Join us this weekend for writing and journal drawing with Annie Fahy and Susan McChesney!
Join us this weekend for writing and journal drawing with Annie Fahy and Susan McChesney!
What we’ve been through shapes how we are the in the world.
This might seem self-evident, but so many cultural attitudes we encounter (and perhaps even hold ourselves) fail to acknowledge that people became who they are somehow. Many of us have inculcated in us through media messages, friends, family, schools, that we are individuals who all have an equal chance in life. Anyone who works hard can become whoever they want. Taken on its own, this belief appears encouraging, hopeful, and positive. However, its corollary contains within it a shadow that affects many whose lives seem to fall short of the idyllic vision of self-determination.
This shadow often takes the form of stigma. The stigma against people who are in poverty, who struggle with addiction, homelessness, mental health issues, lack of education, even things like obesity, and smoking. How many times have we heard someone say “Well, if they would just….” and then insert the “obvious” solution: get a job, reconnect with family, go on a diet, just stop drinking, just stop using. The conclusion is then to blame the individual, assuming that they must not want to get better, and chalk up their struggles to a lack of willpower, or a flaw or defect in their nature.
My role here as an Outreach Counselor at Our VOICE is to work with the people at the margins of society, survivors of sexual abuse who often struggle with many of those stigmatized behaviors and situations. These clients may struggle with common trauma reactions, like anger, difficulty with relationships, fearfulness, tension, and low self-worth. Layered on top of these symptoms can be financial strain, early dropout from school, unhealthy relationships with food, difficulty forming relationships, substance use, homelessness, difficulty maintaining employment, as well as with core beliefs of worthlessness, or a general sense that they are bad, wrong, or tainted. People often don’t connect the abuse and hardship they’ve encountered to behaviors and material circumstances that they struggle with. An important piece of knowledge that can help folks articulate to themselves this connection is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study.
The ACE study was conducted by an organization named Kaiser Permanente in the mid-1990s, and quickly caught the attention of the Center for Disease Control. The study polled over 17,000 adults, screening for the various types of childhood trauma, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, emotional abuse, incarceration of a family member, witnessing domestic violence, mental illness or substance abuse in the household, and divorce or separation. What they found was that these experiences are widespread; 63.9% of people report at least one ACE. 20.7% report sexual abuse. 28.3% reported physical abuse. Researchers also found that ACEs occurred in clusters. 12.5% of the respondents had experienced 4 or more types of ACEs. The prevalence of these experiences are high; what was more shocking were the effects they had on health and behavior over the lifespan. They found that ACE scores correlated to the following:
Alcoholism, COPD, depression, fetal death, poor quality of life related to health, drug use, heart disease, liver disease, difficulty performing at work, financial stress, higher risk for intimate partner violence, higher risk for later encountering sexual violence, STDs, having multiple sexual partners, unintended pregnancy, smoking (with earlier age of onset of smoking behaviors), earlier engagement in sexual activity, adolescent pregnancy, and difficulty in school.
The information in the two paragraphs above was taken from the CDC website on ACEs. You can explore more of this information by clicking on this link
Take a breath and really try to take that list in.
The theory put forth by researchers posits that these behaviors and health issues are a result of the developmental impairments caused by childhood trauma. They use this pyramid to illustrate the chain effect that ACEs have on the lifespan. Imagine growing up in a home where chaos, violence, neglect, or violation was the norm. (Perhaps you don’t have to imagine because this was your experience. If that’s the case, I encourage you to take care of yourself after reading this. Go for a walk, talk to a friend, pet your dog, do what feeds your soul and helps you relax). Children who grow up in these environments spend much of their time in “survival mode,” where their developing bodies and minds are constantly being taxed by their nervous system to ensure that they can keep themselves safe. Val’s blog post does a great job of explaining how a properly functioning nervous system is able to self-regulate. Over time, children enduring chronic stress experience diminished ability to regulate their emotions and physical states. They may attempt to understand what’s happening in their lives by blaming themselves. As such, they may grow up being very reactive, seeking any source of support, comfort, or any chance to regulate their out of control physiology. (You can read more about the effects of trauma and chronic stress in childhood by reading Healing Developmental Trauma by Laurence Heller, PhD and Aline LaPierre, PsyD)
This understanding can help us shift how we see others who struggle with stigmatized behaviors. It can also help us understand ourselves. These behaviors are not their story. They indicate the presence of the true story hiding beneath, the one of survival amidst danger, of resourcefulness and resiliency in a situation of deprivation and powerlessness. So I encourage you to practice compassion and understanding. Remember the ways in which your past has impacted you, and how others’ past may have affected them. It’s in that way that we can begin showing ourselves and others the love and tenderness for those parts that we wish to disown or forget. That love and tenderness, kindness and compassion are the fertile soil from which healing can grow.
With the recent violence here in Asheville, we are deeply saddened for the victims and their loved ones, but we are also hopeful that with the opening of the Family Justice Center this summer, we will continue to improve our community’s services to survivors and reduce sexual and domestic violence in Buncombe County.
What is a Family Justice Center?
The first Family Justice Center was created in San Diego in 2002, and the model has spread to many other communities throughout the United States, and even internationally. It is a “one-stop” center with a multi-disciplinary team to provide the comprehensive services that survivors need. A family justice center is a coordinated community response to sexual and domestic violence that brings together law enforcement, non-profits, and governmental agencies in collaboration to provide the best possible services to survivors. Here locally, these agencies will include Our VOICE, Helpmate, Asheville Police Department and Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office domestic and sexual violence units, Pisgah Legal Services, Forensic Nurse Examiners from Mission Hospital, and Health and Human Services.
Why This Model?
Family Justice Centers provide one location of comprehensive services for survivors, which makes the system less complicated to navigate. Survivors will not have to make as many phone calls, fill out as many referrals, or tell their story to as many people, which allows them to focus on their safety and healing process. The central location for services also provides greater opportunities for interagency communication and support. This creates a strong level of collaboration between each agency, which will help us to continue to improve our services to survivors. Below are the overall goals that we believe this model will help us to achieve in our community.
Goals of the FJC:
• Eliminate duplication
• Increase arrest and prosecution of offenders
• Reduce fear and anxiety for victims
• Increase victim safety
• Reduce sexual and domestic violence
The Family Justice Center will be located at 35 Woodfin Street, and will be opening later this summer. Stay tuned for more information about the Family Justice Center as the opening gets closer. We are continuing to work towards ending sexual violence in our community, and we are excited for the coordinated community response that the FJC will bring. Thank you for all of your support!
Self-care is so obvious a prescription for first-line crisis responders that it has become something of a cliché: before you can put the oxygen mask on your child, you must first apply it to yourself. The consequence for not giving yourself oxygen first is clear; unconscious, you won’t be any good to your child at all.
Self-care might be the obvious prescription for this line of work, but- as it turns out- it is not the most instinctive. Many of us were taught at an early age to always adopt a posture of service to others. After all, we didn’t gravitate toward advocating for or providing services to survivors of sexual violence because we are most concerned about ourselves. And for most of us the act of looking inward to assess our own needs can be downright uncomfortable, particularly if doing so has us revisit traumatic experiences.
Recently I had the opportunity to examine the impact of various mindfulness exercises in working with trauma survivors. I was fortunate to attend the Family Justice Center Conference in San Diego, where I explored a variety of subjects, from intervening with adults who have high Adverse Childhood Experience scores to introducing deep breathing techniques to children who are dis-regulated. After the conference, I participated in a two-day workshop in the Community Resiliency Model, which uses the language of bodily sensation and mindfulness as a sort of behavioral first aid for those who are operating outside their “resiliency zone,” a state in which we perform and act at our most optimal.
In trying to synthesize all of this great information, my mind invariably travels back to how we can equip ourselves and each other with the self-care needed to sustain the work we do at Our VOICE. How can we give care to the care giver? How can we build resiliency as a network of people providing hope and support to victims of sexual violence? How can we place the oxygen mask to our collective face first?
At Our VOICE we strive to give attention to these questions in an intentional way, building resources through both staff and volunteers so that we can be a community of care operating in our “resiliency zone.”
As with the proverbial oxygen mask, it starts with our individual practice first. Inspired by the classes I have taken, I am developing my own mindfulness practice through meditating. I have learned a number of things about myself since starting this practice. Above all, I have learned that the muscle for emptying my mind is very, very weak. I live in my head too much, and I am many more times likely to tick down my “to do” list than I am to concentrate on my breathing. But I am trying. And I challenge each of you to find something that helps you feel centered throughout the day.
There’s no one correct prescription for self-care. Do yoga if it’s your thing. Walk in the woods with your dog. Enjoy time with a supportive friend. Get a massage. Use mindfulness apps like IChill (which describes the Community Resiliency Model and its techniques) or Stop, Breathe, & Think (a guided meditation app for beginners).
Do whatever to take care of yourself. If not for yourself, then for the volunteer who accompanies a victim to the hospital, for the educator who hears a child disclose sexual abuse, and for survivor of sexual assault who comes to Our VOICE for healing and hope.
–Val is the Program Director at Our VOICE.
Witty banter, catch phrases, and prison rape jokes are common rhetoric in our society. So I ask, is the image and joke soap on a rope, a slippery slope? Are we encouraging, condoning and finding sexual violence funny? The roaring laughter that inevitably follows suggests that a tool used to reduce risk of sexual assault while incarcerated is found hysterical. Yet, this kind of humor encourages sexual violence, especially for individuals who are detained for various reasons. Social media, movies, and music sensationalize and draw attention to the issue of prison rape. What is rarely portrayed are the long term effects of sexual assault. Experiencing sexual violence is a devastating event in anyone’s life and the effects of sexual violence on inmates is exacerbated by powerlessness, facing their attacker on a daily basis, and limited to no resources or support following the assault.
The perpetuation of prison rape culture further silences survivors of sexual assault, condones violence, and dehumanizes the invisible members of our community, inmates. No person deserves to be sexually assaulted, regardless of their criminal history. Sexual assault should not be a part of their sentence, and flagrant disregard of the issue can easily be viewed as cruel and unusual punishment.
Nearly two million people in the United States are incarcerated at any given time. Twelve million admissions occur each year, and the jail and prison system can often act as a revolving door. Nearly 200,000 incidences of sexual assault are reported each year occurring in the detention facility. The most alarming fact is that this is comparable to the number of women reporting sexual assault each year in the general public. A large majority of inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, and many have not yet been found guilty of any crime but are incarcerated while awaiting trial.
To truly call ourselves advocates for ending sexual violence we must expand our views and afford services and attention to all victims of sexual assault, as there are no bad victims. No one asks to be sexually assaulted. All humans should have the right and control over their own personal bodies and space. Instead of viewing inmates as social pariahs, see them as your fellow man, parent, sibling, neighbor, or best friend. Legislation has been passed to afford rights and services to these invisible community members. It’s known as the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
Change your rhetoric, educate yourself, and as you advocate for social issues, whether it be Cecil the lion, racial issues, or issues pertaining to gay rights, remember everyone’s rights and safety matter, and as a community we are responsible for the conditions and our attitudes. So yes, soap on a rope, is a slippery slope. The conditions of our communities are a direct reflection of our consciousness.
–Heather is the Volunteer Coordinator at Our VOICE.
Over several installments, this blog will explore how sexual trauma affects cisgender men. As the men’s counselor and 1 in 6 project coordinator for Our Voice, I have compiled information gathered from websites, journals, news articles, and most importantly, my clients – people who have experienced sexual trauma and identify or present as male. Most of the research (as well as the grant funding my position) focuses on cisgender men, and the blog’s focus will be limited in that way. I will be speaking plainly and directly about sexual trauma, so: trigger warning.
The best statistics, compiled from studies spanning a few decades, tell us that about 1 in 6 men experience “unwanted or abusive” sexual experiences before the age of 18. About 1 in 10 rape victims are male. These statistics are also based on reported experiences – to doctors, on national health surveys, at college campuses – and so we can safely assume that the actual incidence is much higher. (1in6.org)
Men don’t tend to talk openly about sexual trauma. Many of my clients who were abused in childhood have never told anyone – and most of them don’t enter counseling until their 30s or 40s. Some have only told their trusted partners. Almost all of them kept it a secret, only asking for help now, when they recognize how it has impacted their lives, through addiction, anxiety, depression, or difficulties with steady employment.
“Only 16% of men with documented histories of sexual abuse (by social service agencies, which means it was very serious) considered themselves to have been sexually abused – compared to 64% of women with documented histories in the same study.” (1in6.org)
Survivors of sexual assault are:
3 times more likely to have depression
4 times more likely to contemplate suicide
6 times more likely to suffer from PTSD
13 times more likely to abuse alcohol
26 times more likely to abuse drugs (rainn.org)
Men keep it a secret, or don’t recognize it as abuse, for a number of reasons. The main one is shame. They ask themselves “how could I have let this happen” or “what would people think of me?” And when some of them have shared, they were shamed for “not fighting” or being “weak.” Another reason men don’t disclose is that they fear they will be looked at as potential perpetrators. Research shows that most survivors of sexual trauma do not become perpetrators. But some male survivors, upon disclosing, have been shunned and told they are not welcome around the listener’s children.
Another reason men often don’t identify as survivors is because the experience may have felt pleasurable physically, even if not emotionally. Some feel guilty because their bodies responded while the rest of them stayed frozen in shock. This can all be confusing for men, who question their sexual identity, or what healthy relationships look like. Most experiences like that, especially with someone years older than the men were at that time, tend to be harmful. Physical arousal is not consent. These experiences sexualize children earlier than they are developmentally ready to integrate. The men I work with who have questions around this often see how it has affected their sexual or romantic relationships in harmful and destructive ways.
Research shows us that sexual orientation has nothing to do with sexual abuse. Perpetrators are pedophiles, and sexual abuse is not gay or straight. Most men who perpetrate sexually on boys identify as heterosexual. Survivors’ sexual orientations are not changed by the gender identity of the perpetrator. (1in6.org)
Most of my male clients suffer from shame, anxiety, depression, addiction, and confusion. Once they decide to disclose their experiences, I’m able to work with them to understand their experiences, and begin to heal from them. Often just telling someone confidentially for the first time is a relief.
Our Voice offers free and confidential therapeutic services to anyone who has had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences, as a child or adult. Services are also available for the loved ones of the survivors – friends, families, parents and partners – to help them understand and support their loved one. Please call our crisis line at 828 255 7576.
How you can respond to a disclosure:
• Empathize: “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
• Validate: “It makes sense you feel that way.”
• Normalize: “It happens to at least 1 in 6 men”
• Support: “It wasn’t your fault.”
• Listen more than you talk
–Papillon DeBoer, LPCA is the 1 in 6 Program Counselor and Coordinator
I often think about how to promote the positive in my life—eating healthy, getting outside and being active, and building healthy relationships with my family and friends. When you work at a Rape Crisis and Prevention Center you have to be very intentional about making more space for the good things than the bad things. Now don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean ignoring the reality that people I love, people in my community are experiencing sexual violence at alarming rates and that violence has a huge effect on their health.
As a prevention educator and someone who is known for working at Our VOICE, people often ask me: “How can I have (or continue) these conversations with people who are important to me, who are uncomfortable with or don’t want to have these conversations, without alienating them?”
I believe the best answer to that question is to promote the positive. Some of my friends and family may not be interested in or comfortable with talking about sexual and intimate partner violence or rape culture. But if I can engage the people in my life by talking about consent and the other elements of healthy relationships, I believe I am still doing my part.
If we want to get folks involved and committed to ending violence in our community and beyond we have to give folks the tools, language, and skills to create the community they desire. We cannot only say NO to what we do not want (i.e., sexual violence, rape culture, racism, transphobia, homophobia) but we have to actively decide upon and seek out what we do want in our lives and communities. Experiences of privilege and oppression play a huge role in how much ability a given person has to set boundaries and have those boundaries respected. However, as individuals we can do our personal best to communicate our own boundaries and respect others’. Modeling that kind of behavior will only help the people around us to feel safe and to reflect on their own boundaries, desires, and relationships.
For example, when I watch television shows with folks like this, I try to point out moments between characters that are consensual or demonstrate healthy communication. To be clear, conflict is a normal part of relationships. And conflict can be both healthy and unhealthy. So when I see healthy communication and conflict on TV or in movies I point it out! I say: “Wow they did such a great job working through such a difficult issue.” Or: “That was sexy/awesome/impressive… the way he just asked what they wanted and if they were comfortable!”
When I listen to songs on the radio I try do the same thing. One beautiful example of consent in a song is in Primetime by Janelle Monáe featuring Miguel, who sings, “Bang bang, I’m calling your name. You’re like a fire the world can’t tame. I wanna riot ‘til the stars come out and play. Is that okay?” Is that okay? What a beautiful example of making consent sexy and approachable. Consent and healthy communication are not easy. They both require constant learning and practice (and mistakes! Lots of awkward mistakes).
Although it can be more difficult, pointing out these moments IRL is just as important. (Apologies, I work with middle schoolers. IRL=In Real Life.) If you have a friend struggling to communicate their needs with an intimate partner, offer healthy suggestions, encourage them to feel empowered to set their boundaries. And if they try it out, give them constructive feedback. Say: “You are so brave for communicating your needs. Maybe next time you could be a little clearer about this one part. I’m so glad you feel safe to talk to your partner about this issue.”
Preventing sexual violence doesn’t have to always sound like “DON’T RAPE.” Although, duh. It can also sound like supporting the difficult processes that make up healthy sexual encounters and relationships. And as I’ve pointed out, media plays a HUGE role in modeling appropriate and acceptable (or unacceptable) behavior. Absolutely, call out sexual violence and rape culture when you see it. But let’s also celebrate the moments when our culture doesn’t fail us. When the teen show Beauty and The Beast shows a young woman communicating that her and her boyfriend will only have a healthy relationship if she is able to have alone time and time with her friends separate from him. (Not so guilty pleasure, I love YA media.)
And, if you’re into sports, celebrate the moments when athletes do the right thing. When they stand up for a cause that you believe in. When UFC Fighter Ronda Rousey tells young women and girls that they can be whatever they want outside of traditional (and often harmful) gender norms. Whatever they dream of being. Empowering individuals to live healthy, whole, authentic lives is just as much a part of dismantling the systems of privilege and oppression as holding perpetrators accountable. And this kind of empowering can feel so much less alienating (if at all) to folks who don’t think they are ready to hear about sexual violence and the necessary eradication of it.
–Erin is the Rape Prevention Educator at Our VOICE.
Over half a million people are experiencing homelessness on any given night here in the United States, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). People experience homelessness due to a variety of different factors such as a lack of affordable housing, poverty, a lack of employment opportunities, the decline in available public assistance, serious mental illness, and a lack of affordable health care if themselves or a family member becomes ill.
Once a person is experiencing homelessness, he or she is now living in a dangerous environment where their basic needs such as shelter, food, and clothing are no longer being met. They also struggle with where to shower, brush their teeth, use the bathroom, and other hygiene processes that those of us who are housed often do not think about. To attend to all of these basic needs while also looking for the limited affordable housing and employment that is available makes all of these decisions and tasks all the more stressful and overwhelming, which only makes getting out of homelessness even more difficult for the individual or family.
Not only do women experiencing homelessness have all of this to deal with, but the condition of homelessness itself also dramatically increases women’s risk of being sexually assaulted. Women on the streets do not have the same level of safety provided to them as women who are housed under a roof. Ninety-two percent of women experiencing homelessness report having experienced severe physical and/or sexual assault at some point in their lives. Over 66 percent of these women experienced severe physical violence from a caretaker, and 42 percent had been sexually assaulted during childhood. Sixty percent of women experiencing homelessness report having been abused by the age of 12. This type of childhood trauma can be a factor in how someone began experiencing homelessness, and can potentially contribute to mental health conditions such as PTSD or the risk of substance abuse, which only makes it more difficult to escape homelessness with limited social services.
At Our VOICE we recognize that women experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to violence, and we hope to better serve this community. Zac has recently joined the Our VOICE team as our new Outreach Counselor, which means that he goes out and tells underserved populations about our services and he provides counseling services to those that are interested. We also realize that it could be very difficult to process these issues in counseling if you are worried about where you are going to sleep that night, or when you will eat your next meal. For that reason, our Client Services Coordinator, Jerry, is expanding case management services here at Our VOICE. He helps connect clients to outside resources such as food, housing, and transportation to assist people with all of the other complicated issues that they may be dealing with when they come here for counseling. There is still a great deal to do to end both homelessness and sexual violence, but we will continue to strive to better serve this vulnerable population.
-Jerry is the Client Services Coordinator at Our VOICE
1. National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Housing and homelessness in the United States of America: 2014.
2. National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. No safe place: Sexual assault in the lives of homeless women: 2011.
3. Browne, Angela, and Shari S. Bassuk. “Intimate violence in the lives of homeless and poor housed women: Prevalence and patterns in an ethnically diverse sample.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 67.2 (1997): 261-278.
I teach a lot of students about the root causes of sexual violence and consent. The other day I was in a high school classroom and I said something to the effect of “the absence of NO does not mean YES. Consent must be a verbal agreement between both people.”
Immediately I saw a student’s hand go up. The simple question they asked has been on my mind since then. “What if the person cannot verbally say YES?” Now, I know that those that are deaf or unable to audibly express themselves can certainly give enthusiastic consent in other ways besides verbally. However, this question got me thinking about the ways we teach about sexual violence and consent and how we can begin to make this type of education more culturally specific, contextual and sensitive.
Each time I go into a classroom I learn something new from students and while I know we can always improve as prevention educators, here are a few things I think are important to address:
Sexual violence does not exist in a vacuum. It exists within a complex social structure that benefits some social groups more than others. All forms of violence, sexual violence included, are buttressed by a foundation of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and many other types of power over that drive, normalize and make perpetration socially acceptable.
While conversations about power dynamics can be challenging to bring up in the classroom, they are extremely necessary. Power, control and entitlement are the main motivators of all forms of sexual violence. These conversations should be the foundation for dismantling systems of oppression, transforming social norms and creating a culture of consent.
Intersectionality has become such a buzzword of late. It has become a buzzword, however, precisely because of its importance to social justice and social change. Statistics prove that people with more intersecting oppressed identities are more likely to experience sexual assault and violence. Starting at a perspective that allows us to understand that each individual has been shaped by society in unique ways based on their complex identities, allows us to:
Our prevention programming should aim to engage students in conversations about intersectionality, because it translates directly to students’ lived experiences.
As Prevention Educator, the language I use in the classroom when talking about sexual violence and consent is extremely important. For example, I cannot say, “verbal agreement,” and end the conversation there, when I know not everyone who is capable of consenting to sex is able to make a verbal agreement. I can engage and challenge the students with language by saying, “consent needs to be an enthusiastic, verbal agreement between two people. But what are some ways those who cannot verbally express themselves might express consent?”
Language and the ways we use it is one of the main ways we become blinded by our privileges. As educators, we will inevitably make mistakes with language over and over and over again. But it is okay; breathe. By acknowledging, learning from, and integrating those language considerations we can include and empower more students each time we teach.
This one may seem like a no brainer; of course we want to involve youth in consent education. But what I mean, is for sexual violence and consent education to be truly transformative, we must engage young people in what is important to them. This of course is easier said than done, but it all starts with listening.
Listening is the first thing we teach advocates working with survivors of sexual assault. It should also be the first thing we learn as educators. Listening to the lived experiences of young people and validating those experiences without judgment can be a powerful stepping stone to preventing violence and shifting social norms.
Focus on the perpetrators
Finally, the bottom line for prevention education is to shift attitudes and behaviors and this involves a lot of undoing conditioning around victim blaming. Our focus on prevention needs to be understanding predatory behavior and stopping perpetration of violence. Our culture’s focus on victim behavior, language, dress and actions creates shame and guilt for survivors of sexual violence. Through education we can empower students and community members to recognize perpetrator behavior and stand up and speak out against it.
Much more could be said about education for the prevention of sexual violence and the creation of a culture of consent. We still need a lot of research around consent education, bystander intervention, perpetrator psychology and other topics related to the field. There are still some big, complex questions that require deep reflection and analysis. How is consent truly negotiated between two people willing to engage in sexual activity? Can those in marginalized positions truly give their consent? While sitting with these huge questions, it is comforting to know and be able to teach young people that no one deserves to be raped, that everyone has the right to decide when, how and with whom to have sex, and that anyone who has experienced sexual assault has options for healing available to them.
–Matt is the Prevention Education Coordinator at Our VOICE.