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Rape Culture in Journanilsm and Recommendations For Representing Survivors

By Karen Rain

There’s no regaining that special type of innocence peculiar to those of us who grew up trusting institutions to act rationally and in the public interest, trusting that once injustice was seen to be done, it would be remedied.

 ~Laurie Penny

The journalists, they thanked me for my courage, but what they really should have thanked me for was my naivete. This article is a version of “Understanding Sexual Violence in Context: Tips for reading, writing, and talking about sexual violence,” from April 2020, abridged and edited exclusively for The Disobedient Survivors Blog. The original article discusses how journalists, specifically The New Yorker and The New York Times, misrepresented my story and failed to cover the culture of  bystanders, enablers and beneficiaries who empowered Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga Yoga “guru,” to sexually assault many yoga students in plain sight for several decades. 

I now reframe my piece revealing language and structures that maintain sexual violence to help other survivors who are considering going public minimize their distress and to offer starting points for journalists to do right by survivors when covering sexual violence. A journalist may very well be covering a survivor’s story out of an ethical inclination, they may even believe that they are doing the survivor a favor, but make no mistake, they own the narrative. They will craft it with their name front and center, and according to their own interests and ignorance. At the very least, journalists should offer survivors financial compensation for our time, emotional labor, and the costly repercussions of speaking out. Unfortunately any survivorship visibility is fraught with retraumatization.

The New Yorker had a fact checker call me before publication. I told the fact checker that how she described the evolution of my understanding of events was not correct. I called the journalist immediately, she was a combination of intense impatience and attempts to be receptive. The New Yorker went ahead and published their misrepresentation of my experience, which begs the question of why they bothered using a fact checker. They even got something as simple as my age incorrect. After reading the article, I called the author, crying. I asked her how long she had been researching this story, because it seemed to me she really didn’t get the constant and pervasiveness of Pattabhi Jois’ abuse. She responded that after that question she did “not feel safe” with me. 

I also begged the New York Times writer to include my witness testimony and the ubiquity of Pattabhi Jois’ abuse, for which there are a plentitude of witness testimonies and video evidence. She never directly told me these factors would not be included, perhaps it wasn’t her choice, but rather told me how important and influential her reporting was going to be and how much she appreciated my bravery and honesty. 

Not all my experiences with the press left me feeling betrayed. Nancy Dillon from New York Daily News was very careful to make sure that she represented my thoughts and story to my satisfaction, especially considering the article, “Ashtanga yoga guru Pattabhi Jois accused of sexual assault in new photos,” had a turnover of just a few hours. 

Many publications have policies restricting journalists from showing subjects any part of an article prior to publishing. However, Dart Center For Journalism and Trauma, Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women, Know Your IX, and National Sexual Violence Resource Center recommend changing or making exceptions to these policies to allow survivors of sexual violence to read portions of the article and provide feedback before publication.

Offering survivors a preview of their stories prior to publishing also makes practical sense for preventing inaccuracies. And since amending an article can undermine the publication’s credibility, after publication they will often choose to ignore a survivor’s concerns. 

I believe there are journalists who want to be respectful of survivors and protect us from further harm, as well as wanting to help bring justice and prevent sexual violence. Besides creating policies that allow survivors to view what might be published about them, journalists must learn to cover sexual violence with unique sensitivity. Likewise, consumers of journalism should keep in mind that journalists follow the policies of their publications that prioritize avoiding defamation suits. Journalists often use the word “allege,” and its variants, which cast doubt on victim testimony. However, that doesn’t mean the testimony merits doubt, or that the author or publisher doubts it. It’s a way for publications to sidestep the risk of defamation suits.

Other journalistic conventions have become the norm without an understanding of their purpose or impact. Jim Clemente, former FBI supervisory special agent and host of the podcast Real Crime Profile, says that Michael Jackson’s lawyers popularized the practice of referring to victims as “accusers” to frame the victim as the attacker (Episode 180 — Grooming the Victims of “Leaving Neverland ”). Now, even well-meaning journalists often use this language in reference to victims of sexual assault.

The following are seven non-exhaustive recommendations for journalists and others when considering sexual violence:

1.Give Survivors Autonomy Over Their Story

If you are a journalist interviewing survivors of sexual violence, one of the best questions you can ask is: “What message would you most like people to take from hearing your story?” Respect and include the responses, which might help the general public learn how to prevent and respond to sexual violence in the future. As stated above, when possible, allow survivors to read what you propose to write about them, and be open to amending it.

2. Use precise language and avoid euphemisms

Be as specific as warranted about the action of the perpetrator. Avoid making sexual violence sound like a “consensual” activity.

In the article “How the Cosby Story Finally Went Viral — And Why It Took So Long”, Nicole Weisensee Egan, who had reported on Cosby almost a decade before the story went viral, examines why public interest peaked when it did. She suggests that one of the reasons was because comedian Hannibal Buress was not burdened by the same constraints as journalists. “As a comedian Buress could just flat-out call Cosby a rapist instead of hedging and using protective language like journalists did.”

Euphemisms minimize and obscure sexual violence. Both “inappropriate touch” and “unwanted touch” may indicate sexual assault or harassment, but are vague and don’t necessarily denote sexual violence. People might not want to be touched for any number of reasons. Without a clear description of a perpetrator’s actions, we can’t know the pattern or extent of the harm. For example, “The middle school teacher groped a student’s genitals,” and, “The middle school teacher pulled a student’s hair to get his attention,” are both examples of inappropriate and unwanted touch, but only the former is sexual assault.

“Sexual misconduct” is a common euphemism that doesn’t tell us anything about what the perpetrator did. It sounds somewhat mischievous or deviant, but doesn’t convey abuse of power. It could refer to adults enjoying sex in the back row of a movie theater.

Another ineffective and harmful phrase is “non-consensual sex.” It’s an oxymoron. Sex is a consensual activity, whereas non-consensual means that one person coerced or abused another — the correct term for this is sexual assault or rape. In the same vein, an adult cannot have “sex with a minor,” because a child cannot consent — the correct term for this is child sexual abuse, or rape of a minor.

Sexual violence is primarily about entitlement or desire for power. The adjective “sexual” in terms like sexual harassment, sexual abuse or sexual assault refers to the exploiting of sexuality, sex organs, or sexual acts to subjugate, intimidate, or violate. It describes the type of harassment, abuse or assault; violence is the essence.

3. Use the active voice, avoid the passive voice

When describing sexual violence, people frequently use the passive voice, which emphasizes the object (the victim) and may omit the actor (the perpetrator). Rather than saying, “John Doe sexually assaulted Jane Doe,” we frequently hear “Jane Doe was sexually assaulted by John Doe.” In the latter construction, the assault is more about Jane than about John. That sentence is easily reduced to “Jane Doe was sexually assaulted,” as though there were no perpetrator at all.

Phrases like “what happened to Jane Doe” or “what Jane Doe went through” bypass the subject of sexual violence and falsely convey a sense that there was an action with no actor; something happened, but no one was responsible.

Instead of referring to abuse without signaling a perpetrator, if you don’t know the name of the perpetrator or can’t use it, you can say, “Someone sexually assaulted Jane Doe.” Or if you know the relationship of the perpetrator — a friend, relative, employer, etc. — you can use that identifier; for example, “Jane Doe’s soccer coach sexually abused her.”

4. Choose photos carefully

Reconsider the common journalistic practice of using photographs, particularly portraits or positive depictions, of sex abusers along with articles about sexual violence. First and foremost, photos of offenders may be triggering to survivors. Moreover, there is a pernicious myth that sex offenders are monsters not capable of doing anything good — and that a “good man” could not possibly be an offender. A photo of Weinstein accepting a Golden Globe award next to an article about his abuse minimizes his sexual violence and reinforces the power and respectability that gave him impunity. 

That’s not to say that photos should never be included. Good reasons to use a photo of an offender might be if it provides evidence or to increase visibility in order to protect others.

5. Investigate and report the network of power that protects the perpetrator

Frequently, stories of sexual violence rely on survivors’ recounting how the perpetrator violated and traumatized them and what their response was at the time, which incites a vicious and relentless scrutiny of their credibility, character, motivations, and response — “She was asking for it,” or “Why didn’t she fight back?” or “Why didn’t they speak up sooner?” As a result, people shift the responsibility away from the perpetrator and the enablers onto the victim and we learn nothing about how to prevent sexual violence in the future.

The breaking of the Harvey Weinstein story as investigated by Jodi Kantor and Megan Towhey for The New York Times and by Ronan Farrow for The New Yorker gave historic momentum to the #MeToo movement. Both of those articles focused heavily on exposing how a network of people protected Weinstein, including lawyers who repeatedly arranged Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), settlements where the perpetrator pays victims in exchange for their silence. These NDAs are toxic, isolating victims as well as enabling perpetrators to continue harming others.

The model used for those investigations needs to be applied to all investigations of sexual abuse, and journalistic radar should be attuned to the reality that perpetrators carry out sexual violence through networked power, as well as dominant romantic, gendered, and hierarchical narratives wherein abuse is deemed acceptable. Perhaps it’s easier to investigate sexual violence as though it occurs in a vacuum, with only a perpetrator and victim. And perhaps it’s more comfortable to think of only one person being responsible. But the paradigm regarding sexual violence must evolve to reflect that whatever the size of the system, be it one small family, school, or church, or an entire industry, groups of people structurally facilitate sexual violence. 

Without understanding, investigating, and exposing how enabling and systemic oppression sustain sexual violence, it will remain as tenacious as ever. A narrative of sexual abuse is inadequate when the bystanders, enablers, and beneficiaries — people who didn’t hold the perpetrator accountable and facilitated the abuse — are omitted.

6. Consider backlash

Along with asking survivors what message they want people to get from their story, also ask what they want people to know about them and if there is anything they don’t want you to share, like where they live or work. If a platform has commenting capabilities, they should be turned off or the comments should be closely monitored for trolling and vitriol.

The New York Times syndicated “Yoga Is Finally Facing Consent and Unwanted Touch,” the article they interviewed me for, to Yahoo, and within 24 hours there were over 1500 comments, most of which were attacks on victims. Fortunately, two months later the Yahoo link was dead. 

7. Don’t reduce the survivor to a violent or traumatic event

We are greater than that. Most of the women who spoke out about Harvey Weinstein had the benefit of previous recognition. All survivors deserve the recognition of having more to offer than the recounting of a traumatic experience. In the Cosby article mentioned above, Nicole Weisensee Egan portrayed the survivors as full human beings and closed the article with a quote from one of them.

Another huge disappointment for me regarding The New York Times coverage is that both my friend, Jubilee Cooke, and I were reduced to what Pattabhi Jois did to us, with only patchy descriptions of our immediate responses and why we didn’t resist at the time. There was no mention that both Cooke and I have strong activist voices regarding sexual violence. Together we co-authored an article for Yoga International entitled “How to Respond to Sexual Abuse Within a Yoga or Spiritual Community,” which was well received by experts in the field, including being added to the library of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Given the limitations of journalism, a more autonomous and reliable option for survivors, who feel drawn to speaking out publicly, might be to self-publish our own accounts. Putting the horrors into the context of our narratives can provide keys for how to prevent and respond to sexual violence on both an individual and systemic scale. While it is crucial to ask for support and assess personal and legal risks, needs, and options with qualified help, authoring our own stories gives us the opportunity to regain some agency in a situation where others often co-opt our stories and diminish and dehumanize us.

My personal narrative of Pattabhi Jois’s abuse doesn’t dwell on what he did to me or how I tried to rationalize it at the time, but instead how I escaped from boosting his impunity and enabling his crimes. Rather than building my reputation, career, and savings on the fiction that he was a living yoga master, as many others did, I managed to get out early.

I picture myself as an escape artist: I’m not unscathed, but I’m very glad that I left. While I was a victim, and I am not ashamed to use that word, it simply describes my innocent role in an abusive situation — it’s not a fixed identity. In the future, it’s possible that I’ll be the victim of some other violence. But right now, I’m just sitting in my room writing and enjoying the sun streaming in through my window.

By Karen Rain

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Silence, Writing, SHOUTING

By Bethany Sharp

Lying on the long grass in the parkland of Severndroog Folly in Shooters Hill, I spoke on the phone to a strange woman about the events of childhood sexual abuse. I didn’t want to take the call at my house-share in case anyone overheard; I trusted that the wind wouldn’t carry much of what I was saying to any of the dog walkers or mothers with toddlers. I had chosen the place carefully. When there’s a blue sky above and the heads of grass seeds swimming into view above, it is easier to talk factually about these things than you might imagine.

That’s the trick though. There will come a point in the life of most sexual trauma survivors where you will need to report on what has happened to you, and you will need to be clear, concise, unemotional and reassuring. I have, I think, perfected the art of reporting on the circumstances of my abuse, as though I were an old-school BBC newsreader. Yes, something terrible has happened, but there’s no need for alarm; it is far away and there’s probably nothing you can do about it anyway… and now the weather.

I was trying to persuade the woman on the other end of the phone that I would benefit from therapy. My initial phone call to the NHS helpline had been a couple of weeks before, and I had thought the case was pretty straightforward: I had been sexually abused for two years when I was aged three and four – potentially before then, but my lucid memories do not extend earlier – and I had never sought help for this before. In my mind, there was no doubt that I was who
these services were for. I was told however that I would need to be assessed further to see whether I could even be considered for treatment. So this is what this phone call in a field was for. To explain myself.

I was asked if these memories had been repressed. No, I had just never spoken to anyone about it. I was asked if I had ever reported it to the police. No, because I was aged three and four, and three and four year olds do not tend to have agency. I had attempted to speak to the police further when they attended an incident of physical violence, but as they had not believed that the physical violence had taken place, there seemed little point in giving them more reasons
to look at me kindly and ask whether I might have been mistaken because I was a child, and children do not always understand what is happening to them.


The woman on the end of the line was placid. They must hear this plenty, I thought. Then she said something unexpected. What I had told her was very unusual, she said. She wanted to make sure that they could help me. She said that to consider me further, I would need to attend an in-person assessment in order to determine whether I would be given therapy through the NHS. I agreed.


After the phone call, I lay on the grass for a very long time. I wanted to make sure I was ok, and to my surprise, I was. The process to get help was more complex than I had expected, but there was progress, and I had little doubt that this was the start of my recovery.

The result of the in-person assessment: I was not granted help, because I was not currently suicidal as a result of my experience.

Many months later, after ringing charities and being told that their waiting lists were closed, I was suicidal.

By that time, I’d moved borough and had to begin the process all over again. I went to the GP. They had a different system there I was told. Go to the receptionist. Tell them that the GP said to make an appointment. The receptionist said they couldn’t make the referral without me telling them why. I said I was depressed. They said they needed more detail. I said I didn’t want to say in front of a waiting room of people. They said in that case I couldn’t have an appointment. So I told them. They made the booking. By the time I’d walked home I had a voicemail saying that they had lost the record of my appointment and that I would have to come back and rebook. I
never did.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is my Selective Mutism. Google it.


One suicide attempt later, I went to my first therapist. When I cried in the first session and couldn’t stop, she asked why I was so upset. When I asked whether I could have an appointment every other week instead of once a week because I felt I couldn’t cope with
handling this experience so frequently, she said she was sick of people asking her that, and that if people weren’t willing to put the work in, they couldn’t expect to help themselves.


The second therapist was very calm and looked like a candidate for the Liberal Democrats. I rather liked her.


Under the second therapist’s ‘specialisms’ she had listed ‘childhood sexual abuse’. I moved away from my BBC persona and adopted a more Channel 4, Jon Snow approach to the account. I assumed she could take it. She told me that it was shocking and upsetting. I did not
tell her that I already knew this and had been shocked and upset by it for some decades.

The final straw for her and me was the day I couldn’t speak. I’d told her about my Selective Mutism and that I expected it would affect my speech at some point during our sessions. I said I may be able to carry on, but that I would need to communicate through writing. She said she hoped this wouldn’t happen. The day I had to write, she said the therapy would not work if I was not able to speak, as though therapy was some branch of magic which only worked through
incantation. She said she wouldn’t ask me any new questions until I answered the first question without writing. So we sat in silence.


The result of asking a question and giving the person no means to reply is the equivalent to asking a question and holding your hand over their mouth as you demand an answer.

I did not complete my course of therapy.

Another suicide attempt later, I was desperate. I wanted to die, but I did not want to die, but I wanted to die, but I did not want to die. I went to a walk-in clinic in Angel on a Sunday.


The on-duty doctor had evidently been sitting seeing patients since Nye Bevan’s formation of the NHS in 1948. At some point they had placed a computer on his desk, and perhaps popped a pair of glasses onto the bridge of his nose when his eyesight faded back in 1973, but this emaciated white haired man had not yet been given a hearing aid, and SHOUTING was the only way forward for this consultation.


I wanted antidepressants. Strong ones. He asked why. I said I AM DEPRESSED.

I wasn’t trying to be funny; when you’re a Selective Mute being forced to yell, you have a more limited approach to vocabulary than usual. He had the humanity to laugh.

Justifiably, he asked why I was depressed. BECAUSE I WAS SEXUALLY ABUSED AS A CHILD.


He said that I wasn’t depressed, I “obviously” had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He asked why this wasn’t on my notes if I’d told professionals about this before. I said I didn’t know; no one had ever described what I’d gone through as trauma. He said he’d put it on my notes so people would be able to treat me properly in future.


The drugs he gave me to try did not work – or rather, they had a such a strong reaction that I stopped feeling suicidal in the same way you would if you were about to jump to your death in a lake, only to be unexpectedly attacked by a bear before you leapt. My survival instincts kicked in and I fought for all I was worth.


That’s ok. He’d said that they might not suit me and to go back to a GP and try other things. I didn’t. Or rather, I tried a lot of other things. Alternatives, by-ways and books about PTSD.


He was angry and shocked in that appointment, but not at me or the frightening experience I had brought into the room – why should he be? Childhood sexual abuse is not uncommon. We should know that by now. Instead, he was angry at the failure of the system he worked in, and did a small thing to try and help.

@brjsharp

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Sex work. And Surviving.  

By Ems 

When you have been treated from a painfully young age into adulthood, as an object  in existence for men’s pleasure and enjoyment (nonconsensually), people do not realise how the lessons you internalise from this stay with you. Always. 

Yes, you can heal. You can identify the mistruths. You can rewire and re-write your story. But for some of us, how we have been treated in abuse will inform our view  of ourselves for the rest of our lives. This is something we have to accept and acknowledge. To stare square in the eye in order to challenge it and start to treat ourselves differently and expect others to  treat us differently too. To get what we should have always had but were denied.  

I entered the world of sex work – or pre contemplation – when I was  struggling for money. I was struggling for money because, after years of very successful repression of my sexual abuse, it finally caught up with me. Lockdown number one. Night terrors. Not being able  to sleep. Constant flashbacks of what I had been through. This trauma finally found space to enter  the forefront of my mind. That space, previously occupied by day to day anxieties I had to navigate (getting on the tube, talking to colleagues, working out how to travel between all my appointments that day) was suddenly empty. There was new space in my mind to be filled with the actual traumas and memories triggering this daily anxiety and depression. I was home all day every day, alone with my memories. Being someone always looking to fix things through actions, I decided to report one of  my childhood abusers to the police. The investigation, as can be expected, went terribly. I was left  with nothing but re-traumatisation, CPTSD and an inability to function the way I had for so many  years. I left my job and for the first time in my life struggled for money. I say the first time because, contrary to what people expect of survivors, I had been extremely successful in my career so far in  my life.  

So I find myself , October 2021, wondering what on earth I have left that can earn me money. I felt  broken and worthless. My mind, glitching and hard wired to the thought that my body and  fuckability was all I had that was worth anything, led me to think of sex work. For some reason I  entertained these thoughts and found them somewhat empowering. Could I really use this part of  me, a part of me I’m told is broken, to support me right now? I didn’t feel capable of going back to the previous line of work that had supported me for so long. Something  drew me to explore sex work despite my closest confidants and supporters advising me against this.  I was told “this will be detrimental to your recovery” and “you’re actively shitting on progress you’ve  made”. 

My gut and deepest intuition disagreed.  

This I have shared with some, although none yet have understood. 

Sex work helped me heal. 

I am  always going to have, hard wired into my brain, the feeling I am capable of little more than being  used and fucked by men. This part of me is ingrained. No amount of therapy is going to remove it. It  was chiseled into place when I was 6…7… all the way up to 18. And many others reinforced this engraving with their non-consensual ways for years after. I refuse to feel ashamed that this is  part of me, it is not my fault these things happened. My work in my recovery is to learn that this is just one part of me. One part that I choose to no longer hold power over me or my life. One part of  me I can make smaller than other parts shouting that I am worthy. Worthy of love, of care, and consent. 

Consent. 

I discovered that sex work was one way I could make this part of me smaller. This part of me, that I  no longer need, that is outdated and objectively untrue and unreflective of my worth, could be  chained into a tiny little box I call ‘some income.’ This part of me I could – in my power – consent to  coming out and being used. 

This time, by me.  

The word of virtual sex work provided an incredible platform for me to use my voice in ways I never  knew I could. I spoke to many, many men who clearly thought they could demand and get anything  from me as a commodity they were paying for.

Not being with them in person, not being exposed to risks their physical capabilities could pose, I navigated conversations with a power and aptitude I’d never felt capable of before. I’ve said no to many things, and yes to many things. My ‘Yesses’ were  backed by time and space I needed to ensure I was fully consenting. My ‘nos’ I felt empowered to speak as no physical or impending threats loomed literally over me. Being given that power, when  you’ve learnt that in sex with men power doesn’t exist, is healing! 

I have not ventured into in person sex work, but virtual sex work has enabled to me use some parts of me (parts of me I wish I didn’t have, but have none the less) to get myself something I need – Income. 

This income has come from the gender that abused me, and this is tasty. 

I have found, in  doing this work, that the part of me that screams ‘you are here to be used by men’ is brought out by choice to service a few hours work purpose. When that work is done, that voice gets packed  back away. I go about my day with the parts of me I welcome and want to nurture. I engage in relationships healthily, with the part of me expecting to be treated like trash already taken care of and satisfied. It is compartmentalised into a small part of my world. It has served me and my survival in getting money I need, but is not needed outside of this. 

With this part satisfied, I can take other parts of me out more often. I can go for dinner with my new match, say no when I feel it’s too soon to have sex, establish boundaries I need to feel safe, know how I deserve to be treated, expect to be  treated this way, and walk away if behaviours fall short of my new expectations. 

Sex work can be healing. People who are not survivors need to stop telling us what will and won’t be good for us.  We need to learn to trust our gut and our instincts. Let us do this.

@styledwithemmac

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 My Journey to Disobedient Recovery 

By Evangeline Del Cisne 

I am a survivor of childhood abuse, as well as multiple abusive relationships in adulthood. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how my experience of seeking help became just another trauma for me to heal. As soon as I left my abusive household, I started to experience symptoms of PTSD; panic attacks, flashbacks, night terrors, and severe social anxiety. I knew I needed to seek help straight away, and referred myself to the NHS for a psychological assessment. Little did I know this would be the start of some of the most difficult years of my life. The initial assessment took months to happen, and at first they misdiagnosed me with BPD. I was then told I would be put on a 1-2 year waiting list for long-term therapy. During this period I was severely suicidal, lacking any kind of social support apart from my fiancé, and offered no buffer services. 

I had also been declared unfit for work by my GP, so I was essentially in a state of limbo, waiting for a letter from the NHS that never came. Two years later I contacted the service I’d been referred to and asked if there had been any progress. They couldn’t find my details—apparently there had been an administrative error and they’d lost them, which meant I had to go back in for another assessment and be placed back at the end of the waiting list. I was absolutely devastated, and I was offered no consolation or any real apology. It was very clear to me that these people simply didn’t care. When I went for my second assessment, they gave me the correct diagnosis of Complex PTSD, and then sent me back on my way.

Another 2 years of no support, no buffer services, and no real care. In total, I waited 4 years for help from the NHS—help that never came. In the end, I set up a mutual aid fundraiser on Patreon to cover the cost of private treatment so that I could start as soon as possible—and that wasn’t an easy task either. I spent most of my days unable to get out of bed, leave the house, cook, clean or really do anything but lay there crying. On top of this, I was experiencing chronic physical pain from my untreated trauma symptoms. Looking back on this period, I wonder what it was that contributed to the total lack of care I received from the NHS, and from the other people around me. I would often try to write about my experiences on Facebook to break the stigma of mental illness and of being a survivor, and I would also try to ask for support. 

People either ignored my posts, or attacked me and said I was “attention seeking”, or “weird”. The message was loud and clear: I wanted too much and I was saying too much. At the time I really needed a community of people to rally around me, bring me meals, come round and clean up, take me to the park or for a cup of tea—basically just demonstrate that they care. None of that ever happened, and sadly still hasn’t. Some people were even angry at my attempts to fundraise for myself so that I could finally get treatment.

As I look back over these years, I wonder if it’s because I wasn’t a very “sympathetic victim”. I would often get strange comments from therapists and acquaintances alike about how I dressed. One therapist told me I shouldn’t complain about street harassment because I was clearly “looking for attention”. Other assessors would remark that I “looked fine”, or when I said I was signed off work would reply “lucky for some”. Before I got my diagnosis I was working as a model, and I was never shy about showing skin. I enjoyed dressing up and getting my hair done, but the way I dressed and presented felt like a real hindrance to getting any help, or even any sympathy.

My whole experience of recovery has been marred with misogyny, misogynoir and respectability politics. I’m simply not the type of person that others deem “worthy” enough of support. I also found that many people simply want to try to save you and dictate how your recovery should be, rather than walk alongside you. I experienced many people telling me to take psychiatric drugs (which I never did, and never wanted to do) or to try certain therapies or ring certain phone lines. When I told them I wasn’t interested in those things and asked them to do things I actually needed, these people would get exasperated and disappear.

I’ve found that people want to see victims of abuse as one-dimensional and in need of saving, but to honour our multi-dimensional nature as human beings might highlight the fact that anyone can be a victim of abuse, and that we are not some subcategory of human beings that you can separate yourself from by behaving in a certain way. Many people still believe that the victim has brought abuse upon themselves, and I believe that’s a huge reason so many people have such a lack of empathy towards survivors. What we’ve been through highlights issues people simply don’t want to look at.

It’s been about a year since I’ve been getting private treatment, thanks to my mutual aid fundraiser. I’m doing music and art therapy, somatic experiencing, micro-dosing, shamanic healing and I get regular massages for my chronic muscular pain and inflammation. I found that even traditional talk therapies in the private sector had a lot of prejudiced therapists who had a severe lack of knowledge about trauma and how to effectively and safely treat it. In my 4 years of waiting, I became somewhat of a DIY trauma expert. Every ounce of my time was taken up by reading books on the subject, watching talks and lectures, taking courses, and reading articles. I also came to learn about the racist and colonial history of the psychiatric movement as a whole, and have since distanced myself from the medical industrial complex.

I wanted to believe the NHS could help me, but I quickly grew tired of the western medical model of treating mental health. People who have suffered abuse and trauma are pathologised, and it’s seen as though there’s something wrong with the individual and not the society in which we live. I was frustrated at the lack of justice for the perpetrators, and how there was never any attempt to change or even address the systemic problems that allowed the abuse to happen in the first place. I decided to take a decolonial approach to healing, and gained so much wisdom from indigenous approaches to healing which emphasize community support, joy, nature and finding purpose. They know that to heal trauma we quite literally need to shake it off physically through dance and ritual, we need to reconnect to ourselves and those around us. Trauma lives in the body, and these intuitive somatic practices offer so much healing.

I felt people’s judgments as soon as I decided to do away with the western model. And I almost felt that they thought I shouldn’t be complaining if I didn’t go along with it. Being perceived as mentally ill is already a huge stigma, but being seen as mentally ill and not cooperating with standard treatment is a whole other thing. The western mental health system is very carceral: people who suffer with their mental health are often perceived as irresponsible and needing others to make decisions for them—Britney Spears’ conservatorship is a prime example of this. I even worry about having a good day with minimal symptoms in case someone tries to discredit the validity of my suffering, or try to make it seem like I’m overreacting because I’m experiencing happiness for once.

I’ve found that taking my recovery into my own hands has been the most healing thing I’ve done. When you experience trauma, you are out of control, and that feeling of not being able to control your environment or even yourself lives on years after the event is over. Regaining some control and autonomy over your choices is crucial, and people should be encouraging that, not trying to make decisions for us or pretend they know what’s best.

My healing journey as of now is truly and completely my own. No one dictates to me how I should heal. I have found infinitely more healing in microdosing mushrooms, being in nature, painting, and simply feeling my feelings than I ever did in a cold, sterile therapy room. Although I do wish I had more community support and more empathy, and I still struggle, at least I can choose to share my voice and let others know they are not alone in their experiences.

Recovery should be accessible to all, and community support should be a given; but until it is, I know survivors will keep forging their own paths and their own recovery routes in the face of insufferable trauma, stigma, and prejudice. May we continue being disobedient survivors.

Evangeline Del Cisne 

Insta @evangeline.del.cisne

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Recovery shouldn’t be a luxury: Hidden classism in the well-being world

By Bryony Jade Ball, co-founder of SLEEC

First Published in Issue 5 of “Lumpen: A Journal for Poor and Working Class Writers”

As survivors of rape and sexual violence from working-class backgrounds, support for our trauma recovery was limited. Access to resources to help healing was minimal and any financial support, including applying for incapacity/disability benefits due to trauma, was complicated, long-winded and incredibly stressful. Any free counselling services had such long waiting lists and the support was both conditional and temporary. The services providing this support were also controlled by the middle class. Building a solid support network and accessing necessary mental health assistance is just not possible for survivors without money. Trying to make ends meet is hard enough, so self-care is not always something that we can easily achieve.

Recovery has somehow become a luxury that only a privileged few can engage in.

Having been let down by the systems in place and having worked within support services ourselves, we saw the absolute necessity for an alternative space for survivors to be able to build resilience and recover from trauma authentically. We set up the radical resilience project for survivors of rape and sexual violence to have autonomy, challenge harmful stereotypes, own our healing and claim back our space.

It started as a fund where survivors could take out mini grants or loans for things to help with their healing processes but is now growing to include mutual support, education and consultancy. The fund remains central to our work.

One of the things we found growing up working class and broke is that middle-class people don’t understand how difficult it is to find money to support self-care and healing. Simple things like buying some healthy food, a herbal tincture, a record, a takeaway, some moisturiser, a new pillow or a yoga class are all a complete luxury. But small things like these can have a massive difference to our day or even a whole week and the importance of being kind to ourselves and giving ourselves pleasurable gifts – particularly through trauma – is undervalued.

What people with money often don’t understand is that every penny counts, it isn’t just a saying for us. Finding a spare fiver is impossible when you don’t know how you are going to cover rent and know you have nobody you can borrow from – as people around you are all in similar positions.

Being able to have an extra £5/£10/£15 to buy something small you need, even if it is just phone credit or a magazine, is something that is so important when you suffer mental health issues.

Recovery and healing from trauma are costly and completely unaffordable for people in our position. Even when counselling services, therapists or holistic centres do ‘concessional rates’ it is usually just £5 off the original cost and doesn’t address the issue that finding any money (especially over £10) for anything outside ‘essential living costs’ is extremely difficult. On average a counselling session costs around £40 – £60 a week (alternative therapies can be way more) and concessional rates are rarely below £25. This is simply something many people cannot afford. Yes, it is cheaper but we still don’t have that to spare. This failure to appreciate what affordability is for the working classes is rooted in the skewed perception of wealth inequality of the middle and owning classes. In their ways of analysing what ‘low income’ and ‘real poverty’ means, we are seen to have more expendable income than we do..

The services that are available for free or subsidised are mainly snapped up by the middle classes because they have time to look for and apply for them. They know how to game the systems because they or people like them essentially created them and they know how to use the right language to gain access. Waiting lists for free trauma counselling can be up to 2 years.

If we can manage it we usually have to go through the uncomfortable process of ‘proving’ our poverty to be able to access the concessional rate. Proof can include bank statements, earnings, financial living costs broken down, concession forms and benefit letters. This is uncomfortable and often humiliating as there is immediately a distrust from the support giver around our lack of money. It creates uneven, unhealthy power dynamics from the start, where we are inferior and have to prove our worthiness. It is a forced vulnerability that we should not have to have put up with – particularly when already dealing with trauma.

When applying for financial support such as grants and loans of any kind, we are also subjected to these same painful processes of measuring our worth and finances in order to access even the smallest financial support.

This is why in setting up our fund we were adamant that it was built on trust, solidarity and mutual support rather than charity. Our form to access mini grants and loans only has six questions and only two are actually required: your PayPal account (or if you don’t have PayPal, the PayPal of someone who can receive the money for you) and the amount you’re requesting. The process is based on self-identification and autonomy. We don’t control who accesses the fund, what they do with the money after they receive it or ask for any kind of reporting or feedback. Mini loans are repayable whenever people are able with the understanding that if it is not possible to pay back, that is totally ok and there is no expectation or judgement. We don’t keep data or information on anyone and people are welcome to apply more than once.

At the moment we are only offering tiny grants and loans of up to £15 but we hope to offer larger amounts once we find more sustainable incomes. Unfortunately, major funding sources and sponsorship options are centred around proving impact, evaluating outcomes and controlling how money is used. These systems further oppress working class folk rather than support us. This is why we are independently funded and reject official charity and organisation structures.

When we explain how we operate one of the first things we are always asked is “How do you know people are telling the truth and that it is definitely real survivors applying?”. Again, this shows what immediate distrust people have (particularly privileged people) of those who are asking for help. The underlying thought is, are they worthy and are they deserving? Yes, maybe some people will apply who aren’t ‘survivors’ and might not seem like they ‘need’ the money but we are not here to judge or control who does or doesn’t need support. It is up to individuals to decide for themselves.

We are not a charity; we are a community and a movement – responsibility for distribution is shared by all, not owned by a privileged few.

There is more to this project than just money. The support services that offer free counselling, support groups or various therapies are usually set up by people with middle-class, white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual privilege, a saviour complex and a superior attitude. Even if we jump through all the hoops to access support or resources there are often many layers of problems.

Services are delivered inappropriately, with no real understanding of our experiences or needs.

A new part of our project is the mutual survivors support collective which is a response to the lack of appropriate one-to-one support available for survivors. We link survivors or people who have experienced rape or sexual violence with each other to co-support each other in a way that we choose individually with our co-supporter. We want to dismantle the idea that all care and support should be led or controlled by a superior. We need choices, agency, freedom and trust.

Another problem we have found with charities and support for ‘vulnerable people’ within them, is how privileged people approach giving. Christmas is a great example as many rush to donate things to those who are worse off than them. What is uncomfortable about this – other than the fact the compassion and kindness seems limited to the festive period – is that the actual items people donate are distasteful. They reek of charity. I used to work in a safe house and one Christmas a very wealthy company donated shoeboxes of gifts for the survivors. A couple of days before Christmas I opened them to check what was inside before putting them out. Wrapped up was a biro, a Tesco Value notebook, soap, a toothbrush and hand sanitiser, a £99p hairbrush with the tag still on and a sachet of cheap hot chocolate. I was disgusted. Particularly as many of these gifts were basic cleaning products and the women who were going to receive them were survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking. It was implying they were dirty – hand sanitiser for xmas really? (This was pre-Corona.) What this rich company was actually saying is “This is your worth”. I imagined what presents the people who had wrapped these had bought their families and what their Christmas day might look like. I imagined them patting themselves on the back after they had packed up these shitty gifts that they would never dream of giving to anyone they actually knew.

It’s similar at homeless shelters when rich people donate food parcels of supermarket basic cans and cheap food they would never even feed their pets, while enjoying Waitrose organic range at home themselves. We are supposed to be grateful for what we get, but these kinds of gifts come loaded with supremacy. Unfortunately, this kind of giving is not uncommon.

People with the most oppression and least privileges are used to being given second-rate things. Survivors in safe-houses often get donated awful second-hand clothes (stained, broken, baggy or just grim), badly knitted hats and gloves all in one style – as if we don’t even have taste or need choice because we are at the bottom of the ladder. What people donate says a lot about how they see us.

Not being able to afford to treat yourself is bad enough but when you are given ‘treats’ that are worthless and shitty you feel worthless and shitty. It does nothing for building up self-respect and resilience when you are feeling vulnerable.

When we started the Radical Resilience Project one of the things we wanted to include beside the fund was real gifts and treats for survivors. Things that can bring pleasure and excitement – because we need this for recovery as well as meeting our basic needs. We very deliberately looked at asking specific businesses to donate the very best. That is what we all deserve. We got things like gift vouchers for award winning hairdressers, festival tickets, a cookery school course, bottomless champagne brunches, a series of resources on sexual pleasure, vouchers for meals and drinks at top restaurants, pole dancing classes, tickets for cinemas, a women’s herbal medicine course, yoga classes and independent film subscriptions. Gifts should be joyful. Something of real value that makes us know our worth!

Recovery from trauma is hard and slow. We need finances to support our basic needs, we need access to counselling, therapeutic support, holistic therapies, knowledge around natural healthcare and we need real treats.

Even when we try to access these things the holistic world is dominated by middle-class, privileged people. Things like healing centres, herbal medicine, natural remedies and self-care support have become lucrative corporate commodities constructed for middle-class, able-bodied, white, cisgender, heterosexual people. This is ironic considering many of these practices and traditions were originally birthed from Black, Indigenous and People of colour, people without money, and outside the capitalist society. Now the most oppressed people can’t afford to be part of this world. When we can find a way in, it is a very uncomfortable space to be in as we feel like outsiders when most of us are not represented.

Because we have been made to feel like we don’t belong in these types of spaces, and because systems of access to healthcare force us to prove our worth repeatedly, many of us now feel undeserving of support. We discovered this early on in our project – it was incredibly difficult for people to feel able to take out mini grants or claim gifts as they don’t feel worthy enough. People we speak to always say “I don’t feel I deserve it” or “Someone else deserves it more than me”. This illustrates just how dangerous the conditions of our healthcare systems are. People have learned to measure their worth and needs in an extremely toxic way. For example, as survivors our worth is often based on being seen to behave in a way that society expects us to (show signs of suffering, trauma and fear) and to do what society thinks we should do (report to the police, accept support that we are offered that might not be right for us) and to visibly appear vulnerable and to be worthy of support.

We are trying to challenge this attitude of unworthiness within our project but are still unlearning it ourselves as it is hard-wired. In the meantime, to make our project more accessible we have created an option where people can nominate each other for a mini grant or gift..

While our project is tiny and still just at the beginning, we are hoping to radically shift the way people understand recovery and healing. Recovery and self-care is a human right and shouldn’t be a luxury. The Radical Resilience Project is about creating open spaces where we unlearn what we have been conditioned to believe that we deserve and what the ‘right’ way to heal is. A space where building resilience is not a privilege but a right.

To access the fund and mutual support or get in touch, go to www.theradicalresilienceproject.org. We are also on instagram @the_radical_resilience_project. We are independently funded so any financial support literally keeps this project possible – to donate you can use Paypal (theresiliencefunduk@gmail.com).

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We just stocked up on our herbal first aid. We are not doctors or herbologists but as humans we have found these tinctures & woman’s tea very helpful.
Apply for a mini grant & treat yourself to a herbal tincture or some teas. 🌱🌿🍶☕

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We are not a charity.

Disclaimer: We don’t think all charities are bad or that there are not good things being done by charities – many are incredibly necessary. We just choose to work outside this model as we think there needs to be proper alternatives as well as big systematic change.

We are not a charity. We refuse to fit into a pre-existing structure because we see many problems with all NGO and charity organisational structures.
We have decided to be an AEP (an anti establishment project). We want to create a completely new way of organising based on humanity and unlearning.
We don’t have policies, codes of conducts, monitoring forms, evaluation forms, business plans or obvious rules and regulations, and we will fund ourselves  independently. 
We operate instead on trust, humanity, kindness and understanding. We aim to offer solidarity rather than help and create collective responsibility for supporting one another and a space for exchange of support and ideas rather than a service that provides support. We will learn and unlearn as we go and welcome being called out or questioned.  

Why we are not a charity:

Even the connotations of the word charity, for us feel quite negative. There is a feeling that charity is giving to those inferior and there is a lot to say for problematic power dynamics within th charity sector. 
Having both worked for and been supported by many charities and support providers we feel that there is a lot of dangerous aspects to a charity such as hierarchy, oppressive structures, patronising systems, poverty porn and unhelpful stereotyping of survivors, to name a few. The reasons behind charities are also very problematic such as a white saviour complex, religion, money and people generally deciding what others need (and thinking they know best), rather than asking.
The way charities are funded and have to fundraise as well as have to monitor and report on their services also leads to competition where charities compete with each other not only on who is best but on who supports the most vulnerable and most needy. This creates further innacurate and exploitative representation of survivors and our experiences. 
Our identity is shaped by this which is why we are often reduced to faceless, nameless shadows or sillouettes on charity marketing. 
Competition between charities and funding sources also creates an attitude of superiority, defensiveness, charities deciding they are the expert (instead of survivors) and charities always having to be seen perfoming well- not being able to admit mistakes or say when they fucked up. This is not ok and means a lot of serious mistakes are hidden rather than addressed and learned from. 
Monitoring and evaluation within charities is also designed to keep us powerless, vulnerable and further victimise us. We need to be vulnerable and oppressed for funders to fund the service and for the service to run a certain way.
A lot of assumptions are made within survivor charities about our experience, our identity and our recovery. Survivors are portrayed a certain way and not given much autonomy or power. We are told ‘for our saftey’ we have to use the service a certain way -our saftey is used as an excuse to hold control within the organisation.
There needs to be something very different that moves away from how survivor organisations currently operate. A space where instead of ticking boxes and filling in forms we connect with each other and see each other. A space where we can allow for mistakes and want to learn and unlearn. A space where we acknowledge privilege and power. A space where instead of having to prove your vulnerability, your need or your trauma you’re trusted unconditionally. A space where you have control and ownership of your own support. A space where we don’t have to answer to funders. A space where we see vulnerability as powerful. A space where survivors are three dimensional beings and are allowed to have a face, a name and are allowed to have more than three emotions at any one time. A space where recovery is not only hard but can be fun. A space where humour and laughter is allowed as well as crying and pain. A space where we celebrate our breakdowns and flaws as well as our coping strategies. A space where we can explore our sexualities, love and flaunt our bodies and be sex positive. A space where we have uttermost respect and trust for each others expertise in their own healing. A space where we share support, regain our power and build our resilience in our own ways that work for us. 

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Let’s be good to each other, great to each other, support each other, validate each other and respect each other. Solidarity with all survivors and folks who have experienced sexual assault or abuse of any kind. Sending LOVE! ✊✊✊💛💛💛 #supportsurvivors

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Sat on the pavement eating ice cream.

Cause we r allowed to rest. 🍦🍦🍦 Apply for a mini grant 2 rest & eat ice cream on the pavement 2!! #allowedtorest #treatingmyself

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Cakes by @thesweetfeminist