“Survivors” and “Victims”? Not at all!

In recent years, we have followed two Royal Commissions into sexual abuse, one in South Australia; and the Victorian inquiry into the Catholic Church’s treatment of abusers and abused. We watched with interest nightly reports on the goings on in the Ballarat Diocese and so on. Who will be called to give evidence, what they will say is yet to fully unfold, but in the end, the result will likely be a lot of black eyes, retirements, perhaps some gaol time for a few people, a short termed heightened awareness of the issues and not a lot else. Some sort of compensation will be touted, offered, which will cause a squabble about how mean the Church is and so on. These are all very predictable outcomes. There are two aspects of these inquiries that I would mention, in a not very positive manner.

There will be tightened rules around what should be done about “suitable” interactions between children and their carers. Rules will spread to their priests, their teachers, doctors, scout leaders, sports coaches and so on, outlining “respectful, friendly,” contacts between adults and children. Essentially what they are saying is “follow these rules or we will have your arse.” Paranoia will reign, and anyone, especially males, having interactions with children will be seen as “suspect”. Any deviation from the rules, no matter how minor or innocent, will bring the harshest response. The really disappointing thing about this is that in reality, nothing will change. Not for the abused and not for the abusers. Again, these are all very predictable responses.

The reason nothing will change is simple. As a society we simply cannot identify abusers until after they have committed the abuse, and then we cannot adequately deal with the consequences of their behaviour. Abusers are not marked, don’t have stamps on their foreheads, or have genetic markers, do not have secret handshakes or signs that can be emulated. They just are, they are people with an extreme quirk in their head that leads them to do things that most others do not. This is, for me, much like mountain climbing; it only makes sense for the people who do it.

For quite a long period of time, we were subject to the nightly news reports of the goings on in these inquiries. At times, some rather heart-rendering testimony was given, and while not reported in detail, it was clear that the impact of such abuse was devastating. We hear such testimony, but are only affected at a superficial level; we might shake our heads in pity and then go about our own lives, untouched by the unfolding drama.

It also struck me that the words “Victims” and “Survivors” were heard every day. These words have specific connotations, they are clearly defined in dictionaries, and I suggest are completely wrong. Sufferers of sexual abuse, indeed, of any form of abuse, are not victims, not survivors, they are people. Labeling abused people does not help them, does not help anyone else either. It is well known that any abuse leaves a mark, a deep, penetrating scar that can last for the entire lifetime of the abused. I must ask if labeling people as “survivors” or “victims” is really helping them.

Do we really need another vocabulary to describe people who experienced abuse? We may, or may not, but I suggest we just do not have a vocabulary to openly discuss such issues in society. We are uncomfortable with the issues, so use terminology and vocabulary that is frequently inappropriate to describe emotional experiences that we do not understand. I make no suggestions as to what that vocabulary should be, but I know it should not include the terms “victim” or “survivor”.

Life is experiential. Life is a series of experiences and consequences that lead us to our current point in life. How well we deal with those consequences will determine a whole range of outcomes in our lives. If our moral framework is destroyed when we are adolescents, then how can we not expect poor decisions as adults? If we have negative experiences in a dark area of life, why do we expect those experiences to be able to guide us towards making positive decisions? Say we do avoid all those pitfalls by choosing the right parents and economic circumstances; we develop expectations that are in line with our life experiences. If we do not, then do our life experiences impact upon our expectations? Of course they do.

The real questions for our child protection experts are the ones they seek to actively avoid. The questions that they know they can have no influence over, have no answers. Questions like, how can we really help someone who has had such a negative experience, how can we help that person get past that experience? We can’t, most often, the experts just don’t know how. They make the right noises, but every “therapy” offered to people with negative life experiences, won’t work, I suggest, because the generalized treatment is applied on a “one size fits all” basis. Life is just not like that. Some ground may be gained, under such circumstance, but it can’t be held for long.

I suggest we need to change a whole range of attitudes and responses to abuse for any longer term treatment and recovery program to be successful. While I cannot offer any suggestion as to how that may proceed, I can say that the loneliness of the abused needs to be overcome first. Without there being someone to connect with, the abused person cannot begin to change their self perceptions. This implies that trust and faith must replace fear and anger. I don’t mean faith as in religion, but faith that the person they most trust is not going to hurt them.

I offer this as many professionals begin their treatment of the abused with trying to get them to change their self image. It doesn’t stick, mainly because no matter what the professional tells the abused, no matter what exercises they undertake, together or alone, the abused just does not trust he/she will not be hurt. It is the stumbling block on which many abused people base the rest of their lives. This is the reason they don’t often rise above it all and become the people they could be.

I am going to leave it there, for a number of reasons. First, I am not a professional, just an observer where I see abused kids every working day. I am often appalled at their behaviour, but I understand why they are the way they are. I don’t understand why we, in partnership with them, can’t always improve their lives. I just think we need to do this better.

About colinfraser

I claim the title of educator, because I want to be more than "just" a teacher.
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