Counselling Survivors in an On and Offline World

“We can only start to make changes if you tell us what you need”

“RCNI really wants to hear from survivors of sexual violence”, says Dr Michelle Walsh, Clinical Programme Lead

Last week, the tragic circumstances around the death of Sarah Everard in the UK sparked concerns and renewed interest in Domestic, Sexual and Gender based violence throughout Ireland. In an on-line piece on March 15th, Damian Cullen of the Irish Times asked, ‘How safe are women in Ireland? Have you been through experiences of being harassed, assaulted or worse? He asked survivors to share their stories; thirty people outlined their experiences.

Victim blaming

The responses from the brave survivors who came forward mirrored the stories of survivors that we hear here at RCNI on a daily basis. They detailed incidents of stalking, sexual assault, cat calling, victimization due to gender, of women and girls feeling consistently unsafe and then being blamed for their assaults.

“I don’t want my daughter growing up to accept this is normal”

Pornography a problem

Some cited the availability of porn as part of the societal wide problem. Others recounted how menacing and threatening behaviour could even be normalised, being told by colleagues in the wake of an instance of stalking, for example, that that they should be flattered. Many survivors recounted how their experiences detrimentally effected their health and their ability to feel safe in the world. With conversations turning to “I don’t want my daughter growing up to accept this is normal” and “it’s not ok to look the other way anymore”.

“it’s not ok to look the other way anymore”

Peer influence

A number talked about peer influence and its ability to motivate and cause change, outlining strongly that men need to be part of the response in addressing the issues of sexual harassment and assault. Another, however, discussed men’s unwillingness to recognise the extent of the problem and accepting that there is a risk to being female.

Let’s talk about men

Again in the Irish Times, on Monday, March 22nd, Anne Enright, stated, “We always speak of women’s safety, let’s talk about male violence instead.” Too often we do not talk about men when we talk about male violence and that is how they like it, she said.

“We always speak of women’s safety, let’s talk about male violence instead.”

Again, a very true and valid point, which led onto a great discussion on victim blaming, its impact and how that plays out within the different sectors of our communities.

Not a male or female issue

I agree whole heartedly with both articles but for me the missing point is that sexual violence is not a male or female issue. It is a societal issue, flamed by the gender and social norms that we are all exposed to consciously and sub consciously from birth. It is only when we become aware of this and over time when we reimagine and recalibrate the gender and social norms that we ascribe to that we can start making a difference to the unacceptable level of gender based violence that happens in our country – and particularly and crucially – to the way we treat those who have been exposed to its effects.

We can make changes

I believe that as a country we can make the changes we have to and that is precisely what we here at RCNI are working towards. We are constantly trying to improve the systems that survivors have to navigate in order to gain help.

Standardised counselling is key

Our new Clinical Innovation Project, entitled Counselling Survivors in an On and Off -line World forms a critical part of this push for change. It is about ensuring that survivors attending for counselling receive a uniformed standard of care, whether they attend a rape crisis centre or a private therapist.

Your input is vital

Over the past three months we have engaged with over 750 counsellors and psychotherapists, from a multitude of backgrounds including those within our own sector. Our work has been focused on exploring where our strengths and weakness as therapists are, collaborating with each other for the benefit of all survivors.

We want to hear from you – survivors

We are now moving to a critical part of our work – talking to survivors. We are not looking to cause you distress, or asking you to discuss your experience of surviving sexual violence. Instead we want to know what your experience of therapy has been like, what has helped you, what has not been so helpful, are there things that we, as professional therapists, are doing well or are there things we could do better?

We can only start to make the changes you want to see if you tell us how we can do our job better for you. This is something we are really passionate about. This project is not going to stop sexual and gender based violence but we hope that it will give everyone working in this sector more understanding, more evidence and clarity about how we can move forward in a new post-pandemic world. We also hope it will help us to challenge the social gender norms that we continue to hold as a society – to help break the culture that regrettably and wrongly makes the world far less safe for women and girls.

Change has to begin somewhere. If you do what you always do, you’re going to get what you always get. With your help, your experience, your bravery we can begin to transform the way we respond to sexual violence.