in religiosity in Ireland can be traced back to what the colonising English called ‘The Famine’, and the Irish refer to as An Gorta Mór 1 , when English parliamentary commissions indicated that the ‘civilising of Irish society depended on giving more power to the Catholic Church’.

1 ‘THE GREAT HUNGER’

The population of Ireland was thirded by starvation and emigration as a result of An Gorta Mór. Those who remained developed strategies to ward off similar catastrophes. These included religion, education, and culture, which the Roman Catholic Church took ownership of. I think it’s safe to say that there is a strong religious ideology in Ireland. Regular mass attendance is down, but people still do their hatching, matching, and dispatching in churches; and most children are still forced through three sacraments before they start secondary school.

Shame itself is constructed in Irish society with reference to Roman Catholicism. But there’s also a peculiar Irish complexion to shame that doesn’t cast equally on men and women. Women’s bodies are policed, their actions, educations, and possibilities, are mediated by peculiarly Irish social norms. Catholic notions of sexual morality proved to be especially oppressive for Irish women, who were told their bodies were shameful – but, apart from that, they were not discussed. It was not uncommon in 1950s Ireland for women to marry without basic reproductive knowledge.

Male entitlement in Irish culture is underpinned by our patriarchal, hierarchical, paternalistic norms, which favour men. Economics, social policy, and law, all reflect, and are reinforced by, dominant ideologies, constructed by men. The structures they underpin are patriarchal. Sometimes, these structures have with a paternal gloss to intimate a protection of women and children, but which undermines, and limits, women’s agency. Women are only considered in their proximity to, and relationships with, men; and our differences are seen as aberrations from a male norm.

 

Silence is Fools’ Gold

fools-gold

I’m still thinking about the Safe World Summit that I attended last week. More than thinking, I’m processing. The two days were definitely more than the sum of their parts.

After my last post a number of people contacted me to ask why I hadn’t told Nigel’s wife and Cormac’s wife that they were married to rapists. The truth is, that I did. The truth is, that they know. The truth is, that they don’t care. The truth is, that (cliché of clichés!) my brothers married their mother: They married women who would be compliant, who would put their husbands ahead of all others including their own children. They married women who would be more concerned about what the neighbours would say than with providing protection to their children. They married women who would keep their secrets.

Back in 2010, I told Cormac’s wife, Orna, that Nigel had sexually abused me. I was building up to full disclosure, telling her about her brother-in-law before telling her about her husband (whose abuse was more sadistic, and went on for longer). She had no difficulty in believing me. She even went as far as to say that it ‘made sense’. When, however, she found out that Cormac – her own husband – had also raped me for years, and that I was suing both of them, she sided with the abusers, instead of the abused.

The truth is, that while they have no difficulty with the fact that they have married misogynistic rapists, they have a difficulty with the rest of the world knowing. As long as the information was kept within the family – as long as I observed that peculiar Irish form of omerta – they were happy enough. When I started to speak out publicly, however, when I started legal civil proceedings against the brothers who had raped me, their tune changed. Bear in mind, that Anita and Orna had not spoken to each other since December of 2004.  Yet, when I started talking more and more publicly, about the abuse I had suffered at their husbands’ hands, these women rekindled their relationship and united to fight the truth.

 

Think about that for a second: Two women, married to two men, each of whom has had two children for these men, bonded over the fact that their husbands had raped the same child.  Two women who would rather live with two men who have no remorse for their abusive behaviour, than leave them. You’d have to ask yourself why.  Both men are wealthy. Both women signed pre-nuptial agreements. I don’t think that’s the only reason, though, I think there’s more to it than that.

 

I’ve written this post on foot of a challenge issued by Insia Dariwala at the Safe World Summit last week. She told us that each of us – by being silent – is complicit in the continued sexual abuse of children. This statement made me very uneasy. What was I doing to maintain the silence? What was I doing to contribute to allowing other children to be abused in the ways I had been abused? Insia Dariwala’s challenge, then, was to break our silence.

 

I have risen to that challenge. I will continue to do so.

Safe World?

***CONTENT WARNING: GRAPHIC ACCOUNT OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE; RAPE; SPOUSAL ABUSE.***

 

I am in the Mansion House in Dublin, on the second day of the Safe World Summit, organised by Safe Ireland.  I’m not going to lie, there have been moments that have been difficult to bear witness to. There have been moments where I have inhaled sharply, but – for the most part – there have been moments that have inspired and motivated me.

 

After years of speaking out, years of listening to other survivors, and holding the space for them, I am still struck by the similarities between my experiences, and theirs. To be honest, I identify more as a victim/survivor/victor with regard to sexual abuse, than I do with domestic violence. I am aware that the domestic violence I suffered at the hands of my ex-husbands was enabled – in part – by the the abuse I suffered at the hands of my father, and my two elder brothers – Christy, Nigel, and Cormac Talbot.

 

I suppose it’s no surprise that the night before last, sleep was evasive. I suppose it’s no surprise that that entire day, I’d had flashback after flashback after flashback. The intrusive memories crowded into my brain. I spent the day – and most of the evening – with my mind and my body re-experiencing the abuse perpetrated on my body by Nigel an Cormac Talbot – my two elder brothers.

 

I felt, again, Nigel slobbering over my teenaged breasts. My body felt his breath, his grasping hands, his copious saliva running over my bare, exposed, goosepimpled flesh. Later, my body and mind would remind me of other occasions when my brothers sexually assaulted, and raped me. I felt these experiences as if they were happening again, in that moment – in those moments. I remind myself of stories where amputees detail having pain in the missing limb.

 

I re-experienced being eight or nine years old, and lying in bed, reading my book (I was always reading, as a child – I loved it more than anything else I did) and Nigel came in, pulled up my nightdress, and down my knickers. I was so used to my brothers entering my room – entering me – that I didn’t even put my book down. I disengaged so much, disassociated completely. I was reading my book, I was in my book. I was in my book more than I was in my body. I remember turning a page at one point, and glancing down to see him nipping his lower lip, a look of concentration on his face,  while using his fingers to spread my labia before thrusting his fingers inside me.

 

Clashing with this memory was another; of my other brother, Cormac Talbot. As one memory left my body, the other replaced it. This was a memory of Cormac, with his bony fingers inside me, nothing gentle about his touch, his ragged fingernails scraping my tender, internal, flesh. Repeatedly, hour after hour, my body and mind were re-traumatised by these memories and others: Memories of Cormac using a torn piece of a black rubbish sack as a crude type of condom, while he decided to rape me. Memories of Cormac, anally raping me as form of ‘contraception’. My sphincter muscles tightened, repeatedly, involuntarily, as my body remembered the pressure on my anus as his erect penis breached it. For a full waking day, these memories possessed me – and I use that word very particularly to evoke the image of being possessed by evil. Because I was.

 

For my entire childhood, I was so dis-empowered by my family, and the patriarchal culture in which that family operate(s) that I was trained to expect nothing else. I was told I deserved nothing better. Most recently, I was told I deserved nothing better by my ‘mother’ Phil (Johnson) Talbot.  I last spoke to her in November of 2016 and I recently referred to the record of that conversation to be sure that my memory of it was not flawed (reader, it was not).

 

During that conversation (which I will describe in greater detail in another post), she eventually said – her voice dripping with the cloying martyr tone she has perfected over 70 years –

‘Well, if it’s an apology ye’re lookin’ fer, I’m sorry – okay?’

I wasn’t going to get her off that easily.

‘What are you sorry for?’ I asked.

‘I’m sorry I wasn’t a perfect mother,’ her retort was spat in anger at my audacity to challenge her so calmly.

I made no response. She continued in the same tone.

‘And I’m sorry you didn’t have the childhood you think you deserved.’

Think about that for a second. Think about my ‘mother’ unable to contain her anger that I would dare think I was entitled not to be raped by her husband, and her precious sons during my childhood. More worryingly, however, was her refusal to tell their wives the truth. ‘It’s not my place,’ she repeated four or five times when I challenged her on aiding and abetting her rapist sons to abuse her grandchildren with impunity.

 

She disgusts me – they all do – but I recognise that they are part of the patriarchy. They are products of the patriarchy. They are complicit elements of the patriarchy. I also recognise, however, that I am the biggest the threat to them and, in a way, to the patriarchy itself. Because I am a fearless truth-teller. And I will not stop.

I will not be stopped.

#Stand4Truth

Truth

Today, I will be in the Garden of Remembrance, at a rally organised by Colm O’Gorman (Executive Director of Amnesty International, survivor of clerical abuse and rape, and the boy who sued the pope). We’ll be standing with thousands of other people in solidarity with those who were abused – physically, sexually, and emotionally – by the Roman Catholic Church.

This week’s visit by the pope has been hugely painful for many thousands of people on this island. People are finding themselves hurt, upset, and triggered all over again. Even as someone who was never sexually abused by a member of the Roman Catholic Church – although members of the church concealed that they knew my two elder brothers (Nigel Talbot and Cormac Talbot) were sexually abusing me – I have found details of the continued abuse of people by the Roman Catholic Church upsetting. I have heard from many survivors of clerical abuse how difficult and traumatic these weeks have been for them. I want them to know that I bear witness to their pain, I acknowledge it, I believe them.

I am going to the Garden of Remembrance today because it’s important to honour the truth of those who have suffered. It is important to honour the pain of those who have suffered – and to recognise the origins of that pain; the Roman Catholic Church and the Irish society that stood by in silence and allowed the rape and abuse of young children to take place.

I am going to the Garden of Remembrance today to honour the memories of those who can’t make it: Those who were murdered by the Roman Catholic Church; those who were sold by the Roman Catholic Church; those who had their bones broken by the Roman Catholic Church; those who had their spirits broken by the Roman Catholic Church; those for whom being there would be too emotionally difficult; those who died by suicide,  who are in addiction, who are homeless, who are in psychiatric units on account of the trauma visited on them by the Roman Catholic Church.

 

I am going to the Garden of Remembrance today because it’s the least I can do.

Breastfeeding After CSA

Breastfeeding Awareness Month 2018

The first week of August was World Breastfeeding Awareness Month, but in the US, the United States Breastfeeding Committee has declared the whole month of August Breastfeeding Awareness Month. In honour of that (not in the least because I didn’t blog about the issue during the first seven days of August!), I wanted to share a few thoughts on breastfeeding after child sexual abuse (CSA).

While so many of us want to breastfeed, and spend our pregnancies imagining doing just that – and, indeed, preparing for it, it’s not always that easy. Aside, altogether, from the issues and difficulties that many women without a history of CSA encounter, there are additional difficulties that may manifest if the new mum such a history.  I’ve enumerated a few of them here:

  • If our breasts were a focal point of our abuse, we may be reluctant to offer, or share them, with anyone else – even our own babies. The physical contact may be just too much.
  • Dissociation is something I’ve discussed on this blog before – it’s often a huge part of our experiences when we are being abused. Dissociation, sadly, can also be part of our experiences when we’re breastfeeding – which can effect the mother-child bonding that is a much-mentioned positive element of breastfeeding. This, in turn, can lead to further shame and guilt around our bodies.
  • There are three kinds of touch that can be difficult for a woman with a history of CSA: self-touch, touch of another, and medical touch. Breastfeeding is, often, comprised of all three: The touch of the mother’s own hand on her breast – before, during, and after, a feed; the touch of the baby on the mother’s breasts; the manipulation of the mother’s breasts in order to assist with a latch etc.
  • Bodily fluids – even her own breastmilk – may be disgusting to the new mother who associates such fluids with abuse.
  • The shame that CSA visits on a woman, on her body, on her sense of self, can be mirrored in the shame that attaches to ‘bodies on display’ in many parts of the world. Then, there is the fact that  many societies visit shame on women who breastfeed in public, so this adds to the difficulty.
  • The mouth of her child on her breast can be triggering for the new mother with a history of CSA. It may remind her too much of her abuser/s slobbering all over her breasts.
  • If her birth didn’t go how she planned, the new mother may well have the old tape of ‘I can’t do anything right’ playing in her head. This may mean that she is convinced she can’t breastfeed her baby, either – so she may not even try.
  • If breastfeeding is difficult – or impossible – for the survivor of CSA, it can add to her feelings of guilt, and of the fact that her body is ‘failing’ her.

It’s not all bad, though. For many women with a history of CSA, managing to breastfeed successfully can be an hugely healing experience for women. It is a(nother) example of her body ‘behaving’ properly; of her body doing what it’s supposed to do.

If you are supporting a new mother who has a history of CSA, there are things you can do to help:

  • Reassure her that her choices are valid.
  • Reassure her that she is not being judged.
  • Reassure her that there are myriad other ways to love her baby.
  • If she really wants to breastfeed, discuss using a pump and expressing milk for her baby to exclusively feed breastmilk to her child.
  • Help her to see her milk as a ‘good’ / ‘useful’ fluid.
  • Remind her that she birthed beautifully, and that she can breastfeed beautifully, too – with help and support.
  • Encourage her to attend La Leche League, or Cuidiú meetings while she’s still pregnant.

The transition to motherhood is a monumental one for every woman, but it can be harder for those of us with a history of CSA. Ditto breastfeeding. Being sensitive to the possibilities can make the experience so much easier, and empowering, for these women.

Birth Trauma Awareness Week

Traumatised Woman Eyes - Edited

Content Warning: Sexual Assault / Sexual Abuse / Incest

This week is Birth Trauma Awareness week.

For many women, the birth itself is traumatic because of how they are treated during labour and birth. For women who have been sexually abused as children, however, labour and birth can compound the trauma they have suffered.

While she was growing up, Orla’s* father ‘played’ with her by playing ‘tickling’ with her. He would chase her, catch her, and then hold her down tickle her, kiss her, and – as she hit puberty –  touch her breasts, buttocks, and genitals.

Like many people who are abused over a period of time, Orla started to recognise the ‘cues’ from her father that an abusive incident was coming. She would try, desperately, to get away from him, but she was never successful. Orla felt helpless, but still, when he tickled her, she laughed. This would result in him calling her ‘a little flirt’ and saying things like ‘you’re just pretending you don’t want me to do it.’

Orla couldn’t get away from her dad because he was too strong. Her laughter would give away to tears, and then to crying, and eventually to screaming. Finally, he would stop.

When Orla grew up, she did not look back on her father’s actions as abusive, because it was labelled as ‘play’, and she remembers laughing at the time.

Years afterwards, however, when she was in labour with her first child, she was hooked up to a foetal monitor, had a canula inserted, and a blood pressure cuff. She had a panic attack on account of the restrictions on her movements. Her reaction seemed disproportionate until later, when Orla connected the events during childbirth with being restrained while her father abused her.

Like Orla, many women are surprised by the degree of their distress over routine aspects of maternity care. For abuse survivors, distressing or traumatic events can bring up the same feelings of helplessness and fear that they felt with the original abuse. It can be difficult to understand, however, why seemingly innocuous or helpful interventions can also bring up feelings of helplessness and fear. If the trauma of the original abuse was never correctly addressed, they are at risk for re-traumatisation, and may end up  suffering from chronic post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).

Much of this distress can be alleviated for pregnant women survivors of CSA if, before labour, they have an opportunity to explore some of the features (events, procedures, and care policies) of childbirth that might bear similarities to their abuse, and to plan strategies for avoiding, or coping with, them.

Women often dread the prospect of deeply exploring the origins of abuse-related symptoms. Once they do take that step, with the support of understanding health-care practitioners / birthworkers, they usually feel relieved and unburdened of guilt and responsibility. Our capacity for healing is enormous, through it requires hard work perseverance, and courage. Finding the time, and the energy, for that is hard at any stage – harder again when you’re pregnant. A birthworker who brings compassion, and understanding of the trauma of CSA will make the biggest of differences to her client.

 

*Not her real name

Unsolicited Pictures – A Follow-Up

Last week, I wrote about unsolicited dick pics, and what it feels like to be on the receiving end of them. To be clear, I have absolutely no judgement around solicited penis pictures. If sending nudies is part of the sex-play between two consenting adults, I hope it works well for them.

 

The unsolicited pictures, and the sending of them, however, started a conversation on Twitter, and a number of women asked me why men sent these pictures. Well, as a woman, I have no idea. So I decided to ask the men who send them. Now, this is in no way a rigorous piece of scientific research. It’s a Twitter poll. There were 74 responses, and one of them was from a woman who clicked by accident and bumped up option two by one number. There may have been more people who clicked accidentally, but I have no way of knowing. All I can tell you is that, from the first few responses, the results were fairly consistent.

 

So, here’s what I got:

Twitter Dick Pic Poll

As you can see, 8% of respondents said they send these pictures because they think their penises are gorgeous, with 14% wanting the person on the receiving end to express admiration for the penis they are presented with. I must admit, that I thought the percentage of those in the first category would be higher. In my experience, men think their reproductive organs are beautiful (most women don’t – penises are only thought of aesthetically pleasing by women when they have an emotional attachment to the man on the end of it). Again, I’m surprised that so few men admitted to sending unsolicited penis pictures because they want their members to be admired.

 

The final two responses are the ones that worry me most. Sixteen percent of respondents admit to sending unsolicited pictures to shock the person who would receive it. There is something disturbing about a man wanting to shock a woman with a picture of his genitals. It’s an expression of a desire to exert power over the receiver, which is distasteful, to say the least.

 

Finally, the majority of men – 62% of them – who responded admitted sending unsolicited dick pics in the hope that the woman who receives them will send back a photograph of her genitals. I feel duty-bound to let these men know that that’s not how it works. Women are likely to be disturbed and upset if men send unsolicited pictures of their genitals, and really not inclined to reciprocate.

 

If you want to send pictures of your willies, guys, please afford the intended recipient the courtesy of ensuring that it will be a welcome photograph – and don’t expect one in return. Instead, wait until one is offered.

Consent And Unsolicited Pictures

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Consent is, thankfully, back in the news these days.  Sober Paddy wrote a great piece on how not to be a rapist. That post focuses on how important consent is when seeking to have sexual contact with someone else.

The Minister for Education and Skills has issued a statement committing to bringing the issue of consent into the new sex ed curricula. Until the proposed curricula have been published, it is impossible to comment on their content – obviously! – but I would hope that ‘consent’ would cover everything from hugging right up to, and including, penetrative sex.

Schools are not the only place where people can, and should, receive education, information, and training, however. Sports clubs, professional bodies and organisations, have a duty of care to ensure that their members are aware of what consent is, how to obtain it, and how to respond when consent is refused / revoked. I would argue that workplaces would also do well to consider educating their employees on issues of consent. After all, mental health and other elements of self-care are being introduced by employers across the country, so why not consent workshops, too?

Seeking, and obtaining, consent is an element of challenging the entitlement with which most men in our society are raised. Even men who identify as ‘one of the good guys’ (who doesn’t?!); and think they are kind, considerate, and emotionally intelligent can – due to their own sense of entitlement – over-step boundaries, causing upset and distress.

As the person on the receiving end of such behaviour recently, I’m going to tell you a little story about consent and unsolicited dick pics.

It’s no secret that I’ve dabbled in the world of online dating – with mixed results. There have been a few first dates, fewer second dates, and a scant handful of third (or subsequent) dates, but for the most part, it’s been fun.

About a fortnight ago I connected with a man who seemed like A Decent Bloke. I enjoyed chatting with him; he ticked a lot of boxes, and I was looking forward to meeting him. From our first conversation, I had flagged my dislike of dick pics – photographs of men’s penises sent to my phone, and / or email – and he had assured me that he wouldn’t send any.

It got to the stage where the (non) sending of dick pics was a source of mirth. In nearly every conversation we had, the fact that I didn’t like them, and he, therefore, wouldn’t send them was mentioned. I was clear, not just about my aversion to dick pics, but also about why I really didn’t want them sent to me. He understood. ‘I’m one of the good guys,’ he assured me. Hmmmmm.

Last week, we were chatting away, and it was all a bit flirty and harmless and comfortable. Then, he whips out his penis, snaps a pic, and sends it to me on Whatsapp.

I was more upset than I thought I’d be: I’m in my mid-forties, I’ve seen penises before; and I’ve been violated in worse ways (and by family members, too), but upset I was. I immediately shut down the conversation on Whatsapp, and sent a ‘regular’ text message. This is the exchange that followed:

Screenshot Adrian Edited

I didn’t reply. I have no desire to communicate with someone who thinks this is an adequate response. Look at what he says:

‘I got carried away’ – in other words ‘It wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t control myself.’

How many times have women heard this as a way for men to shift the blame for their actions away from them to …well, who or what, exactly? The woman? Their penis as a third party and separate entity? I’m not sure, but if you have any thoughts, please enlighten me.

In his final missive, he says:

‘I really thought we had reached a point where you would be ok with that.’

He thought I’d be okay with him sending me an unsolicited dick pic even though I’d told him I really didn’t want one. He thought that; so it must be right, right? He thought that; so there was no need to check with me, right? He thought that; so there was no need to seek consent, right? And he could have, so easily….if he was sitting there, all horny and dying to show me what that looked like (!), couldn’t he just have asked? How difficult would it have been for him to say something like:

‘I know you don’t want unsolicited dick pics – but to you fancy soliciting one? 😊’ or

‘I’m horny as fuck – wanna see?!’ or

‘I think I have the most amazing mickey in the world, and I want you to agree.’

Whatever! Anything other than this clear display of white, male, middle-class, entitlement. I’m sick of it.

Sending an unsolicited picture of your genitals to another person is an act of aggression. Sent as a message (rather than an attachment), means that it confronts the person when they open the relevant application. It’s violating. It’s upsetting. Particularly when the person on the receiving end has been clear and explicit about why they do not wish to receive such a photograph (and, should I really have to disclose details of my abuse in order to hope that I’ll be spared an unsolicited dick pic? Or tell men that my children have access to my phone, so I don’t want their penises all over it?!)

Exposing children to pornographic images is classed as sexual abuse. Exposing adults to pornographic images should, at the very least, require consent.

Dear Decent Men

Content Warning: Rape

Rapists

 

Dear Decent Men

Here is what we need from you right now. (When I say ‘we’, I mean ‘me’ and the abused women I’ve spoken to recently.) We need you to listen to us. We need you to listen to our hurt, and our rage, and our pain. We need you to understand that, actually, this is personal. It is a personal message to every woman who has ever, or will ever, be raped or sexually assaulted – and Lord knows there’s enough of us – that we will be abused and traumatised again by the legal system if we dare to open our mouths and report the assault/s. That more worth and weight is attached to the lies of rapists than to the truths of rape victims.

 

Dear Decent Men, we need you to call out men (and women) of your acquaintance who say things like ‘I knew they were innocent’ –  remind them that, in law, ‘not guilty’ is not the same as ‘innocent’. We need you to remind people who say that ‘Justice was done’ that there is a difference between ‘justice’ and ‘law’. We need you to remind others that laws were written for privileged men, by privileged men, to privilege privileged men.

 

We need you to remind those who need reminding that just because a judge is female, that doesn’t necessarily mean she is sympathetic to other women; that the legal system is a patriarchal institution, and those who are successful within it must play that game in order to be awarded success.

 

We need you to talk about how a jury of the accused’s peers is likely to be sympathetic to him by the very virtue of the fact that they are his peers – and not the peers of his victim. We need you to talk about how the members of the legal profession – on both sides – will have more in common with white, privileged males than with a rape victim.

 

We need you to let people know that you do not appreciate derogatory comments about women, and you do not want women referred to as ‘whores’, ‘bitches’, ‘sluts’, or ‘cunts’ in your hearing.  We need you to state, simply, and calmly, that rape ‘jokes’ are not funny.

 

Dear Decent Men, we need you to make it clear that you think women deserve respect at all times; that you believe women – all women, all the time – are the only people who have a ‘right’ to their bodies: Everyone else has to ask, and that if they don’t get an enthusiastic, ongoing, non-coerced, freely-given ‘YES!’ then that’s a ‘NO!’ And ‘no’ is a complete sentence – not an invitation to do what you want anyway.

We need you to let other men know that when our vaginas hurt and are bleeding, and the pain is excruciating, that we may negotiate. We know that until a rapist climaxes, he won’t leave us alone. We know that a drunk rapist will take longer to climax than a sober one; so we offer an alternative – a hand-job or a blow-job – to make the burning, stinging, stretching, tearing pain in our vaginas, at our cervixes, at the very core of us, stop. That is not ‘offering’ to perform oral sex – it is the same thing as offering to swap one hostage for another. It is not an enthusiastic suggestion of consensual sexual activity.

Dear Decent Men, We need you to hold the space for us as we express our rage, and  our fear, and our horror, and our feelings of being belittled and diminished by a system – a society – that does not value us. We need you to hold the space for us while we process our thoughts and feelings. We don’t need you to tell us things that you hope will make us feel better; that you hope will shut us up.

We need you to bear witness to our pain and suffering. We need you to acknowledge it. We need you to pledge to work with us to change a system that is so broken it is absolutely not fit for purpose. We need you to express, at every opportunity, that women deserve respect, not because we are / could be ‘someone’s sister / aunt / mother / wife / cousin / neighbour / girlfriend’ but because we are human. 

 

Dear Decent Men, we need you.

CSA Disclosures In Pregnancy: Why Women Don’t Tell

Zipped Mouth

With more than 25% of women reporting that they have been sexually assaulted, every midwife and birthworker will encounter a survivor of child sexual abuse (CSA) several times in her / his career.

Not everyone who has been abused will disclose to their midwife. Given that, I advise midwives, and other HCPs to treat all women as survivors until, and unless, they are told otherwise.  There are a number of reasons why a woman might be fearful of disclosing to her midwife: Depending on where she is in her recovery, the woman may feel guilty about the  abuse – victim-blaming is so common in society that it’s not unusual for a woman to feel this way. Often, we feel that we need to protect people from our reality, and don’t want to upset or shock our lovely midwives. There is also the additional concern that we will be labelled as ‘difficult’ or ‘needy’ or ‘defective’.

A survivor can also feel that her trauma will be minimised, misunderstood, or ignored. She may also worry that she will be told it ‘makes no difference’ or ‘it’s not relevant’. This is particularly likely if she has had these reactions on previous occasions when she has disclosed.

 

Pregnant women may also worry that their history of child sexual abuse will be recorded on their charts, viewed by many other people and discussed without her knowledge or permission. These days, with a mandatory reporting obligation on caregivers, women may be concerned that their abuse will be ‘broadcast’ and that they will be called upon to revisit it with other agencies. The stress of this may be something they don’t want to think about – especially not while they are pregnant.

Sometimes, a pregnancy might feel like the first time that a woman’s body has done something ‘right’ or ‘normal’, and the woman may be striving really hard to be treated as ‘normal’ throughout her pregnancy. There is always a possibility, too, that the woman may not have disclosed to her partner that she has a history of CSA. She may also be afraid of bringing up the emotional pain and stress of her abuse by mentioning it to her midwife.

 

Women may already have experienced reactions that left a lot to be desired with regard to the amount of empathy they were met with. Whether or not her midwife will be empathetic or knowledgeable is hard to tell on first meeting her. It can feel like a huge emotional risk for a pregnant woman to disclose her history of child sexual abuse to a stranger, even if that stranger is a medical professional. If a woman doesn’t get a sense that her information would be treated sensitively, indeed, that she wouldn’t be treated sensitively upon disclosure, she may feel safer keeping that information to herself.

 

(If you are a midwife or birthworker interested in learning more about how to support women who have been sexually abused, check out the details of this course, which will be available in May:  http://bit.ly/2E9Be9p).

 

Forgiveness (Part 2)

forgiveness-332x263

Last month, I wrote the first part of this ‘series’ in Forgiveness. If you’re interested, you can read that entry here.

I wrote about what I think forgiveness isn’t. I ended the piece talking about peace – and how those of use who have been hurt (and are generally called upon to forgive) need, and deserve peace.

Here’s what I have learnt about forgiveness in recent months, though – bearing in mind that I have researched this from an academic point of view, as well as engaging with people who work in law enforcement, and others who are dedicated to reform, here and abroad.

My ‘aha’ moment around forgiveness, though, came when I was talking to a financial coach, Karen McAllister.  Funny how the answers you’re looking for don’t necessarily come from the source you might expect them to. Anyway, talking to Karen about forgiveness, I realised that my version of forgiveness was not about exonerating the transgressor, but about reclaiming the power that I was settling on them. 

Let me unpack that, and explain what I mean. At this juncture, I’m going to go backwards for a little bit, and look at the etymology of the word ‘forgive’. To forgive means to grant a pardon, and a pardon is to ‘pass over an offence without punishment’. ‘Pardon’ has its roots in two Latin words: ‘Per’ (which means ‘forward’ or ‘hence’) and ‘Donare’ (which means ‘give as a gift’).  To forgive, then, is ‘the granting of the gift of, henceforth, not punishing an offence’. Forgiving, then, in the traditional sense, the way I wrote about it last month, essentially gives the forgiven a free pass, while not doing an awful lot for the forgivee.  To me, that reinforces something else I mentioned last month; that the only person we need to forgive, in that sense, is ourselves.

To come back, now,  to the idea of forgiveness as a reclamation of power, I think that is the manifestation of forgiveness of the self.  The person who has damaged you, who has trespassed against you, is not given a free pass, but you reclaim the  power that they have stolen from you.

Perhaps the easiest way to do that is to use a real-life example. My eldest brother, Nigel Talbot, sexually abused me for most of my childhood. He is not remorseful, and though he has said ‘sorry’ in person, he has continued to abuse me in other ways, and he has also continued to abuse other women – sexually, emotionally, and financially.  My forgiveness took the form of a letter to him. Initially, I was going to send it to him, but – thinking about it – I realised that, to do so, would still be giving him power. I would still be expressing a desire for him to do something / to be something that he could choose not to be. What I need to do, for myself, is to call back that energy that he holds while I don’t forgive. The forgiveness is about me, not about him.

In any event, I know that if I did send a letter to him, his wife would keep it from him.

If you would like to read that letter, you can do so here.

This was the first of many such letters I’m writing, and with the penning of every one, I am feeling stronger, and more self-reclaimed. It’s definitely something I’d recommend, and if you do it, too, I’d love to know if it works for you.

 

 

                                                                                                           

 

 

 


 

 

Smear Campaign

Pearls of wisdom

CW: Child Sexual Abuse, Pregnancy Loss

 

This year, European Cervical Cancer Awareness Week falls from January 28th. As a result, the past few days have seen my Twitter feed full of reminders that smear tests save lives; that cervical cancer is an awful way to go; that it is preventable; that a few minutes’ of (unnecessary) embarrassment and (minimal) discomfort are worth it if they save your life; that you really don’t want to be one of the 70 women in Ireland who dies as a result of cervical cancer this year.

I chose to believe this piece of research that instructed me that there is a statistically significant number of false positive results. I decided to nod in agreement with pieces like this from The Guardian. Never mind that it’s nearly 15 years old. I liked what I read.  I also had a look at the academic journals and read the ones that would confirm my existing bias. As a full-time researcher in the social sciences, I know better; but I decided to suspend my natural and professional critical interrogative proclivities in order to tell myself I was making an informed decision. Hey! I wasn’t going to be publishing my findings, and I wasn’t going to be harming anyone (except, maybe, myself) if I was wrong.  I also had a quick look at this website and decided I didn’t tick enough boxes to be anything other than ‘low risk’.

 

So, for the 16th year running, I won’t be having a smear test. Head-in-the-sand? Definitely. I wouldn’t normally be so reckless about screening (I had my first mammogram at 27 – before I’d even had kids), but a smear test is a slightly different screening exam to most, and the reason for my aversion is – sorry to say – rooted in my experiences of child sexual abuse, and subsequent sexual assaults as an adult. I want to feel empowered as much as, and as often as, possible. Smear tests aren’t really empowering.

 

All of that said, however, I think there might be a solution. I am not the only woman in Ireland with a history of sexual assault. There are thousands of us in the ‘smear test age bracket’ who have been sexually abused, and I think it might be a good idea if we were facilitated with a bit of compassion / understanding.

 

I’m reminded, very much, of the last time a health professional went faffing around at my nether regions. It was four years ago last week, and I was losing a pregnancy. This had not been an easy pregnancy to achieve, and I’d used donor sperm for a variety of reasons (that’s a whole ‘nother blog post). Anyway.

 

Losing this baby* was devastating. Not least because I didn’t have a partner to hug me and tell me it would all be all right, but because accessing healthcare was difficult for me. I decided to do what I could to take ownership of my own care, and empower myself as best I could. The first thing I did was drive an hour out of Dublin (passing, literally, by two maternity hospitals on my way) to Mullingar. I’m a doula, and although I rarely practice any more, I am still in contact with many members of the birth community; and I hear things, and I know things. One of the things I had heard was that I could expect to find more compassion in Mullingar than in the Dublin hospitals (for a variety of reasons).

 

In Mullingar, I was treated with kindness and compassion by the young male doctor in A&E who drew blood and tried to be as reassuring as possible. I was invited (and I choose the word deliberately) to return for further blood tests and a scan at the Early Pregnancy Unit. I thought about it. I wasn’t keen, but I steeled myself and showed up. When I was registering that morning, I noticed that the nurse (Deborah) wore a name-tag which indicated that she was attached to the SATU (sexual assault treatment unit) in the hospital. Ten minutes after sitting down, waiting to be called, I decided to take my treatment in my own hands, ignored the voice that said I was ‘being dramatic’ and ‘attention seeking’ (my abusers used to toss this at me any time I got upset about how I was being treated) and I approached this nurse. I disclosed that I had a history of sexual abuse and explained that I found trans-vaginal ultrasounds immensely difficult.

 

The amount of compassion and understanding I bumped up against was instantly reassuring. Deborah asked what I needed, how she could help, offered me choices (I didn’t need to have a trans-vaginal ultrasound if I didn’t want one, and could opt for the ‘old-fashioned’ way of drinking litres of water and having an abdominal scan instead). She literally held my hand throughout the procedure and did her absolute best to make sure that I felt empowered, comfortable and heard at all times.

 

I can honestly say that hearing the dreaded words ‘I’m really sorry – there’s no heartbeat’ was made that bit easier by the way I had been treated with compassion and dignity every step of the way.

 

Now, I know that having a miscarriage and having a smear test are different – but in many ways, they’re not that different. So what I’m wondering is if might be possible to have some additional consideration for women who have a history of sexual assault? Is there any chance, for example, that we could have our smears done in one of the SATUs around the country? Or – given that I know how over-stretched the SATUs are – could we have HCPs undergo additional training to make them more aware of the issues  faced by abuse survivors? Is there any possibility that we might have trauma-informed care around smear testing? Honestly, if I were to re-consider my position, that is the one thing that would make me do so; and I don’t think I’m the only one.

 

This is one of those times when I’m going to say ‘do as I say, not as I do’ and encourage you – if you live in Ireland and own a cervix – to check here to see if you’re due a smear test. And if you are, to go and have one.

 

*Lookit, I know it wasn’t really a baby, but it was in my head, because I desperately wanted it to become one. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forgiveness (Part One)

forgiveness-332x263

Forgiveness is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to – specifically with regard to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape. Forgiveness seems to be something that is as good – if not better – for the forgiver as for the forgivee.

The way forgiveness is generally talked about, it appears as if forgiving confers on the forgiver a deed to a piece of land high up on the moral ground. Forgivers are seen as morally superior, somehow. ‘Good’ people forgive. ‘Bad’ people don’t. This puts the onus back on the transgressed to do the right thing; to fix the situation. We are urged to ‘let it go’ to ‘move on’, to ‘let bygones be bygones’ to ‘be the bigger person’.

But is it really better for the person of whom forgiveness is expected to actually give that forgiveness? Is forgiveness the same as saying that whatever happened doesn’t matter? Or it doesn’t matter any more?

We’re told that holding on to the anger just hurts the transgressed – it does nothing to the transgressor.  But are anger and a lack of forgiveness, and / or a refusal to forgive, the same thing?

I think the notion of forgiveness as the ‘right’ thing to do comes from religious traditions; specifically the Abrahamic religions. The idea of turning the other cheek (so that can be slapped, too), of giving your coat to someone who is suing you for your shirt is the ‘right’ thing to do; the ‘better’, the more noble thing to do. The morally superior thing to do.

I would contend that the only person you have to forgive is yourself. You don’t have to ‘forgive’ the person who hurt you, you don’t owe them anything. You do, however, owe yourself your best life. The only person you need to forgive in life is yourself. Really. You are the only person you ever have to forgive for anything. What could a person who survived child sexual abuse possibly have to forgive themselves for? We need to forgive ourselves for believing the lies we were told. We need to forgive ourselves for believing we were worth nothing. We need to forgive ourselves for hating ourselves; for turning the tyranny inwards. We need to forgive ourselves for being hard on ourselves, for expecting more of ourselves than it was possible to give or be. We need to forgive ourselves for the frustration that brings. We need to forgive ourselves for trying to love the people who were abusing us. We need to forgive ourselves for the denial of the damage that was done to us.

Other people, I feel need to ‘earn’ forgiveness. I think that can only happen when the transgressor is remorseful. There is a dyad involved here, and in order for the exercise to be effective, each must play their part. There’s also the fact that people who do not experience remorse will transgress again, simply because they do not believe that there is anything wrong with their behaviour.

What we’re looking for is peace – peace inside ourselves so that we can move forward and live our best lives, without the wrongs done to us tormenting us. Or continuing to torment us. We don’t need to forgive – in the accepted sense – in order to manifest that peace.

 

More about that in my next post.

More On ‘Due Process’

Due Process

I really dislike repeating myself, but it’s time to revisit this topic. I wrote about this in November – you can read that post here –  but felt compelled to return and write more after listening to this podcast from the BBC’s Woman’s Hour.  The women in conversation  with host Lauren Laverne – Salli Hughes, Zoe Strimpel, and Afua Hirsch –  discussed the #metoo campaign and there was mention made of how naming men on social media was not affording them ‘due process’. Again, there was a presumption that due process is fair and easily accessible. It’s not.

 

In addition to the points I mentioned previously, there is the very real fact that men still hold more power than women in every facet of life, including the law. Laws are written by men. The language used in laws, therefore, is ‘male’ and patriarchal and serves men better than it does women. The majority of victims are female. The majority of court officers – solicitors, barristers, and judges – are male. Even where women are Officers of the Court, they are working within a patriarchal system that rewards non-feminine behaviour. So, while more women may be in the legal professions, they are still marching to the beat of a patriarchal drum, with little leeway for their own feminist interpretation.

 

The fact that so few cases of sexual assault actually get to court means that very few solicitors and barristers actually have experience in these cases. Bear in mind, too, that no judge in Ireland has availed themselves of the training offered by the Rape Crisis Centre to educate them on how sexual assault and sexual abuse impact on victims.

 

If a person does decide to go the civil route, and sue their abuser, the cost is prohibitive, and the course is a lengthy and emotionally tortuous one. This prevents many from even contemplating seeking redress from the courts.  So the notion of ‘due process’ is a bit of an equality fairy-tale. At the same time, though, one of the legacies of abuse is that those of us who have been abused feel a responsibility to save others from the same pain, humiliation, and trauma. Sometimes, all we can do is warn other women. Our feeling of protection towards other vulnerable women far outweighs our concern that the men who hurt us might be annoyed by our speaking out.

 

I’m also uncomfortable with the idea of discussing ‘grades’ of sexual intimidation, harassment, and assault. That kind of discussion generally goes down the route of ‘X only did this, so he’s not as bad as Y.’ I think it misses the point and results in many women minimizing their own experiences because they ‘weren’t as bad as’ someone else’s. While, as far as the judiciary is concerned, there are levels of seriousness, for those of us who have been hurt, there need be no ‘grading’ of our experiences: We have all been hurt, we have all been humiliated, we have all been targeted for assault based on our sex (regardless of our gender).  We deserve to have that recognised, even if it’s just by ourselves. The first, and most important disclosure of sexual abuse is, after all, the disclosure a victim makes to themselves.

Twelve Tips For Maternity Care for Survivors of Sexual Abuse / Assault

Pregnant Belly

About a month ago, I posted on Twitter using the ‘Me Too’ and ‘Maternity Care’ hashtags. Quite a few people got in touch to say that they found the advice I offered useful. A number of women contacted me privately to say that they found my tweets validating and reassuring. A few fathers also sent me messages to let me know that they witnessed the mothers of their children experiencing issues around their treatment and they realised, having read my tweets, that these reactions and issues were directly related to the abuse they had suffered as children.

In the hopes that these words will reach – and help – more people, I’m posting them here, as well.

  1. Sexual abuse is endemic. Treat ALL women as survivors until they tell you otherwise. Err on the side of caution.
  2. Continuity of care is best for women in order to build trust. We are extra vulnerable when pregnant, birthing, and in the peri-natal period.
  3. Before labour, ask if we have special requests for during labour – places not to touch, words not to use, etc.
  4. Call us by our names. Not ‘Love’ or ‘Sweetheart’. Abusers rarely use our names. Don’t diminish our personhood.
  5. Never, ever use the phrase ‘good girl’. We’re not girls. We’re women. Most of us were abused by people who used the phrase ‘good girl’ while they were abusing us.
  6. Don’t use nursery / childish language around us. That can be triggering.
  7. Don’t tell us to do something, eg ‘pop up on the bed’. Ask if we’d like to – explain why.
  8. Accept ‘no’ as an answer – don’t try and cajole or persuade us to turn our ‘no’ to a ‘yes’.
  9. Never tell us you’re going to do something. Ask permission. Our bodies belong to us, even when we’re birthing.
  10. Never perform a VE unless it’s necessary (hint: it’s *never* necessary.
  11. Be aware that our physiological responses may be different. EG we often pause dilation at about 4cms. Don’t rush with interventions because we are taking ‘too long’. Trust us. Trust our bodies.
  12. After birth, breastfeeding – no matter how much we want to – may be extremely triggering. Have compassion.

I offer workshops based on trauma-informed care to birth workers, based on my own experiences, and my academic research, (and the fact that I was Ireland’s first practicing doula!). If you’d like details, please get in touch.

Savage That There’s No Funding for SAVI

savi-report1.jpg

The Irish Government has said that there isn’t enough money in the coffers for a new SAVI report. The last one was produced in 2002.

A new SAVI Report is vital in order to get an idea of the current beliefs, attitudes, and – crucially – experiences of men and women in Ireland. Significantly for me, my eldest daughter was born in 2002, which means it’s very easy for me to remember that year. It’s not just nearly 16 years ago, it is a very real year for me. It means I can easily pinpoint 2002 in my memory, and compare and contrast now with then.

I am aware of how much technology has changed since then; how simultaneously enabling and disabling it is. I am aware of how much our attitudes towards sex and sexuality have changed since that year. I am aware that people are more aware, and more articulate around, sex, sexuality, and their sexual experiences now than they were then. I am aware that people who were young children in 2002 are now fully-grown adults. I am also aware that people who were young children in 2002, and who were being abused then, are now fully-grown adults who may, or may not, have ever had the opportunity to disclose and discuss their experiences. We need to capture this data.

We need to capture this data in order to inform policy, practice, and funding for people and services who care for those of us who are affected by sexual assault and abuse. We need to be visible and vocal about the fact that we are gathering this data so the people who are directly affected by it feel, and are, heard.

To commission a new SAVI Report would cost approximately €1m. The government has claimed they don’t have the budget. They do, however, have €64m for Irish Racing; they also have €16 for greyhound racing; they found an extra €500,000 for National Parks; and, of course, Leo the Liar easily found €5m for his own spin doctors

All of that tells us that sexually abused and assaulted children, women, and men in Ireland are worth less to this government than racing horses, bloodsports, trees, and Leo’s own personal public relations unit.  As if our self-esteem hadn’t taken enough of a battering already.

 

 

Just

Just Wordcloud

The #MeToo on Twitter, and the discussion in the wider world of sexual abuse, sexual assault sexual harassment, rape, grooming and other offences of a sexual nature is providing a climate where those who have not previously spoken about their experiences, to do so.

 

One of the things that has bothered me, though, is the number of people (predominantly men), who simply say things like ‘then go to the police / Gardaí’, and ‘he hasn’t been convicted, so….presumption of innocence’. As if it is that simple. As if reporting a sexual assault to the police or the Gardaí is as simple, or as easy as telling a woman (or a man) to do so. God bless the privilege of the people who say this. God bless their innocence.  Reporting a crime – particularly one of such a highly personal nature – to the Gardaí is no easy thing to do. (At this point, I must say that I have never been treated with anything but kindness and professional understanding by members of An Garda Siochana).

 

Yet, the smug ‘just report it’ crowd seem to believe that going to the Gardaí and making a full and detailed report of a sexual assault is as easy and straightforward – and that the results are as swift – as telling Mammy, or going to the teacher in a primary school classroom. Sadly, that isn’t the case. Apart, altogether, from the harrowing experience of going to the Gardaí in the first place, and making a full and frank statement; providing details of a very distressing event – an event that was visited upon your person, an event that was visited upon the most private parts of your person, an event that was visited upon your psyche, an event that will forever change you isn’t easy.

Even if a person does manage to find the strength to do all that, they then have to face the rest of what the smug ‘just report it’ crowd refer to as ‘due process’. Due process is the idea that a person will get a fair trial in front of an impartial judge. The ‘just report it’ crowd also seem to think that anyone who commits a crime, and whose crime is reported and investigated, and against whom evidence is gathered, will automatically appear before a judge and be found guilty.  Until and unless that happens, they feel that no truths should be told, no allegations uttered, no solidarity of and with, victims shown publicly.

 

In an ideal world, a person who commits a crime, and whose crime is reported and investigated, and against whom evidence is gathered, would automatically appear before a judge, and be found guilty. We don’t, unfortunately, live in an ideal world.

 

Then, there is ‘due process’ that the smug ‘just report it’ crowd clamour for. Broadly, this means that a file is prepared by the gardaí who have conducted the investigation. The superintendent in the station then sends the file to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). The DPP then decides whether or not to proceed with the case, and bring it to trial.

Now, here’s the thing that you may, or may not, know. Here’s the thing that the ‘just report it’ gang clearly don’t know (or want to admit). The DPP doesn’t decide to proceed to trial based on the evidence. The DPP doesn’t decide to proceed to trial based on whether or not they personally believe the crime, as described, occurred. The DPP bases her decision on whether or not they are reasonably confident that they will secure a conviction. In other words, the DPP will only allow a case to proceed to trial if she thinks it makes financial sense. The decision, therefore, to prosecute is based, not on legal, as much as on economic considerations.

Looking at the crime of sexual assault, the DPP deciding not to prosecute doesn’t mean the man is innocent. Nor does it mean that the woman is a liar. It doesn’t mean that there is a lack of evidence. Nor does it mean that the evidence is unconvincing. What is means is that the DPP doesn’t think that a jury will convict the man in spite of the evidence, in spite of the recommendation of the Superintendent at the investigating Garda station. Sometimes, the DPP will decide not to prosecute even though a confession has been provided to the Gardaí.  (This isn’t far-fetched; it happened to me in the case of my father, Christy Talbot.)

 

In some cases, like the case of my brother, Cormac Talbot, the DPP will decide not to prosecute because, frankly, the cost of flying him back from France to be prosecuted for historical sexual abuse, including digital, oral, anal, and vaginal rape is not worth it. In spite of the evidence. Cormac, living in the South of France, is no longer a danger to the Irish public, so the decision was made to leave him where he is.

 

Sometimes, people aren’t prosecuted because they are unwell. As in the case of my brother, Nigel Talbot, who claims partial memory-loss on account of his brain tumour.

 

The fact that someone hasn’t been prosecuted, and found guilty in a court of law doesn’t mean they’re innocent. Worse, it doesn’t mean that they are no longer abusing women and / or children.

 

Others have contacted me privately to let me know that they were abused by my brothers. If you were, too, please feel free to contact me in confidence. 

If this post was difficult for you to read because of your own experiences, please remember that the following agencies have phonelines, which are staffed 24/7:

Rape Crisis Centre: 1800 778888

Samaritans: 116 123

Pieta House: 1800 247 247