It feels as if there is a big conversation happening currently about abuse and sexual violence, one that is going beyond the single narrative of violence by men towards women. For LGBT+ people, and particularly trans people, who whatever their gender are disproportionately abused, this is very important. I write about this, in response to the #MeToo viral campaign, in my latest article in The Queerness.
The danger of opening out the discussion and realising that people are abused, not just women, is that we can erase much of the good work that feminism has done in highlighting structural inequalities that particularly affect women, and enable abuse. The Harvey Weinstein saga and others like it has not happened in a gender neutral context, and it’s dangerous to pretend it has. With that in mind, I responded to an article in BACP Therapy Today that to me went backwards rather than forwards, erasing the good feminist work that’s been done around abuse that highlights the abuser’s power as an essential ingredient for abuse to happen.
My letter is shared in full here:
It was at once heartening and disappointing to read Phil Mitchell’s piece about men’s experience of abuse in Boys can be victims too, October issue.
It is very important that we raise awareness of male victimhood and also female perpetration, however it’s sad that when this happens it so often comes with a side attack on feminist approaches to violence. As someone who has worked in this field for a long time, I wish to develop the feminist model, but not throw it out. There are very good reasons for including power analysis in our appreciation of abuse. What is limiting is a non-intersectional appreciation where the power differential between men and women is noted, but other power differentials are ignored. Mitchell’s approach seems to be, rather than note the other power differentials that exist, to attempt to erase misogyny.
Mitchell states “what is common to all victims of CSE is not their age, ethnicity, disability, or sexual orientation, but their powerless and vulnerability” and yet we know that powerlessness and vulnerability can be caused by those very things Mitchell lists. We know looked after children are more vulnerable to abuse, children in general are more vulnerable than adults, disabled and neurodiverse people more vulnerable than able/neurotypical, etc.
Particularly absent from the discussion, despite referring to gay clients, is the established research data that LGBT+ children experience higher levels of abuse than their straight counterparts. Around 50% of trans people, whether men, women or non-binary, experience childhood sexual abuse. In a society that stigmatises and marginalises gender non-conformity, and disbelieves or rejects the narratives of LGBT+ kids, it’s not hard to imagine the reasons why predators target them.
Finally, Mitchell makes a bold and unsubstantiated claim, that the skewed figures suggesting women experience higher levels of abuse are false. And yet, this imbalance holds over a number of different studies and methodologies, including anonymous self-reporting. As a practitioner, I can assure Mitchell that women also under-report, and that 15 year old girls also cling to the idea that having adult “boyfriends” is something special, and conceal the abusive nature of the relationship from themselves and others.
The myth that women and girls find it easy to speak up about abuse is particularly problematic. Of the women clients I have worked with, a tiny handful have spoken up and still less have been supported and believed. Having worked with both male, female and non-binary clients, I can confirm that much of what Mitchell reports is by no means specific to male victims, although of course there will be specific social narratives and dynamics in play for all diverse groups of people, and certainly dismantling our ideas around male power, invulnerability and masculinity is a feminist issue that ultimately will assist male victims.
Abuse is a multi-determined phenomenon and I agree we should take all victimisation equally seriously, as a disadvantage in and of itself that can lead to future inequalities. However, that does not excuse us from noting the many power differentials that enable abuse to happen, including misogyny. If we are not aware of these power differentials, how may we ensure they do not replicate themselves in the therapy room?
We need to widen the feminist dialogue, not dismiss it. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality gives us the framework to understand that power dynamics are not single issue and that gender is just one factor within a complex web of structural inequalities that exist in society. Through this lens, we can look at female perpetration, male victimhood, and the disproportionate burden of abuse that falls on the LGBT+ community and other minority groups.
As a pro-intersectional feminist, the work I do with people who have endured abuse and oppression will always be informed by an understanding of power dynamics, and an awareness of the complex nature of these. This takes a great deal of self-reflection and exploring of unconscious biases, but the therapist who does not want to see these structures cannot possibly work safely with their effects.
Follow Sam on Twitter (@Sam_R_Hope)