Tag Archives: sexual abuse

Restoring relationships with survivors of human trafficking

By Lindsey Phillips August 4, 2021

Jenna Hershberger, a licensed associate professional counselor, was working on a crisis response team for a regional human service center in North Dakota when she received a call from a young woman reporting physical abuse. The woman was forthcoming about her medical complaints but not the state of her mental and emotional health. Hershberger could tell there was more to the woman’s story, so she asked to meet her in real life to discuss things further. The woman agreed.

During their in-person meeting, Hershberger, a therapist at the Village Family Service Center in Fargo, North Dakota, noted signs of potential sex trafficking. “Her presentation was really concerning. She was very tearful,” Hershberger recalls. The woman also kept mentioning how her “friends” had forced her to do things while she was under the influence of substances. The more the woman shared, the more convinced Hershberger grew that the people being referenced were human traffickers, not friends. When Hershberger asked where the woman was staying, she revealed that she was currently homeless.

After talking for a while, the woman finally acknowledged that she had been forced into sex trafficking and wanted to get out. She was scared and didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, Hershberger did. She found the woman a safe shelter for the night and helped her locate mental and physical health services.

“I’m in North Dakota … [where] prevalence rates [of human trafficking] are lower, yet it’s still happening,” says Hershberger, a member of the American Counseling Association. “The tragedy where I am and in Midwestern, rural areas is that people just seem to say, ‘Well, this doesn’t happen here.’”

Jared Rose, a licensed professional clinical counselor and supervisor with a private practice, Moose Counseling and Consulting LLC, in Toledo, Ohio, has also encountered a “that doesn’t happen in my community” mentality when it comes to human trafficking. He began working in anti-trafficking about 15 years ago when someone involved in an anti-trafficking organization in Toledo approached him because of his work with the LGBTQ+ community and with people infected with, affected by or at risk for contracting HIV, both of which often intersect with trafficking. When conducting trainings in rural Ohio counties, Rose has heard law enforcement say, “That’s not happening here.” This statement makes Rose cringe because he knows firsthand from his work with individuals who have been trafficked that it is happening.

Human trafficking, in fact, is more common than we think. The International Labour Organization reported that approximately 40.3 million people were in modern slavery globally in 2016. Sometimes people incorrectly assume that human trafficking is a problem only in developing countries, but the National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 63,380 survivors of human trafficking in the United States from 2007 to 2019.

Rose, an ACA member who wrote an ACA fact sheet on human trafficking awareness for school counselors in 2019, finds that too many counselor clinicians also remain unaware of the definition and signs of trafficking. “You could have the epitome case sitting in front of you,” Rose says. “And if you don’t even know what trafficking is, you’re going to miss it.”

Recognizing the Signs

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. Rose, an assistant professor of counseling at Bowling Green State University, advises counselors to stay alert to signs of force, fraud or coercion with clients. “Take note of who they are with and where the power and control lie,” he says. For example, is someone else benefiting — often financially — from the client’s actions? Does someone else seem to be in charge or making all the client’s decisions for them?

Hershberger, a doctoral candidate in the counselor education and supervision program at North Dakota State University, also looks for visual signs such as bruising, scarring or branding. Individuals who are being or have been trafficked are often branded with “ownership” tattoos with the name of their trafficker or with symbols such as a star or cowboy hat. Because sex acts place a lot of strain on the body, survivors often discuss medical complaints such as dental issues, migraines or urinary tract infections, she adds.

Clients who have been trafficked “may appear overly compliant and submissive, or they might appear really abrasive and abrupt,” Hershberger points out. Counselors must recognize “that those strategies were adaptive at one time but they’re not right now.”

As it relates to falling victim to trafficking, Rose notes that the No. 1 risk factor for children is being unhoused. He prefers the term unhoused to runaway, he explains, because children are often abandoned or “thrown out” by their families. “Within a matter of two to three days of being out of the home, kids are approached [by traffickers], and one-third of those [unhoused] kids are going to get trafficked,” he says. “So, that piece of being unhoused — couch surfing, staying at a shelter, living on the street or whatever the case may be — puts them at significantly higher risk.” Children who are already vulnerable may easily fall prey to an adult who shows them attention or what they initially perceive as support, he adds.

Other risk factors include lower socioeconomic status, past trauma (sexual, physical, emotional, verbal or spiritual), being differently abled, substance use, and belonging to a racial or sexual minority group, Hershberger says. Given the complex trauma that these individuals experience, they often present with comorbid disorders such as substance use, bipolar and severe depression, she notes.

Counselors may overlook or miss signs of trafficking when they take the client’s circumstances or presenting issues at face value, notes Paige Dunlap, an associate professor of counseling at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. For example, if a client is homeless or doesn’t have any identification, counselors may start to talk about the emotions, behaviors and social systems surrounding the client’s chronic homelessness and help them come up with a plan to find a more stable environment. But in doing this, clinicians may miss the larger picture, stresses Dunlap, a licensed clinical mental health counselor with a private practice in Greensboro, North Carolina. Perhaps the client was forced into sex trafficking after being taken from their home or fleeing an unsafe environment.

“There’s a lot of different risk factors. There’s a lot of different things to look for. There’s a number of populations that we are particularly concerned about, but at end of day, it all boils down to vulnerability,” Rose says. For that reason, he stresses that counselors need to be cognizant of that vulnerability piece in connection with their clients.

Sometimes counselor practitioners worry that they won’t be able to recognize the signs that someone has been trafficked, Rose says, but he reassures them they know how to read interpersonal reactions. They know when someone is looking to another person for answers. They notice when people’s stories do not match up.

Counselors also need to consider what a trafficking survivor might look like in their particular clinical setting, Hershberger says. For example, if a counselor is doing crisis work, they might have someone who is in denial about being trafficked or confront a situation that appears to be domestic violence.

The office setting may determine the likelihood of a practitioner encountering an individual who is currently being trafficked or who has gotten out. Counselors who work in public health settings or hospitals are more likely to see individuals who are currently being victimized when these individuals come in for a medical issue such as testing for a sexually transmitted disease or injury from abuse, Rose notes. Counselors working in private practice or at a community agency will typically see these clients after they have been extricated, he says.

Establishing trust and safety

People who have been trafficked may find it difficult to trust others. Before thinking about clinical treatment plans, counselors need to establish a sense of safety and a healthy therapeutic rapport with these clients, Hershberger stresses. These individuals have experienced “complex trauma in the sense that it’s repeated for long duration and often comes from people who should be caregivers,” she explains, “so it makes it really hard for survivors of trafficking to trust us. We need to be really authentic because survivors will pick up on it if [we’re] not.”

Hershberger, president of the North Dakota Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, advises clinicians to maintain an open-door policy with survivors of human trafficking, especially when they are working on engagement with the client. People who are dealing with significant trauma may be more prone to canceling sessions, so adhering to a policy of termination after two missed sessions will not help build engagement and rapport with these clients, she cautions.

Counselors’ innate desire to help clients heal can sometimes be an impediment to build-ing this relationship. Rose sees counselors who want to dive right into the trauma work before first building strong therapeutic and strategic foundations, which can take a long time. “The minute we try to push too much — even if our best intentions are there — is when someone can have [a negative] reaction” and feel that the counselor is forcing them to do something they don’t want or are not yet ready to do, he says.

Rose has also witnessed the inverse: clients who get frustrated when counselors don’t jump straight into the trauma work. When this happens, he explains to clients that although they may feel ready, their whole system may not be. To further illustrate the point, he compares trauma work to a physical wound: “If I start poking around at a wound and you don’t trust me yet or your entire system isn’t ready to allow that yet, you’ll immediately pull back and you’re not going to want me to go near it,” he tells clients. “And the same [thing] is happening cognitively and emotionally with trauma. If we start poking around and you’re not ready, then it’s going to fall apart on us.”

The need for clinical trauma care

Rose asserts that counselors are in a prime position to provide clinical psychotherapy and trauma-focused work. Rose is an executive member of the Lucas County Human Trafficking Coalition, and he was awarded the Social Justice Leader Award from the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute in 2017.

Mental health services geared toward survivors of trafficking are great at managing clients’ symptoms through art or expressive therapy or group work, but Rose finds this is often where their treatment ends. “It has to be more. It has to be evidence-based trauma work,” he stresses. “We can’t just treat symptoms. We have to treat the whole person, and we have to treat the trauma.”

“Folx that have been labor trafficked have all sorts of layers of trauma damage. … Sex traffic victims have all of the symptoms of domestic violence, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse — all rolled into one very unpleasant package,” he continues. “And expressive therapy is not going to treat that trauma; it’s going to treat the symptoms. If we really want to help folx, we have to go deeper, and that’s where counselors really need to come into play.”

Rose, a certified therapist in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), recommends that counselors use an evidence-based trauma treatment that follows a triphasic approach that a) establishes a foundation, b) reprocesses and works through the trauma and c) plans for the future. Rose often uses EMDR when he’s working with this population because he finds it helpful to treat the root cause of the trauma. He also recommends trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy, especially when working with children and adolescents.

Take the relational approach

Hershberger points out that traffickers differ from other sexual offenders (who are often described as socially awkward and desire a sense of belonging) in that they are often socially intelligent, charismatic and good at forming relationships. They gain the trust of vulnerable individuals by initially fulfilling their need for love, connection and belonging, she explains. For example, the trafficker could be the first person in the individual’s life to recognize and celebrate their birthday or give them special attention, such as taking them to get a manicure.

These acts can cause some survivors to form bonds with and defend their traffickers — a condition often referred to as Stockholm syndrome. Hershberger and Dunlap point out that something similar sometimes happens with individuals who experience domestic violence. “Survivors will often defend their trafficker because they didn’t have that sense of belonging or that family growing up. So, this is the first time they’re experiencing that — along with horrible kinds of trauma — but it’s hard for them to differentiate that,” Hershberger explains.

According to Hershberger, these trauma bonds illustrate survivors’ desire for human connection. Traffickers thwart this connection by exploiting this desire for their own gain.

“Human sex trafficking is the ultimate anti-relationship,” argues Hershberger, who recently presented on this topic at ACA’s Virtual Conference Experience. Survivors of sex trafficking have been forced “to exist in a world absent of authentic, growth-fostering relationships,” she explains. Thus, she recommends that counselors use a relational-cultural approach with this client population to foster an authentic growth-fostering connection.

To explain this approach, Hershberger presents Marie, a fictional client: When she was 14 years old, Marie lived in an abusive home where her mother’s boyfriend molested her. So, Marie was excited when Jake, a 24-year-old man, approached her and promised a better life as his “girlfriend.” He bought her nice things and told her she was “amazing in bed.” One day, he told Marie some money hadn’t come through at work and asked if she would help him by having sex with a few guys. When she resisted, he beat her until she complied. He forced her into sex trafficking, and she was having sex with as many as 10-15 men a night. (See Hershberger’s 2020 article, “A relational-cultural theory approach to work with survivors of sex trafficking,” published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, for a more detailed discussion of this case study.)

Following a relational-cultural framework, Marie’s counselor first establishes a sense of safety and trust, and they are authentic, empathetic and consistent in their interpersonal interactions, Hershberger says. So, if the counselor makes a mistake by showing up late for session, they own that mistake, apologize and ask Marie how they can make up for it.

Marie may have internalized negative beliefs or self-blame such as “I’m only good for my body and others’ use” or “I’m not worthy of being loved.” The counselor can help Marie first identify and name these beliefs, and then they can work together to challenge these negative beliefs. The therapeutic relationship further challenges Marie’s distorted thinking about herself and relationships, Hershberger notes, and models what a healthy relationship entails.

To challenge Marie’s belief, the counselor could use self-disclosure and tell Marie, “I experience you as a creative, confident individual who is worthy of being loved.” Hershberger recommends that counselors use the client’s own words when reflecting positive attributes to help the client identify and own their strengths.

As Hershberger points out, traffickers try to keep victims in a constant state of uncertainty about their environment, safety or identity. So, the counselor’s role is to identify moments or thoughts that are unclear, such as Marie’s negative perception of her self-worth, and help her add clarity to them.

Hershberger names bibliotherapy and narrative therapy as useful approaches for empowering survivors of trafficking and helping them find their own voice. For example, the counselor could ask Marie what name her trafficker gave her and the name she wants to use moving forward. Then, Marie could journal about this new identity and the qualities associated with it.

The counselor could also add in creative techniques such as collage or relational imagery. For example, Hershberger once had a client who identified with the image of a wounded deer because they too had been hurt and abandoned. The wounding paralleled their own trauma around the physical abuse they had experienced while being trafficked. Later, Hershberger used this image to help the client think about what they wanted their future identity to be and to create a collage of their strengths.

The therapeutic relationship becomes a healthy relationship — one that is safe, dependable and empowering and that counters the disconnection and uncertainty survivors experienced when they were trafficked, Hershberger says.

Preparing to work with this population

The best way to understand what is going on with human trafficking in a specific area is to get involved and volunteer in the community, Rose says. One place to start is joining or attending meetings of local, regional or state trafficking coalitions and task forces. “You can learn more about what agencies are providing services for this population,” he says. “They need to know where mental health providers are, and you need to know where additional services are for survivors.”

Rose advises counselors to approach these partnerships with an attitude of wanting to learn and help. Communities don’t respond well to people who think they know what is best or have all the right answers, he says. Instead, inform these organizations of the crucial skills they may be missing. Counselors have “the clinical piece that a lot of these places need and strive for,” Rose notes. “There’s a lot of social workers, nurses and different helping professionals, but clinical mental health treatment may not be what they have.”

In addition to attending monthly meetings of North Dakota’s trafficking task force, Hershberger prepared to work with this population by reading case examples and familiarizing herself with these tough stories. She also reached out to other clinicians in the field to hear about their experiences. As she points out, “It’s one thing to hear terminology, but it’s another thing to hear somebody’s story.”

Rose and Dunlap recommend that counselors limit their caseloads (if they have that option) when working with this population. “You can’t hear the thing of nightmares for three, four or eight hours a day and expect to be OK by 6 or 7 o’clock at night,” Rose says. Both he and Dunlap, an ACA member who researches and works with youth with disabilities, survivors of human trafficking and criminal populations, have had to learn how to balance their clinical schedules better. They intentionally leave time between these difficult sessions so they can reflect, reenergize and regroup before seeing their next client.

Counselors must also remember that not every client-counselor relationship is the right fit, Rose says. For example, someone may refer a female survivor of sex trafficking to him because of his expertise in EMDR, but if she has been abused by men her entire life, she may not want to work with Rose regardless of his qualifications and reputation as a counselor.

“These clients have had people treat them really poorly their entire lives,” he points out. “Part of that therapeutic relationship is recognizing maybe I’m not the best counselor for every person I want to help, and that’s OK. Just giving [clients] that freedom and autonomy will help them along in their journey. They don’t have to work with me to fix the problem.”

Rose reminds counselors there are other ways to help serve this population without working directly with clients. Counselors can get involved in local agencies that work on human trafficking, provide education and trainings, or work on prevention, he says.

Hershberger understands how difficult it can be when counselors must refer a client. Because she was part of a crisis response team when she met the woman who was a survivor of human trafficking, she wasn’t able to continue working with her. The woman was referred to another clinician who worked for the human service center. “That was hard,” she recalls. “I couldn’t stay with her, and having that continuity of care would have been nice.”

Hershberger did have a chance to meet with the woman a few months later. With the help of her new counselors, she was making progress toward creating healthier relationships.

fizkes/Shutterstock.com

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Working with perpetrators of human trafficking

Paige Dunlap, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Greensboro, North Carolina, once worked with an agency in Detroit that assisted individuals who no longer wanted to be engaged in gang activity. In sharing their stories, some of the group members disclosed that they had been directly or indirectly involved in trafficking other individuals. After recovering from the initial shock of hearing that, Dunlap started to think and educate herself about ways counselors could help perpetrators of trafficking.

“We as counselors don’t really talk about this hidden population” of perpetrators, she says. “We don’t know too much about them.”

Often people’s biases can cloud their judgment about these individuals. The more Jenna Hershberger, a licensed associate professional counselor in Fargo, North Dakota, researched and worked with cases of sex trafficking, the more she discovered the dichotomous thinking attached to it: People consider traffickers to be “bad” and survivors to be “good.” But it’s more complicated than that, she says.

“In the literature, we see that traffickers and survivors experience the same kinds of childhood traumas, such as sexual, emotional, physical and spiritual abuse,” she explains. But for individuals who become traffickers, “there is a distortion that happens in the way that they respond to the trauma.” Hershberger, a doctoral candidate in the counselor education and supervision program at North Dakota State University, acknowledges this is an area of research that mental health professionals do not fully understand yet. But initial clinical findings, as well as Hershberger’s own professional experience, indicate that traffickers often seem to have empathy deficits and endorse trafficking myths such as “people like this way of life.”

Dunlap, an associate professor of counseling at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, says that traffickers and victims of trafficking often get enmeshed in that world for similar reasons. “There is a need for belonging in all of these individuals,” she says. Both groups often lack support systems, have limited work opportunities and are tempted by the promise of a “better” life, she explains.

Once individuals get involved in trafficking, it becomes difficult for them to leave, Dunlap points out. “It becomes almost an institutionalization for them too. … They don’t know how to function outside of that.”

“Getting those individuals into your office to do this hard work is really going to be tough,” she admits. “If you’re a counselor and you do happen to have these clients, the last thing they need is for your own biases to be stopping them from getting help, because they’re doing good just to be there.”

Hershberger hopes counselors continue to research ways to better help both the survivors and perpetrators of human trafficking. In doing so, she encourages counselors to consider a larger question: How as a society are we creating spaces in which people don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like so that they’re seeking out this subculture for a sense of belonging?

 

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Lindsey Phillips is the senior editor for Counseling Today. Contact her at lphillips@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Supporting disclosure for adult male survivors of child sexual abuse

By James M. Smith and Adrian Warren June 9, 2021

John (not his real name) was a white man in his mid-20s. He was on the obese side, sported a scruffy beard and identified as a gay man. John had come to a counselor after a referral for what John had previously described only as sexual experiences in his early childhood. Three sessions into the counseling relationship, John was building a timeline of significant events in his life. While discussing his sexual experiences and sexual and gender identity development, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“My brother and his friends used to have sex with me,” John said suddenly, glancing up just long enough to assess his counselor’s reaction before returning his gaze to his folded hands.

“How old were you the first time you had a sexual encounter with your brother or one of his friends?” the counselor asked.

“I think I was 7, maybe 8 years old,” John said, chancing another brief look into the counselor’s eyes before staring back down at his hands. “Does that gross you out?”

“No,” the counselor said. “Honestly, right now I feel a little relieved that you told me. I’ve suspected that you experienced some type of sexual abuse as a child, after what I was told when you were referred to me. I’ve been expecting you to mention it, but I didn’t want to push you into telling me before you were ready.”

“I wouldn’t call what happened sexual abuse,” John shot back. “I mean, I don’t know what it was. They never forced me to do it with them. They just would have sex with each other when I was around, and they wanted me to do it too.” He looked back up to assess the counselor again. “I am gay. I’ve known that for a long time. I just … I don’t know how to feel about it.”

“How would you like me to refer to these sexual experiences that you had with your brother and his friends?” the counselor asked.

“I don’t know,” John said. “It was just sex.”

“OK,” the counselor said. “I will call them early sex experiences until you think I should call them something else.”

“I don’t even want that to be the reason we’re talking,” John said. “I think the fact that my parents didn’t take care of me, ignored me, favored my brother for my whole life, messed me up way more than having sex at age 8 did.”

“I hear you when you say you don’t want these early sex experiences to be the focus of our visit,” the counselor responded. “Would it be OK if we stayed there for just a minute more? I just want to get some more information about these experiences.”

“What do you want to know?” John asked.

“I appreciate you letting me ask,” the counselor affirmed. “How old were you when your brother and his friends stopped including you in these sexual experiences?”

“I think I was 11 or 12,” John answered.

“So, your brother is five years older than you?” The counselor remembered this from an earlier conversation.

“Yeah,” John said.

“You said you don’t know how to feel about it,” the counselor prompted. “How do you feel about it?”

“Mostly just gross,” he responded.

“That’s why you asked if I was grossed out by it,” the counselor reflected.

“Yeah. Can we talk about something else?” John asked.

“I can tell that you’re really uncomfortable talking about this,” the counselor acknowledged, “and you said you didn’t want that to be the focus, so we can move on and focus on what you want to talk about. I want to be able to return to these experiences you had at some point though if that’s OK.”

“It’ll be OK sometime. I’m just not ready today. I’m kind of sorry I brought it up,” John said.

“I think it took a lot of courage for you to bring it up, not knowing how I’d react,” the counselor affirmed.

“My parents hate that I’m gay, so I’ve never been able to talk about sex or relationships with them,” he stated.

“So, your parents know you’re gay, but you’ve never told your parents about these early sex experiences that you had with your brother and his friends?”

“No,” John said, “I’ve never told anybody. I know if I did, my brother and his friends would just deny that it ever happened. Especially his one friend. He’s kind of a big deal, married, couple of kids. If he admitted it, it would probably ruin his life. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Can we talk about something else now?”

“You’re in charge,” the counselor said, “so we can move on if you want. How about if we go back to the timeline? What other significant events should we look at?”

Tissen/Shutterstock.com

Why don’t adult male survivors tell?

This exchange between John and the counselor is highly typical of an encounter with an adult man who experienced childhood sexual abuse (CSA). Adult male survivors of CSA will often wait 20, 30, 40 years or more before disclosing their experiences to anyone. John had waited nearly 20 years. In 2013, Scott Easton found that about two-thirds of adult male survivors who disclose in adulthood first tell a spouse or intimate partner. Others who disclose will tell an advocate, religious leader or mental health professional. John had spoken to an advocate, who was a survivor himself, only about “early childhood sexual experiences” after hearing this advocate speak in a public awareness forum. The advocate to whom John spoke then referred him to a counselor.

Adult male survivors of CSA face significant barriers to disclosure. These barriers include gender norms, social stigma and questions surrounding their own sexual identity. John was comfortable disclosing that he is a gay man. While John understood and accepted his sexual orientation, he still believed that the counselor might be “grossed out” upon hearing about his “early sex experiences.”

John’s conceptualization of his early childhood sexual experiences also is a typical barrier. Many adult male survivors may not conceptualize (or want to conceptualize) their childhood sexual experiences as CSA. John recoiled at the idea, instead preferring to call it “early sex experiences.” This conceptualization of what can objectively be defined as CSA as something other than CSA happens for many reasons, including:

  • The perpetrator was female
  • Confusion about who instigated the sexual contact
  • The pleasure response that sexual arousal includes even if the arousal occurs during an act of abuse

At the time of John’s sexual encounters, the sexual activity of his brother and friends appeared to John to be normal behavior. It was something they just did. John also recoiled at the idea that he had been victimized in some way. This is a common masculine stereotype that can serve as a barrier to disclosure.

Not conceptualizing CSA as CSA can also serve as a barrier to disclosure when it comes to counseling assessment instruments. Many assessment instruments use the language of sexual abuse, assault or victimization. If an adult male survivor does not conceptualize his experience as CSA and a mental health professional asks in an assessment whether the client has ever experienced sexual abuse, assault or victimization, the client’s answer would be “no.” John denied experiencing CSA when asked directly about “experiences of abuse” in the standard initial assessment that the counselor completed.

Adult male survivors of CSA face a host of other barriers to disclosure, some of which even well-intentioned mental health professionals may unknowingly perpetuate. For example, researcher Rhys Price-Robertson identified the victim-to-offender narrative. Mental health providers and sexual abuse prevention professionals have emphasized, rightly or wrongly, that many perpetrators of CSA were themselves victims of CSA. This victim-to-offender narrative can lead to a widespread perception that survivors of CSA will become perpetrators. 

Greg Holtmeyer, a CSA survivor, advocate and public speaker, calls this “vampire syndrome” because in the lore, if one is bitten by a vampire, one becomes a vampire. By asserting the victim-to-offender narrative, mental health and sexual abuse prevention professionals may inadvertently perpetuate a barrier to disclosure by adult male survivors. If survivors believe this narrative, they may be less likely to disclose their own experience of abuse out of fear that they will be suspect themselves.

Another narrative that professionals and prevention specialists should be careful about using is the one that focuses on the male perpetrator/female survivor duality. This narrative is grounded in the fact that more female survivors of sexual abuse than male survivors report the abuse, but it ignores the reality that male victimization is nearly as high as female victimization. In the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey from 2011 (a survey that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention commissioned), researchers found that while 12.3% of female sexual abuse victims had experienced a completed rape before age 10, 27.8% of male sexual abuse victims had experienced a completed rape before the same age. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reported in 2016 that while 1 in 4 girls experience some form of sexual abuse prior to graduating college, 1 in 6 boys experience some form of sexual abuse before the same age.

What this tells us is that while more girls and women are victimized across the life span, male victims often experience sexual abuse at a younger age than do female victims. While women and young girls report instances of sexual violence at a significantly higher rate than do men and young boys, the lifetime prevalence of CSA is only slightly higher among women than men. 

The public narrative focused on male perpetrator/female survivor duality is meant to motivate the public toward prevention and inspire survivors to come forward for treatment. This same narrative, however, may leave adult male survivors feeling isolated and alone. Adult male survivors rarely see their stories represented in treatment, advocacy or prevention efforts. This could inadvertently lead to the silencing of adult male survivors by enhancing their sense of isolation. As mental health and sexual abuse prevention professionals, we must ensure that our narrative is inclusive of all gender types.

Prompting disclosure and providing support

In our research into the lived experiences of adult male survivors’ disclosure of CSA, we found specific interventions that can help mental health professionals evoke disclosure and support adult male survivors after the disclosure occurs. Such interventions include:

  • Using a timeline of significant life events to identify any early childhood sexual experiences
  • Understanding that disclosure is a relational experience for the survivor, who is reading cues from the mental health professional on whether to continue the disclosure
  • Using a balanced and honest affective response to the
    disclosure (this is more encouraging than no response or an overly emotive response)
  • Empowering survivors by allowing the choice of how much and how long they want to talk about their experiences (this encourages a sense of safety)
  • Providing informed consent that is clear, thus supporting survivors’ choices to disclose by including them in decision-making tied to mandatory reporting

John was in his third session before he disclosed that his brother and his brother’s friends had engaged in sexual encounters with him when he was 7 or 8 years old. He had been building a timeline of significant events in his life. This process of building a life timeline is an effective assessment tool. Such a timeline should be comprehensive, including information about the individual’s education, work history, hospitalizations, suicide attempts, mental health, sexual history, family history and any other life event the person sees as significant. 

This type of assessment allows clients to name their own experiences in their own language and guides mental health professionals in avoiding stigmatized language that clients may refute. A tool such as this frees clinicians from asking clients to respond to yes-no questions about experiences of abuse or assault. The counselor in our vignette had asked John to return to the timeline to discuss his sexual history, and it was at this prompting that John began his disclosure process.

Another important element in supporting disclosure is understanding that survivors often experience disclosure as a relational experience. Mental health professionals have historically conceptualized disclosure as a linear experience, with the survivor disclosing and the professional receiving the disclosure. Adult male survivors, however, experience disclosure as a relational reality. Many victims of CSA are conditioned in the abuse to take responsibility for the emotions of others. People who engage in predatory, abusive behavior will convince their victim that the abuser’s anger, disappointment and happiness are dependent on the victim. As a result of this conditioning, victims become adept at reading others for emotional cues and change their behaviors based on what they see. This leads to two important factors when an adult male survivor, and really any victim of abuse, discloses.

First, adult male survivors of CSA are acutely aware of the reactions of those to whom they disclose. John assessed his counselor’s reaction after disclosing his early sex experiences. In our research, we learned that a stone-faced lack of reaction to this disclosure can be as devastating to the survivor as an over-the-top emotional explosion. Adult survivors may interpret a lack of reaction as cold or uncaring and see the mental health professional as distant and disconnected. A mental health professional’s balanced affective response that is in empathic sync with the survivor’s own emotions will foster further disclosure.

The second thing mental health professionals should remember when considering that disclosure is a relational reality is that they must own their emotional reaction. When a survivor sees a mental health professional react to the disclosure, the survivor can take on responsibility for this reaction. This is what those who perpetrated the abuse conditioned the survivor to do. Mental health professionals can support a survivor’s disclosure by identifying their own emotional reaction and being clear that it is their responsibility as mental health professionals to manage their emotions. The role modeling of emotional management techniques is a powerful tool in helping survivors manage their own feelings.

The adult male survivors we interviewed in our research described how, after their disclosure, the one to whom they disclosed took control of the information and engaged them in activities that they did not want to do. One participant described how a therapist had left him feeling invalidated after he had disclosed his experience of CSA. He stated that the therapist had ignored his disclosure and instead talked him into entering a 30-day alcohol treatment center because the therapist had decided that was a more important issue. 

Another participant described how the counselor to whom he disclosed became curious about the client’s abuser. The counselor and the survivor then spent time in their counseling session looking up where the abuser was living to satisfy the counselor’s curiosity. This was done under the pretext of discerning whether the survivor should confront the abuser, which the survivor had no interest in doing. 

Yet another participant in our research described how his mother, after he had disclosed his experience of CSA to his parents, called a “family meeting,” without any deference to him, to confront the abuser. The participant said he had no idea his mother had planned the meeting until he walked in and saw the family gathered in the home.

The participants in our research described experiences of disempowerment after their disclosure — experiences in which they felt their desires, preferences and concerns became secondary to those belonging to the one to whom they had disclosed, including counselors. In describing their experiences of disempowerment, each of the participants stated that they had ceased discussing the abuse with the person who reacted in this manner.

Support of the survivor’s control or power over the situation gets particularly tricky when one considers laws surrounding mandatory reporting. This is why informed consent that is clear and reviewed regularly cannot be emphasized enough. If the counselor is required to report certain acts of CSA, survivors of abuse must know this before they disclose. They should also be involved in the reporting in as much as they are able and willing. They may not have a choice, depending on state and federal laws, regarding whether CSA is disclosed, but they can have a choice about how the disclosure is handled and what their next steps can be.

When adult male survivors disclose, they are seeking an affirming, supportive relationship. They are seeking someone who can be with them in the pain they are experiencing without taking over, taking control, minimizing or catastrophizing the experience. They want someone to understand their experience the way they understand it and who will partner with them in walking the journey of recovery. Mental health professionals risk silencing or even retraumatizing survivors of CSA by taking control of the situation and thus disempowering survivors.

The experience of CSA is one of disempowerment. The perpetrator is exercising power against the intended victim and taking away the victim’s personal power. In that session when John disclosed, the counselor pushed a little with John but always asked permission first. When John said, “I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” the counselor stopped immediately, recognizing John’s power over his experience, including when and with whom he shared it. 

As David Treleaven says in his work Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, allowing trauma survivors to disclose in such a way that stays within their window of tolerance is more healing than attempting to force them to disclose more than they are able. Allowing adult male survivors of CSA to choose when, how long, how much and to whom they disclose is a small way of giving some of their power back to them. Empowering these survivors fosters further disclosure.

Bringing in the edges

John continued in counseling for nearly a year. At times, he wanted clinical focus to be on his relationship with his parents, his conflicts with intimate partners, or how he managed work. When he was ready, he would delve into the repercussions of the “early sex experiences” he had disclosed. Eventually, he even brought up the reality of incest in these experiences and how that added another layer to his feelings of being “gross.” John completed college not long after beginning counseling. He has “moved on,” as much as he is able.

Male survivors of CSA face unique barriers to disclosure. To support this group, counselors need to be aware of these barriers and adapt their interventions to this population. Remaining vigilant to the relational nature of disclosure, being sensitive in the language used to describe these experiences and owning one’s emotional reaction to the disclosure support further disclosure and healing. Male survivors disclose to seek affirmation and healing. When counselors provide a supportive and empathic environment, healing happens.

 

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The authors would like to acknowledge Greg Holtmeyer (gregholtmeyer.com), CSA survivor, advocate and international public speaker, who inspired the research to support adult male survivors of CSA.

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James M. Smith is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), national certified counselor, approved clinical supervisor and board certified telemental health provider. He is the director of curriculum, instruction and assessment in the School of Education at Lincoln University in Missouri, where he also serves as an adjunct instructor in the counselor education program. He also serves clients in private practice, where he specializes in working with people who have experienced childhood trauma. Contact him at jamie@koinoniacs.com.

Adrian Warren is a contributing faculty member at Walden University and an LPC-supervisor in Texas. He has been in the mental health field for 17 years and a counselor educator for 12. In addition to teaching, he maintains a small private practice and is the 2021-2022 president of Texas Counseling Association.

 

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, visit ct.counseling.org/feedback.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Counseling survivors of sexual violence

By Amy E. Duffy November 4, 2019

After spending more than 14 years in the mental health field working with a variety of populations, including gang-affiliated youth, adults with chronic and persistent mental illnesses, combat veterans, and survivors of human trafficking, I am struck with an inescapable theme: Sexual violence plagues every facet of society. Sexual violence does not discriminate, regardless of demographics.

As a counselor, I entered this field to become a helper and to become a part of something bigger than myself. Fred Rogers could not have said it any better: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” This sentiment still rings true in my heart, but one thing the mental health field has shown me is that helping sometimes requires us to combat the systemic and institutionalized injustices that are prevalent in our society.

I recently found myself in a counseling session with a college-age cisgender female who was displaying feelings of hopelessness, crying profusely, and asking me “Why?” She was directly asking me why — after her sexual assault and after exercising every legal right available to her — the system was failing her. I was apologetic for her experience, but I found myself at a loss for words. She was correct; the system was failing her. Our society and our legal system have justice gaps that are expansive. I couldn’t think of an answer I could provide in that moment that would address her feelings of hopelessness.

In subsequent months, as I became aware of similar scenarios playing out with other clients, I began to feel both compassion fatigue and burnout begin to take root. As I’ve mentioned, my intention as a counselor is to help, and I felt that I was not helping enough. I know trauma and its associated treatment modalities like the back of my hand, but that didn’t mean I was doing my part to address the gaps in justice or systemic and institutionalized inequalities that were drastically affecting my clients and their shared experience with sexual violence.

Professional counselors cannot ignore the reality that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men report some form of sexual violence over the course of their lifetimes (according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010-2012 state report). The Thomson Reuters Foundation conducted a survey in 2018 that concluded that the United States was the 10th most dangerous country for women among the 193 member states of the United Nations; it tied for third among nations where women were most at risk for sexual violence. The foundation defined sexual violence as “rape as a weapon of war; domestic rape; rape by a stranger; the lack of access to justice in rape cases; sexual harassment; and coercion into sex as a form of corruption.” Unfortunately, I have personally borne witness to each of these definitions of sexual violence while working in the mental health and counseling fields.

Given the epidemic of sexual violence, both domestically and globally, it is impossible for counselors to avoid contact with individuals who have survived such violence. To date, counselor education programs do not have a reputation for providing an adequate and thorough understanding of practices for working with this population in their curricula. In addition, progress in the field of sexual violence has been negligible, partially due to the significant gaps in research necessary to better inform prevention, policy and advocacy efforts. These absences of vital counseling resources triggered my desire to explore the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC) in search of a plausible answer to this dilemma.

The MSJCC

The MSJCC, developed by Manivong Ratts, Anneliese Singh, Sylvia Nassar-McMillan, S. Kent Butler, and Julian Rafferty McCullough, recognize that individuals are part of a larger ecosystem in which privilege and marginalization coexist. The MSJCC provide a framework to best support survivors of sexual violence not simply on the intrapersonal level, as addressed within treatment models and counseling strategies, but on all socio-ecological levels, through advocacy and action. The MSJCC emphasize the importance of understanding individuals in the context of their social environment while advocating for social justice within that social environment.

In addition, the MSJCC framework acknowledges the need for understanding the complexities of diversity and multiculturalism within the counseling relationship, as well as recognizing the negative influence of oppression on mental health and overall well-being. This framework reinforces the need for counselors to recognize and uphold the reality of intersectionality, in which the various social constructs of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, religion, spirituality and disability contribute to a client’s unique worldview, experience and existence as a human being.

When counselors partner with survivors of sexual violence, both the counselor and the client need to recognize the roles that privilege and marginalization play in sexual violence and within the counseling relationship. Effective treatment and long-term healing cannot exist without this mutual understanding. The reality is that victim-blaming, rape myths and gender inequality are persistent elements in American culture and globally; these cultural characteristics constitute what is known as rape culture. Victim-blaming is the extent to which society holds victims of sexual violence responsible for their own victimization, whereas rape myths are stereotyped false beliefs regarding rape, survivors and perpetrators.

Within rape culture, the survivor is marginalized while the perpetrator is privileged, most commonly due to gender. The privilege of gender is then further extended and embedded into society within systems and institutions that protect the perpetrator. These systems and institutions are built upon the foundations of victim-blaming, rape myths, and gender inequality. For example, states such as North Carolina still have laws that blame the victim and support rape myths. These laws include the inability of a person to withdraw their consent to engage in sexual intercourse once consent has been provided. In addition, a person who voluntarily consumes alcohol and then is sexually assaulted is not protected under North Carolina criminal law because of the fact that they voluntarily incapacitated themselves.

Sexual violence is a gender-based violent act. Approximately 91% of sexual violence survivors are women, whereas roughly 9% are men (according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics on rape and sexual assault for 1992-2000). Each of these individuals has been violated in a perpetrator’s effort to oppress and exert power over the survivor. Within the counseling relationship, the counselor and client need to explore the perceived and actual characteristics of their respective marginalized and privileged statuses relative to the issue of sexual violence and in the full context of the intersectionalities described earlier.

Although toxic masculinity may be a newer term in our culture, the constructs associated with it have historically been interwoven into American culture and should be taken into account when applying the MSJCC framework with survivors of sexual violence. Toxic masculinity describes the rigid characteristics and attitudes that are often (falsely) associated with what it means to “be a man.” These characteristics include strength, violence, sex, power, and an absence of emotion and vulnerability. Toxic masculinity perpetuates sexual violence directed not only toward women but also toward men. Understanding the gender-based nature of sexual violence and social constructs such as toxic masculinity, it is vital for counselors to fully embrace the MSJCC framework and the ways in which it relates to survivors of sexual violence.

In my clinical opinion, a counselor should not enter the counseling relationship without fully understanding and accepting the reality that in American culture, 25% to 35% of people endorse rape myth acceptance and therefore engage in victim-blaming and the perpetuation of gender inequality. Counselors should also understand and accept that toxic masculinity is, in fact, a deficit for all genders. This understanding and acceptance is a component of counselor self-awareness within the MSJCC framework. Counselors must become aware of their own attitudes, beliefs and biases pertaining to sexual violence prior to engaging in a counseling relationship with survivors of sexual violence.

The MSJCC require ongoing self-awareness and personal reflection regarding the beliefs, values and biases possessed by the counselor. This is particularly important when working with survivors of sexual violence because of the socialized cultural beliefs to which all counselors have been exposed. If counselors have not adequately addressed their potential beliefs, values and biases, it can result in bolstering shame among survivors of sexual violence.

Expanding the role of the counselor

A primary concept of the MSJCC is the expansion of the counselor’s role. This expanded role is essential when working with survivors of sexual violence. Traditionally, the counseling process has occurred within the confines of an office setting and on the proverbial therapy couch. That scenario has never been adequate when addressing the needs of those who have experienced sexual violence and thus is long overdue for modification. With the inception of the MSJCC, counselors have a framework for expanding on their traditional role to provide best practices in the presence of a profound gap in justice for their clients. 

Social justice advocacy conducted within the MSJCC framework allows counselors to work at the intrapersonal, interpersonal, institutional, community, public policy, and international/global levels to address the systemic obstacles affecting survivors of sexual violence. In the remainder of this article, I will provide a hypothetical case conceptualization (representing a composite of numerous actual cases) to illustrate this multilayered application of the MSJCC framework by a counselor working with a survivor of sexual violence.

Counselor self-awareness: Beliefs, values, biases

The counselor identifies as Christian, is supportive of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, and opposes marital rape, recognizing that nonconsensual sex within a marriage is, in fact, rape. The counselor recognizes the value in people waiting until marriage to engage in sexual intercourse but believes that imposing this standard on others can inadvertently create significant pressure and shame, particularly if someone is then exposed to sexual violence. The counselor believes sexual intercourse should be between consenting persons who provide affirmative consent (with affirmative consent being defined as the presence of yes means yes rather than simply no means no).

The counselor also believes there is no place for aggression or violence within sexual intercourse. The counselor attributes this aggressive mindset in part to the prevalence of pornography, in which close to 90% of sexual acts include aggression against women (according to the 2010 article “Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best-Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update,” published in the journal Violence Against Women). The counselor believes that sexual violence is about power, control and dominance rather than a perpetrator’s elevated drive for sex or inability to control temptation, and that the latter beliefs reinforce rape myths and victim-blaming. The counselor also recognizes and opposes gender inequality in all spheres of life, including the sexual double standard that exists between men and women. The counselor has had consenting partners throughout her life span and has survived sexual violence twice.

The counselor has explored the antecedents to rape culture to identify her own experiences with these antecedents as well as with associated beliefs, values and biases. The counselor is opposed to traditional gender roles and finds them to be oppressive for all genders. The counselor believes that gender and gender roles should be fluid and not rigid and attributes this belief to being raised in a home where traditional gender roles were not always strictly enforced.

Regarding adversarial sexual beliefs and hostility toward women, the counselor recognizes her personal history of strained relationships with prominent female figures as a child, as well as significant “girl drama” during pre-adolescent and adolescent development. Historically, the counselor has interacted better with males and has had periods of doubting women. Regarding the acceptance of interpersonal violence, the counselor believes in standing up for one’s self, even if that means taking physical action. The counselor supports the Second Amendment but believes gun control is not adequate at this time. The counselor has historically enjoyed action movies but has recently begun exploring violence in the media.

To further understand how the counselor’s beliefs, values and biases could affect the counseling relationship when working with survivors of sexual violence, the counselor completed the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale (IRMA) and scored a 108 out of 110, indicating greater rejection of rape myths. The counselor also recognizes that this score is not reflective of the counselor’s lifelong involvement with rape myth acceptance and is aware of historically faulty thinking as an adolescent and young adult. The counselor acknowledges that self-reflection and development have contributed to her current IRMA score.

Privilege, marginalization and intersectionality

The counselor also examines the ways in which privilege and marginalization interact within the counseling relationship. The counselor is privileged due to being white, middle class, heterosexual and Christian, and having had the opportunity to obtain a higher level of education, whereas the counselor is marginalized for being a woman.

The client in this case conceptualization is privileged due to being heterosexual and Christian, whereas the client is marginalized for being a black woman of lower socioeconomic means who has not been afforded the opportunity to complete her education to date.

The counselor identifies the MSJCC quadrant of privileged counselor-marginalized client as the most appropriate to describe the counseling relationship. The counselor is also aware, however, that this is the counselor’s own perception of privilege and marginalization within the counseling relationship and that the client may have a different perception.

The socio-ecological model

The counselor begins at the intrapersonal level by sharing her worldview (as previously described) and bearing witness to the client’s worldview. The beliefs, values and biases of both parties are explored. Intersectionality is a main component within the intrapersonal level, with the social constructs of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, religion, spirituality and disability being explored by both the counselor and the client.

The counselor and the client also have an open discussion about privilege and marginalization, including the ways that they may enrich or create obstacles within the counseling relationship. For instance, both the counselor and the client have a shared experience and openly process their experiences of gender inequality and being discriminated against for being women. At the same time, the counselor openly recognizes the existence of white privilege and verbally acknowledges that her race has not made her life more difficult. The counselor also honors the specific incidences of racism that the client has experienced and is openly willing to share with the counselor.

At the intrapersonal level, the counselor and the client also discuss and process the client’s experiences with self-blame, victim-blaming, and rape myth acceptance. The client shares self-blaming beliefs such as, “I should not have gone out that night” and “I never should have had those drinks.” The client also shares victim-blaming attitudes that others have projected onto her, including how the client’s clothing was too revealing and how she could have been more assertive in her denial to engage in sexual intercourse.

Following the exploration at the intrapersonal level, the counselor begins to support the client at the interpersonal, institutional, community, public policy and international/global levels. At the interpersonal level, the counselor assists the client in exploring her various relationships and identifying a healthy social support network consisting of family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. During this time, the counselor also assists the client in implementing appropriate boundaries within those relationships that have been identified as being unhealthy or unsupportive. The client determines that several familial relationships are unsupportive due to significant victim-blaming attitudes and the demonstration of rape myth acceptance. The client then gives the counselor permission to provide psychoeducation regarding victim-blaming and rape myth acceptance to these family members and to challenge their beliefs that are further victimizing the client.

The family members resist the psychoeducation and continue to engage in victim-blaming and rape myth acceptance. Therefore, the client decides to implement boundaries to appropriately distance herself from these relationships. The client then makes an intentional effort to widen her social network by connecting with other friends and family members. After visiting a shared interest group with the counselor, the client decides to join the group in hopes of also making new friends.

At the institutional level, the counselor and the client begin to explore the social institutions with which the client is associated. During a session, the client shares that she has observed sexual harassment in her workplace and expresses concern that she will continue to be exposed to these interactions. With the client’s permission, the counselor reaches out to the employer and offers to provide an organizational training to the entire staff on sexual harassment and gender inequality in the workplace.

The client also shares that she has been a member of her church for more than a decade. She is finding it increasingly difficult to attend regularly, however, because of the feelings of shame associated with the church’s message regarding purity. The client also shares her perception that the church displays rape myth acceptance frequently during its teachings. With the client’s permission, the counselor reaches out to explore the possibility of meeting with church leaders about their own rape myth acceptance tendencies and to develop a plan with church leaders to provide a more supportive environment for survivors of sexual violence. Furthermore, the counselor uses this experience to develop a program to help all community churches create safe places for survivors of sexual violence.

The counselor’s work does not stop here. As an active member of the community, the counselor has various opportunities to address norms at the community level. For instance, when processing at the intrapersonal level, the client shared her experience with racism, disclosing that she often felt unheard during her school years and was frequently passed over when her hand was raised to contribute to class discussions. Instead, she received discipline referrals for speaking out of turn and being disruptive. The counselor validates the client’s experience with microaggressions and acknowledges this display of racism. The counselor then assists the client in connecting with a community volunteer opportunity in which the client will be tutoring school-age minority females. This gives the client an opportunity to empower not only herself but minority female youth as well.

The counselor also notices that the community has limited events to raise awareness about sexual violence, suggesting that the topic is unimportant, taboo, or not considered to be an issue within the community. With that in mind, the counselor decides to organize a committee of other counselors to coordinate an annual Take Back the Night event. The hope is to engage the community more on the topic and to create a new community norm of open discussion regarding sexual violence.

The public policy level is most closely associated with the gap in justice witnessed by survivors of sexual violence. For that reason, the counselor is intentional about making action at this level a priority. The counselor becomes knowledgeable about state and federal laws that affect survivors of sexual violence and openly shares this information with the client. The counselor attends public forums on the topic and provides expert testimony regarding the need for improved laws that protect survivors. The counselor also meets with state legislators to discuss how laws that reinforce victim-blaming and rape myth acceptance affect survivors of sexual violence and the communities in which they live.

At times, the counselor challenges the language used in sexual violence legal cases, including questions such as “What actions did you take to prevent the alleged sexual assault?” and statements such as “The victim chose to stay.” The counselor does this by reframing these retraumatizing questions and statements to be trauma-informed. In these instances, the counselor reinforces the truth that survivors cannot prevent their sexual assault from happening, nor does one’s decision to be in a specific environment suggest that survivors are responsible for being assaulted.

Similar to the public policy level, the international/global level requires the counselor to take action outside of the office and, at times, behind the scenes. The counselor educates herself on gender inequality on a global level, including human trafficking, farming disparities between men and women, unequal labor wages, lack of education for females, immigration, and child marriage. The counselor joins organizations that address these various topics, which have both direct and indirect associations with sexual violence. The counselor then disperses information on these topics on a blog linked to her website. Finally, the counselor participates in specialized training to complete immigration assessments for those seeking asylum in the United States and those hoping to gain access to their afforded protections under the Violence Against Women Act.

Conclusion

Sexual violence is epidemic in contemporary society. This epidemic is largely fostered by the prevailing rape culture in the United States and worldwide. Thus, it is highly likely that counselors will encounter survivors throughout their careers across a wide range of clientele. This article provides relevant background information on sexual violence and victimization, along with an application of the MSJCC, to promote a deeper understanding of sexual violence and to detail a promising framework for counseling and advocating for these survivors.

 

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Amy E. Duffy is a licensed professional counselor supervisor specializing in trauma and working in private practice in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is currently pursuing her doctoral degree at North Carolina State University, where she is studying gender inequality and sexual violence in her dissertation research. Contact her at amyeduffylpc@gmail.com or HarborBehavioralHealth.com.

Letters to the editor:  ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Addressing intimate partner violence with clients

By Bethany Bray June 24, 2019

Licensed mental health counselor Ryan G. Carlson had just earned his master’s degree when he began working on a grant-funded project to provide relationship education to couples in the Orlando, Florida, area. Overseeing the intake process as local couples came into the university-based research center to participate, he quickly learned two things: Domestic violence “is very prevalent — much more prevalent than I realized — and it’s complicated,” says Carlson, an associate professor of counselor education at the University of South Carolina. “Every case was a little bit different than the next.”

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that on average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. On a typical day, domestic violence hotlines across the country receive more than 20,000 phone calls.

Approximately 1 in 4 adult women and 1 in 7 adult men report having experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, 16% of women and 7% of men have experienced sexual violence from an intimate partner.

Carlson’s experience led him to study domestic violence while earning his doctorate, and it remains a career focus for him as he conducts research, does interdisciplinary work and conducts trainings for mental health professionals. “We assume when there’s violence in a couple’s relationship, they will tell us [in counseling]. What I’ve learned is if we don’t ask the right questions, they won’t tell us, and you shouldn’t ask those questions if you’re not ready for their disclosure,” he says. “It’s really complicated and emotionally charged. … A victim’s safety should be at the center of every decision we make as counselors.”

Handle with care

Counselors who notice patterns of maladaptive behavior, self-esteem issues or what appears to be poor decision-making by clients may automatically want to roll up their sleeves and dive into goal-setting and other go-to techniques to foster change and growth. However, engaging in change-focused work when a client is experiencing IPV may be harmful, warns Taylor Cameron, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and director of transitional housing at Denton County Friends of the Family, a nonprofit agency in Texas that provides support services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. It also offers an intervention program for offenders.

The tried-and-true counseling method of talking through clients’ life scenarios, behaviors and choices while asking questions such as “What could you have done differently?” or “What would you want to change if this happens again?” can be hurtful because a counselor may inadvertently be placing the responsibility for the abuse on the victim instead of on the abuser, Cameron says. She cautions that counselors must choose their language carefully to avoid making the client feel that they are somehow to blame for the abuse they have endured.

“Victims of domestic violence do many things to survive or to try to protect themselves within the relationship,” says Cameron, an American Counseling Association member. “However, the partner carrying out the abuse is solely responsible for the violence.” Ultimately, the client can’t control — and should never be made to feel that they shoulder the blame for — what their partner does, she emphasizes.

Carlson, who is also a member of ACA, agrees. He notes that it isn’t helpful for professional clinical counselors to identify client behaviors that could be changed or avoided when clients may have adopted those patterns as a means of self-protection.

“It’s important to be careful about how we phrase things with [these] clients,” says Carlson, director of the Consortium for Family Strengthening Research and coordinator of the Center for Community Counseling at the University of South Carolina. “Avoid anything that has to do with ‘what could you have done differently?’ questions, anything that would allude to how [the client] contributed to their current situation. … It’s a delicate balance, but it’s really important to avoid language that [even inadvertently suggests] a victim is somehow at fault for being in that relationship.”

“It doesn’t matter what they change about themselves because that is not going to change the other person,” says Margaret Bassett, an LPC and deputy director at the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin. Counselor practitioners must consider the entire context of a client’s behavior to fully understand why they’re making those decisions, she says. Decisions that victims of abuse make — often for reasons of safety — can appear maladaptive from outside the context of the abusive relationship.

Bassett recalls a client who talked about agreeing to meet her estranged husband at a public library. Without understanding the full context of the situation — that if she didn’t meet with him, he had a history of escalating — a counselor might assume that the client was complicit in maintaining the abusive relationship rather than appreciate her layered safety planning, Bassett says.

“It was a brilliant move. It was safe to meet there because he couldn’t escalate without drawing attention,” Bassett explains. “Not meeting him just was not possible. This was meeting on her terms versus his terms. … This ties into [a counselor] listening and really hearing what the person is saying and not judging it out of context. Really being able to say, ‘That is a brilliant idea that you had.’ It’s not a good or a bad choice. Instead say, ‘When I hear that, I hear the safety it creates.’”

Victims of abuse often adopt patterns and behaviors that are the best choices they can make in a bad situation, Bassett notes. Professional clinical counselors should listen carefully to understand the full context of clients’ lives and then validate the choices they are making to safely navigate abusive and potentially violent situations. “Respect that they’re making a decision and really understand their safety concerns so your intervention is helpful and doable,” Bassett says.

Power and control

IPV happens between partners of all cultures and backgrounds — couples who are married and unmarried, heterosexual and homosexual, wealthy and poor, religious and nonreligious, white, Asian, Hispanic, African American and every other race. In addition, IPV often intersects with sexual assault; homelessness or disruptions in housing, schoolwork or employment; financial trouble; parenting issues; and myriad other challenges that spill over into the mental health issues that commonly bring clients to counseling.

Although the terms domestic violence and intimate partner violence both include the word “violence,” the abuse doesn’t always have a physical component, or the violent behavior is combined with emotional, nonphysical manipulation. What defines a behavior or relationship as abusive is a common thread of power and control. In its simplest definition, domestic violence is an intentional pattern of behaviors used by the abuser to gain and maintain power and control over another person, Cameron explains.

“It’s important to recognize that abuse is not an anger management issue,” she says. “People who are truly experiencing an anger management issue will go off on their boss, their cousin, the random guy at 7-Eleven. Abuse is carefully targeted at one person.”

Controlling behaviors are one of the biggest red flags counselors should be listening for to determine if a client might be involved in an abusive relationship, either as a perpetrator or a victim. Examples include checking or monitoring a partner’s cell phone, email or social media, or insisting that a partner text when they arrive at and leave from work every day. Other cues for which Cameron stays alert include:

  • Clients who clam up in session or appear to be afraid of their partner
  • Clients who are isolated from friends and family
  • Clients who feel they can’t go to work, school or social engagements because it upsets their partner
  • If one partner is the sole decision-maker or in complete control of the couple’s finances
  • If one of the partners continually feels guilty for their behavior
  • A partner who exhibits extreme jealousy
  • Clients who mention “walking on eggshells” around their partners
  • Clients who are having thoughts of suicide or threatening to harm themselves or their abuser
  • A partner who pressures the other partner to use drugs or alcohol or to not use contraception (or who lies about their own use of contraceptives)
  • A partner who pressures the other partner to have sex or to perform sexual acts that the person is uncomfortable with
  • Clients who talk about a partner belittling or embarrassing them in front of other people

Control tactics often go hand in hand with perpetrators minimizing or placing blame for their behavior, Cameron adds. Perpetrators of abuse may tell a victim that they wouldn’t have to act this way if the person came home from work on time, paid the bills on time, didn’t talk back, etc. Or, Cameron says, they may tell a partner, “It could have been a lot worse. I only shoved you. I didn’t punch you.”

In counseling, perpetrators may make statements such as, “I didn’t hurt her. I just punched the wall.” The behavior implies, however, that the perpetrator could have hurt the person, Cameron points out.

“Someone who is abusive will try and deflect attention away from the abuse,” Bassett says. “They will try and name what is happening. Maybe they push or strangle or pull their partner’s hair. But they will say, ‘I am not abusive because I never hit you. Have I ever hit you?’ or [point out that] there was no bruise. There’s a lot of crazy-making behavior that goes on. They’ll deny it ever happened or focus on something else. Abuse is a pattern of behavior, and the abuser will rationalize those patterns as something else. Pay attention to that as a therapist and help them to name the behavior [for what it is].”

If a client mentions that they fight a lot with their partner or that the partner has a temper or a “short fuse,” counselors can prompt the client to explain the fights, Cameron says. For example, “Tell me what these fights look like. Are there times [when] it feels unsafe?” Victims may use phrases such as “sometimes he is rough with me” or he “put hands on me,” not fully recognizing the behavior as abuse, she notes.

Carlson also recommends that counselors use carefully worded questions to follow up on statements made by clients to further explore the nature of their relationship experience. For example, ask clients how they handle conflict with an intimate partner and then use leading questions to learn more: When there is a disagreement, is it safe to talk about the disagreement? Is there any type of pushing, shoving, hitting, use of objects, physical violence, threatening language or name calling? Is jealousy a motivating factor? Does one partner place blame on the other, making statements such as, “You made me do this”? Is the partner violent or hostile outside of the relationship?

“Ask questions that determine if there is regret or remorse [after conflict] or if they recognize that there are other ways of handling conflict,” Carlson says.

In sessions with individual clients, Carlson recommends that counselors preface some of their most direct questions — such as “Are you afraid of your partner?” — with dialogue that prepares the client. “Say, ‘I have some questions for you about how you handle conflict in your relationship. They’re going to be very direct, and I wanted to give you a heads up, but it will help me better understand what you’re going through.’ Really tap into your basic counseling skills, the relationship-building skills that we learn early on, and emphasize those when such important questions are being asked,” Carlson says.

At the same time, Bassett adds, clinical counselors shouldn’t be afraid to ask hard questions of a client when appropriate. “Ask not just, ‘Has your partner physically assaulted you?’ but ‘Are you afraid of your partner?’ and be willing to explore that. Explore the emotional piece of abuse.”

Counselors can also supplement their own questions by using a formal questionnaire — Carlson recommends Brian Jory’s Intimate Justice Scale — or including questions on intake forms. Keep in mind, however, that clients may answer “no” to questions that later turn out to be a “yes” when explored in therapy.

Perpetrators of domestic violence often use manipulation to gain and maintain control over a person and keep them in the relationship, Cameron says. When alone with a partner, perpetrators sometimes threaten suicide if the partner ever were to leave them, or they make statements inferring that the partner would be worse off on their own: “If you leave, you won’t get any money”; “You will lose the kids”; “No one will ever love you. I’m the only one who will put up with you.”

“One of the biggest power tools is fear — abusers wield fear,” Cameron says. “They use fear to control their partner. In addition, abusers will often apologize for the abuse and say, ‘It will not happen again,’ without being accountable. Then they continue using control tactics.”

This can be complicated further if the couple’s friends and family take sides or if the victim comes from a culture or faith community that emphasizes submission to a partner, views marriage as an unbreakable bond, or values reconciliation over safety, Cameron adds.

Manipulation by a perpetrator can also extend to sexual assault, which often overlaps with domestic violence, Bassett says. “It’s also common for an abusive person to force or pressure sex [with an intimate partner]. They will define the experience as nonabusive and lay the groundwork for the survivor to agree to sex so that they aren’t forced,” she says. “The abuser is [then] able to say that they agreed to sex, making them complicit in what is actually a sexual assault. The abuser defines the experience, and the survivor needs the space and safety to name their experience [in counseling].”

Hard questions, empathetic listening

Most of all, clients who are currently in or have been in an abusive relationship in the past need a safe space to feel heard and validated and to be connected to resources to address their safety, Cameron says. It’s no surprise that building a therapeutic bond is especially important with these clients.

“Communicate that you believe them,” Cameron urges. “The most restorative thing [for the client to hear is] ‘it’s not your fault, and it’s not OK that they are doing this to you.’”

“It’s incredibly important to be nonjudgmental,” agrees Carlson. “There are so many practitioners who have a personal connection to this topic, it can be an emotive experience. The time of disclosure is a very important moment for the victim and can be filled with a lot of embarrassment and shame. When they are deciding how much to disclose, it’s often based on how they feel it will be received. … It’s important to manage your emotions in that moment because it’s such an important moment.”

“You may leave the room and feel, ‘Oh my gosh, this is an emergency. I have to get this person out.’” Carlson continues. “But remember that this is their daily reality. They’ve been living with this [abuse] for a while. It feels like an emergency to you, but to act on that may put the victim in danger. It’s important that the victim drives the steps of what happens next.”

Bassett agrees: “Be very aware that your goal [as a counselor] is not that they should leave the relationship. That needs to be a goal they make themselves. They have to own it, because any decision they make will potentially have ramifications for them.”

Cameron notes that taking decisions out of the hands of clients is one of the worst mistakes counselors can make when working with victims of IPV. “They’ve already had someone control their life, and we don’t want to step into that role,” she says. “The victim has the best knowledge about what they need.”

It’s vital for practitioners to explore a client’s experience with genuine care, says Paulina Flasch, an ACA member and an assistant professor in the professional counseling program at Texas State University. “Really show concern and empathy and don’t sound like you’re interrogating them,” says Flasch, who runs a family violence research team at Texas State and worked at a domestic violence agency before and during her master’s program. “Focus on the counselor-client relationship, and ask [hard questions] because you really care. Share that what you’re hearing sounds abusive and that it must have been really hard [to go through]. … If you’re hearing that a past relationship was abusive, it’s important to call it that and identify its aftereffects. It can help validate their current experience and help them understand why they’re struggling. Help them look at patterns and how things tie together. … It’s a very powerful moment when the client connects the dots.”

“This is a person whose boundaries have been violated and who has not had safety and security — and we [counselors] have to be careful with that,” Flasch continues. “We have to let them know there will be a different response and they won’t be demeaned. If they went through that, they’re strong. Recognize that.”

All of the counselors interviewed for this article recommend using psychoeducation techniques and the Power and Control Wheel system (available at theduluthmodel.org) to talk through what a healthy relationship looks like (and does not look like) with clients who have experienced IPV. Bassett also stresses that work with IPV clients must be trauma-informed.

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT), expressive therapies, bibliotherapy or cinematherapy, grounding techniques and decision-making exercises can also help IPV clients, Flasch notes, as can attending support groups for IPV survivors in addition to counseling.

Victims of domestic violence often grapple with intense feelings of guilt or shame, sometimes made worse by harmful stereotypes and society’s general misunderstanding of the complexity of abuse. Victims can hear messages such as “Why didn’t you just leave him?” or “Why didn’t you get out sooner?” in both direct and indirect ways in popular culture, from family and friends, or in offhand remarks by acquaintances.

The reality is that it’s not that simple, Flasch notes. Victims of domestic violence are in the most danger when they are ending a relationship with their abuser (see sidebar below). In addition, domestic violence often creeps into a relationship slowly over time in ways that are unrecognizable to the victim.

The relationship “hasn’t always been dangerous,” says Flasch, who has a private practice in Austin, Texas, and specializes in working with couples and individuals who have experienced trauma. “There have been a lot of pieces that have kept them in the relationship. If they had known this was going to happen, they would have never been in the relationship. Intimate partner violence is the breaking down of a human. They completely lose their sense of self and begin to believe everything the abuser has said about them. It happens smally and slowly.”

Pointing out this trajectory to the client emphasizes that it wasn’t their fault and helps them learn what to look for in future relationships, Flasch adds. “Normalize it with the client. This [IPV] is very common and very similar in the ways it comes to happen,” she says. “It’s a systematic breakdown of a person that happens in very small steps that no one would recognize unless you know what you’re looking for. Helping them understand what and how it happened can help take away some of that fault and blame. Then work on empowerment. Victims have had to ask their abuser for everything. It’s our job to get their voice back.”

Planting seeds

In addition to providing a safe space to be heard and empowered, counseling can be a place for victims of IPV to learn what a healthy relationship looks like. This is especially true for clients whose histories include past trauma (in addition to IPV) or who haven’t been exposed to healthy relationships in their life, Flasch notes.

“The counselor may be that first one, that first good relationship and having a feeling of being in a room with someone who cares,” she says. “Model that through your interaction with clients. Psychoeducation is a big part of working with [IPV] victims and survivors.”

Flasch suggests using the Power and Control Wheel while discussing what it feels like to be in a healthy relationship: What aspects are present? What does respect look like? How do arguments start and end? What does equality look like?

Making a list of the elements in a healthy relationship can also help, Flasch says. “It’s not tangible [to clients] sometimes. There’s so much self-blame and lack of trust of themselves and their own instincts. They often don’t trust themselves to make decisions or recognize if something [in a relationship] is dangerous.”

It can also be helpful for counselors to talk through boundary issues with IPV survivors, including what is and isn’t their responsibility in a relationship, Bassett adds.

“With someone who is abusive, that person will not accept responsibility [for abusive behavior]. The person who is being abused typically will accept full responsibility,” she says. “They may claim, ‘Oh, he’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He’s so sweet, but when he drinks, or goes off his medication [he turns dangerous].’ That’s just not true: The good parts and the loving parts are part of the [control] strategy. Be very clear about that. … Help them not to buy into it, overtly or covertly.”

Couples counseling and safety

A relationship in which IPV is present has, at its core, an imbalance of power and control. This imbalance makes couples counseling an unsafe environment for the person experiencing the abuse, Carlson stresses. If a counselor is working with a couple exhibiting signs of IPV, he or she should take steps to terminate couples counseling as soon as possible while ensuring the victim’s safety, Carlson says.

“If power and control exist in the couple’s dynamic, it’s generally not safe to be in a setting [i.e., couples counseling] where they’re both on equal ground being asked to practice healthy behaviors and make changes,” he explains. “That can’t happen when there’s inequality.”

Cameron agrees. “Each session is posing a safety risk for the victim. In couples counseling, we’re asking both parties to be accountable for solving problems in the relationship, and part of the control tactics [of IPV] is making the victim feel that it’s their fault.” Perpetrators of abuse may retaliate against their partners after counseling sessions in reaction to what was said or disclosed, she says.

On the flip side, abuse victims may say only what they need to say to keep from “making waves” with their abusers during counseling sessions. In addition, “an abuser may be very charming and manipulate the counselor,” Cameron says. Counselors who don’t recognize the manipulation or other possible indicators of IPV can end up unintentionally colluding with the abuser, she points out.

Both Cameron and Carlson recommend that counselors — whether they work with couples or individuals — seek training on IPV to stay informed on best practices and forge connections with local domestic violence agencies. It is important to establish these working relationships ahead of time so that counselors can readily consult with specialists when they identify signs of IPV with a client (or a couple) on their caseload, Carlson says. “Consultation [with an IPV specialist] helps to create a methodical, well-thought-out plan for that point forward,” says Carlson, noting that any consultation must be done within ethical guidelines and without sharing any identifying details about the individuals involved.

Once a counselor has identified that IPV is present in a relationship, the steps to terminate couples counseling must be handled delicately. Counselors should never let the abuser know that they suspect abuse is taking place, Cameron emphasizes. At the same time, a fine balance must be maintained to ensure that a victim doesn’t lose contact with the counselor and is connected to resources before couples counseling is terminated.

“Never confront abuse head-on with both parties in the room. That will put the survivor at risk,” Cameron says. “Get creative for ways to get the survivor alone. … Come up with a reason to separate them and then check in with the survivor. Ask them if they feel safe at home. Just straight up asking if they are being abused — they are not going to recognize it that way. Often, the abuser has worked really hard to convince the victim that there is no abuse.”

Cameron has known counselors who separate the couple by asking one of the partners to fill out paperwork in the waiting room. Practitioners can also try to speak over the phone outside of session to clients who are suspected targets of abuse, as long as they ensure the client is alone for the call, Cameron adds.

Carlson notes that it’s not uncommon in couples counseling for a practitioner to meet with one of the clients individually to work on an issue. Counselors can fall back on that as an excuse to separate a couple when it is suspected that IPV is present, he says.

“When [you] first meet with a couple, separate them to fill out an intake questionnaire and speak with them individually. That way, you set a precedent of talking separately,” Carlson says. “Then, you can say later, ‘We are going to meet individually to follow up on some of the things we talked about’ [at intake]. There is precedence, and it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.”

Flasch agrees and suggests that couples counselors do full individual sessions with both partners after the first two or three sessions, regardless of whether IPV is suspected. In these sessions, counselors should always assess for IPV. She suggests asking questions such as “How do you and your partner show respect for each other?” and “Tell me about your arguments: How do they start and end, and who initiates?”

A counselor’s next step should be to connect the victim with local support services. This must also be handled carefully, Cameron says. For instance, a client could put a domestic violence hotline number in their phone under another name, or the counselor could give the information verbally to the client to remember and look up later. Cameron also recommends that counselors leave pamphlets and other information about domestic violence resources in the lobbies and restrooms of their offices for all clients to see and have access to.

If appropriate, Cameron recommends that counselors also connect perpetrators with a local batterer or offender program.

“It’s important to work in collaboration with your local [domestic violence] agency,” Cameron says. “For us to address abuse in our communities, there needs to be community accountability for abusers, and that can’t just come from domestic violence agencies. It needs to come from all aspects of the community. You’re not going to end domestic violence just by dealing with the aftermath.”

Once clients are given information about IPV resources, it’s up to them to seek help when they are ready and feel safe doing so, Carlson adds. It’s not a counselor’s role to ensure the client has followed up with those resources.

“Sometimes nothing happens,” Carlson acknowledges. “You present resources and opportunities and they know they have options, and that’s the biggest step they want to take at this point in time.”

Relationships post-IPV

Dating and forming new relationships can play a part in the healing process for survivors and help them learn more about themselves, their boundaries and their limits, says Flasch, who co-authored the article “Considering and Navigating New Relationships During Recovery From Intimate Partner Violence” in the April issue of the Journal of Counseling & Development. Counselors should be aware that the risk exists for survivors of IPV to find themselves in another abusive relationship. However, forging new healthy relationships — with a counselor as a support and ally — can be a helpful step in the right direction, she notes.

“Survivors have to work through these issues for a lifetime, so waiting for the ‘right time’ to date post-healing may never come,” Flasch says. “A counselor can be a great support for a survivor. We know that most people continue to date. To say that you should be healed completely before you go out, it’s not realistic. And healthy relationships can be incredibly healing. Having a person who is safe and loving and accepting is a huge benefit. We [counselors] shouldn’t necessarily discourage dating but help them navigate the process. Educate them about red flags and warning signs, and celebrate the successes of milestones reached through dating. Also [process] triggers and things that get in the way.”

“Having experiences with other people and then processing it in counseling can be very powerful and helpful to healing,” she continues. “We can be great allies and celebrate with clients when they try something new.”

For the journal article, Flash and her co-authors studied the experiences of IPV survivors who went on to try new relationships, ranging from casual dating to marriage. Through these relationships, participants reported learning to trust themselves and their instincts and “reclaim parts of themselves lost during the IPV relationships,” Flash wrote with her co-authors, David Boote and Edward H. Robinson.

Dating post-IPV “can be a process for survivors to try and find corrective experiences and explore trust, make decisions that are theirs and be their own person, [and] learn about control and boundaries,” Flasch says. “But this is also a very scary process and one that has a lot of layers to it, so it can bring challenges. It can be hard to learn to trust when it’s been taken away from you in the past.”

 

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One of the most misunderstood aspects of intimate partner violence (IPV) is how complicated and dangerous leaving an abusive partner can be, says Taylor Cameron, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and director of transitional housing at a Texas nonprofit that provides support services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The power imbalance of abusive relationships often means that one partner has severely restricted the other’s access to finances, friends and family members, and community resources. Separating from an abuser often means starting life over, which is why there is an intersection of IPV and homelessness, she says. These factors are only exacerbated when children are involved or when the victim experiences other forms of systemic oppression such as racism, homophobia or classism.

“They are often trapped between violence and homelessness,” Cameron says. “The abuser has often messed up their credit and finances or totally controlled them, so they’re starting from scratch. The most dangerous time for a victim is during separation and when they are separated [because] the abuser is losing the power they have worked to gain and maintain.”

According to Cameron, IPV victims are at the highest risk of lethality under the following circumstances:

  • When the couple has separated or is in the process of separating
  • If sexual abuse or sexual coercion is present in the relationship
  • If an abuser makes threats of homicide or suicide
  • When a restraining order is filed
  • If the victim is pregnant
  • If strangulation is occurring
  • If violent behavior is occurring outside of the home (which indicates the abuser has escalated to the point where he or she does not care if other people see the behavior, Cameron says)
  • If there is involvement with child protective services
  • If the abuser has access to weapons
  • If the abuser exhibits stalking behaviors
  • If law enforcement is involved

Counselors should also keep in mind that even when victims leave an abusive relationship, they may still come in contact with their abusers — and be put at risk for retraumatization — through legal proceedings, child custody hearings or stalking behavior, adds Paulina Flasch, an assistant professor in the professional counseling program at Texas State University.

“Just because someone is no longer in an IPV relationship doesn’t mean they’re no longer in it. Remember that and equip them with tools [to cope],” Flasch says.

 

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Important resources

 

Margaret Bassett recommends the following books for practitioners:

  • Why Does He Do That? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men by Lundy Bancroft
  • Battered Women’s Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know by Sherry Hamby
  • Coercive Control: How Men Entrap women in Personal Life (Interpersonal Violence) by Evan Stark
  • Safety Planning with Battered Women: Complex lives/Difficult Choices by Jill Davies, Eleanor J. Lyon and Diane Monti-Catania
  • The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans
  • Domestic Violence Advocacy: Complex lives/Difficult Choices by Jill Davies and Eleanor J. Lyon

 

Related reading, from Counseling Today:

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

What’s left unsaid

By Lindsey Phillips January 3, 2019

A child discloses that her grandfather has been sexually abusing her, and the mother’s response is shock that his abuse didn’t stop with her when she was a child. This scene is not uncommon for Molly VanDuser, the president and clinical director of Peace of Mind, an outpatient counseling and trauma treatment center in North Carolina. As she explains, adult survivors of child sexual abuse often assume that the offender has changed or is too old to engage in such actions again. So, the abuse persists.

Concetta Holmes, the clinical director of the Child Protection Center in Sarasota, Florida, has treated clients with similar intergenerational abuse stories. “In that unresolved trauma … what has happened is now a culture of silence around sexual violence that is ingrained in the family,” she says. “That [affects] things like your feelings of safety, security [and] trustworthiness, and it reinforces that you should stay with people who hurt you.”

Kimberly Frazier, an associate professor in the Department of Clinical Rehabilitation and Counseling at Louisiana State University’s Health Sciences Center, acknowledges that people often don’t want to think or talk about child sexual abuse, but that doesn’t stop it from happening. The nonprofit Darkness to Light reported in 2013 that approximately 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before they turn 18.

Because of the culture of silence that surrounds child sexual abuse, it is safe to assume that the true number is even higher. Cases of child sexual abuse often continue for years because the abuse is built on a foundation of secrets and fear, Frazier points out. Survivors frequently fear what will happen to them (or to others) if they tell, or the shame they feel about the abuse deters them from disclosing.

Societal norms can also diminish a survivor’s likelihood of disclosing. For example, society has for decades implicitly sanctioned sexual interactions between boys who are minors and adult woman, but it is still abuse, says Anna Viviani, an associate professor of counseling and director of the clinical mental health counseling and counselor education programs at Indiana State University. Holmes adds that gender stereotypes such as this can cause boys to feel as though they shouldn’t be or weren’t affected by sexual abuse, which is not the case.

“I think the biggest fallacy [counselors have] is that [child sexual abuse] is going to impact people from a particular demographic more than another,” Viviani says. “Childhood sexual abuse cuts across every demographic. I think the sooner we can accept that, the sooner we’re going to be better at identifying clients when they have this issue in their history.”

Putting on a detective hat

Identifying signs of child sexual abuse is neither easy nor straightforward. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the signs are not clear-cut, says VanDuser, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and an American Counseling Association member. Regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting can indicate abuse, but they might also be the result of other changes such as a recent move, a new baby in the family or a military parent deploying, she explains.

VanDuser also warns that child sexual abuse is insidious because a lot goes on before the offender actually touches the child. “Childhood sexual abuse sometimes leaves no physical wounds to identify,” she says. Some examples of noncontact abuse include peeping in the window at the child, making a child watch pornography or encouraging a child to sit on one’s lap and play the “tickle game.” Such activities are part of the grooming process — the way that offenders build trust and gain access to the child.

In addition to physical signs such as bladder and vaginal infections, changes in eating habits, and stomachaches, survivors of child sexual abuse also demonstrate behavioral and emotional changes. One major warning sign is if the child displays a more advanced knowledge of sex than one would expect at the child’s developmental stage, VanDuser says.

Other possible behavioral signs include not wanting to be alone with a certain person (e.g., stepfather, babysitter), becoming clingy with a nonoffending caregiver, not wanting to remove clothing to change or bathe, being afraid of being alone at night, having nightmares or having difficulty concentrating. In general, counselors should look for behaviors that are out of character for that particular child, VanDuser advises.

Viviani, a licensed clinical professional counselor and an ACA member, also finds that people who have experienced child sexual abuse have higher rates of depression, anxiety, panic disorders and posttraumatic stress disorders.

Because the signs of child sexual abuse are rarely clear-cut, counselors must be good investigators, Viviani argues. In her experience, adult survivors present with an array of symptoms, including health concerns, relationship problems and gaps in memory, so counselors have to look for patterns to discover the underlying issue.

If counselors notice any of these signs, VanDuser recommends asking the client, “When did this problem (e.g., bed-wetting, cutting, nightmares, acting out in school) begin?” Counselors can then follow up and ask, “What else was going on at that time?” The answers to these questions often reveal the underlying issue, she notes. For example, if the client responds that his or her depression or vigilance to the environment began around age 12, VanDuser says she will dig deeper into the client’s family relationships.

Frazier, an LPC and a member of ACA, suggests that counselors can also look for patterns in a child’s drawing — for example, what colors they use, how intensely they draw with certain colors, or if they scratch out certain people or choose not to include someone — or in the choices children make with activities such as feeling faces cards (cards that depict different emotional facial expressions). When Frazier asked one of her clients who had come to counseling because of suspected sexual abuse to select from the feeling face cards, she noticed the client consistently picked cards with people wearing glasses. Frazier later discovered that the child’s abuser wore glasses.

For Frazier, becoming a detective also involves going outside of the office to observe the child in different spaces, such as in school, in day care or at the park. Frazier includes the possibility of outside observations in her consent form, so the child’s parent or guardian agrees to it beforehand. She advises that counselors should take note of whether the child’s behavior is consistent across all of these spaces or whether there are changes from home to school, for example. In addition, she suggests asking the parents or guardians follow-up questions about how the child’s behavior has changed (e.g., Has the child lost the joy of playing his or her favorite sport? Is the child withdrawn? Is the child fighting?).

Speaking a child’s language

Young children may not have the words or cognitive development to tell counselors about the abuse they have been subjected to. Instead, these children may engage in traumatic play, such as having monsters in the sand tray eat each other or being in a frenzied state and drawing aggressive pictures, VanDuser says.

“One of the most important things for clinicians to remember when they’re working with kids and abuse is that it’s really critical to be working within the languages that children speak,” says Holmes, a licensed clinical social worker and a nationally credentialed advocate through the National Organization for Victim Assistance. “Children speak through a variety of different languages that aren’t just verbal. They speak through play. They speak through art, through writing [and] through movement, so it becomes really important that clinicians get creative in using evidence-based practices and different modalities to talk with children through their language. … Talking in a child’s language allows them to feel like the topic at hand is less overwhelming and less scary.”

For example, children can use Legos to build a wall of their emotions, Holmes says, with counselors instructing clients to pick colors to represent different emotions. If orange represents sadness and red represents frustration and 90 percent of the child’s wall contains orange and red Legos, then the counselor gets a better visualization of what emotions are inside the child, she says.

Next, counselors could ask clients what it would take to remove a red brick of frustration or what their ideal wall would look like, such as one that contains more bricks representing happiness or peace. Counselors can also ask these clients to rebuild their Lego walls throughout therapy to see how their emotions are changing, Holmes says. This method is easier than asking children if their anger has decreased and by how much, she adds.

Frazier, past president of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, a division of ACA, also finds that working with children keeps counselors on their toes. Children are honest and will admit if they do not like an intervention, so counselors have to be ready to shift strategies quickly, she says. For this reason, counselors need to have a wide range of creative approaches in their counseling bag. She recommends drawing supplies, play school or kitchen sets, play dough and sand trays.

With sand trays, Frazier likes to provide dinosaurs and other nonhuman figurines for children to play with because it helps them not to feel constrained or limited. This allows them to freely let a dinosaur or car represent a particular person or idea, she explains.

Frazier also recommends the “Popsicle family” intervention, in which children decorate Popsicle sticks to represent their family members and support systems. This exercise provides insight into family dynamics (who is included in the family and who isn’t) and allows children to describe and interact with these “people” like they would with Barbie dolls, she says.

Frazier advises counselors to keep culturally and developmentally appropriate materials on hand. For example, they should have big crayons for young children with limited fine motor skills, and they should have various shades of crayons, markers, pencils and construction paper so children can easily create what they want.

Being multiculturally competent goes beyond ethnicity, Frazier points out. Counselors should understand the culture the child grew up in and the culture of the child’s current locality because what is considered “normal” in one city or area might differ from another, she says. For example, in New Orleans, where she lives, people regularly have “adopted” family members. So, if a child from New Orleans were creating his or her Popsicle family, it wouldn’t be strange to see the child include several people outside of his or her immediate family and refer to them as “cousin” or “aunt,” even if they aren’t blood relatives.

Thus, Frazier stresses the importance of counselors immersing themselves in the worldview of their child clients. “You can’t be a person who works with kids and not know all the shows and the stuff that’s happening with that particular age group, the music, the things that are on trend and the things they’re talking about,” Frazier says. “Otherwise, you’ll always be behind trying to ask them, ‘What does that mean?’”

With adolescents, Holmes finds narrative therapy to be particularly effective, and she often incorporates art and interview techniques into the process. For example, the counselor could ask the client to draw a picture of an emotion that he or she feels, such as anger. Next, the client would give this emotion a name and create a short biography about it. For example, how was anger born? How did it grow up to be who it is? What fuels it? Why does it hang around?

Next, Holmes says, the counselor and client could discuss the questions the client would ask this emotion if it had its own voice. Then, the client could interview the initial picture of the emotion and use his or her own voice to answer the questions as the emotion would. The answers provide insight into the emotional distress the client is feeling, Holmes explains.

Frazier will do ad-lib word games with older children, who are often more verbal. While clients fill in the blanks to create their own stories, she looks for themes (e.g., gloomy story) or the child’s response to the word game (e.g., eager, withdrawn). 

Long-lasting effects

Unfortunately, the effects of child sexual abuse don’t end with childhood or even with counseling. “Children revisit their trauma at almost every age and stage of development, which is every two to three years,” Holmes notes. “That might not mean they need counseling each and every time, but they find new meaning in it or they find they have new questions … or new emotions about it.”

Viviani, VanDuser and Frazier agree that recovery is a lifelong process. As survivors age, they will have sexual encounters, get married, become pregnant or have their child reach the age they were when the abuse occurred. These events can all become trigger points for a flood of new physical and emotional symptoms related to the child sexual abuse, Viviani says.

Often, an issue separate from the abuse causes adult survivors to seek counseling. In fact, VanDuser says she rarely gets an adult who discloses child sexual abuse as the presenting issue. Instead, she finds adult clients are more likely to come in because their own child is having behavioral problems or because they’re feeling depressed or anxious, they’re having nightmares or they’re married and have no interest in sex.

Adults survivors often experience long-term physical ailments. According to Viviani, who presented on this topic at the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta, some of the ailments include diabetes, fibromyalgia and chronic pain syndromes, pelvic pain, sexual difficulties, headaches, substance use disorders, eating disorders, cardiovascular problems, hypertension and gastrointestinal problems.

Another long-term issue for survivors is difficulty forming healthy relationships. Because child sexual abuse alters boundaries, survivors may not realize when something is odd or abusive in a relationship, VanDuser says. For example, if an adult survivor is in a relationship with someone who is overly jealous and possessive, he or she may mistakenly translate that jealously into a sign of love.

Child sexual abuse can also affect decision-making as an adult around careers, housing, personal activities and sexual intimacy, Viviani notes. For example, one of her clients wanted to attend a Bible study group but didn’t feel safe being in a smaller group where a man might pay attention to her. In addition, Viviani finds that adult survivors sometimes choose careers they are not interested in just because those careers provide a safe environment with no triggers.

To help adult clients make sense of the abuse they suffered as children and move forward, Viviani often uses meaning-making activities and mindfulness techniques. She suggests that counselors help these clients find a way to do something purposeful with their history of abuse, whether that involves sharing their story with a testimony at church, volunteering for a mental health association or participating in a walk/run to raise awareness of suicide prevention.

Finding self-compassion

Survivors of child sexual abuse often blame themselves for the abuse or the aftermath once the abuse is revealed, especially if it results in the offender leaving the family, the family losing its home or the family’s income dropping, VanDuser says. One of her clients even confessed to thinking that she somehow triggered her child sexual abuse from her stepfather.

“Sometimes the worst part is the dread [when the child knows the sexual abuse is] coming eventually. So, sometimes a teenager will actually initiate it to get it over with because the only time they feel relief is after it’s done,” VanDuser explains. “Then they know for a while that they won’t be bothered again.”

Counselors often need to shine a light on survivors’ cognitive distortions to help them work through their guilt and shame, VanDuser says. She tries to help clients understand that the sexual abuse was not their fault by changing their perspective. For example, she will take a client to a park where there are children close to the age the survivor was when the abuse happened. She’ll point to one of the children playing and ask, “What could the child really do?” This simple question often helps clients realize that they couldn’t have done anything to prevent the abuse, VanDuser says.

Viviani takes a similar approach by talking with clients in the third person about their expectations of what a child would developmentally be able to do in a similar situation. She asks clients if they would blame another child (their grandchild or niece, for example) for being sexually abused. Then she asks why they blame themselves for what happened to them because they were also just children at the time.

“As you frame it that way, they begin to have a little bit more compassion for themselves, and self-compassion is something that’s so important for survivors to develop,” Viviani says. In her experience, survivors are hard on themselves, often exercising magical thinking about what they should or should not have been able to do as a child. “As we help them develop self-compassion and self-awareness, we see the guilt begin to dissipate,” she adds.

Regaining a sense of safety

Safety — in emotions, relationships and touches — is a critical component of treatment for a child who has been sexually abused, Holmes stresses.

Counselors should teach clients about safe and unsafe touches, personal boundaries and age-appropriate sexual behavior rules, adds Amanda Jans, a registered mental health counseling intern and mental health therapist for the Child Protection Center in Sarasota. Counselors can also help clients “understand that they are in charge of their bodies, so even if a touch is safe, it doesn’t mean they have to accept it,” she says.

Hula hoops provide a creative way to discuss personal space boundaries with clients, Holmes notes. Counselors can use hula hoops of different sizes to illustrate safe and unsafe boundaries with a parent, sibling, friend or stranger, she explains.

VanDuser helps clients engage in safety planning by having them draw their hand on a piece of paper. For each finger, they figure out a corresponding person they can tell if something happens to them in the future.

Counselors can also take steps to ensure that their offices are safe settings. Jans, an ACA member who presented on the treatment of child sexual abuse at the ACA 2018 Conference, uses noise machines to ensure privacy and aromatherapy machines to make the environment more comfortable. She also has a collection of kid-friendly materials, so if a child starts to feel dysregulated during a session, he or she can take a break and play basketball or color.

Likewise, if clients are hesitant to discuss the topic, Jans allows them to take a step back. For instance, she has clients read someone else’s experience (either real or fictional) rather than having them write their own story, or she has clients role-play with someone else serving as the main character, not themselves. This distance helps clients move to a place where they eventually can discuss their own stories, she says.

Another technique Jans uses to ease clients into writing and processing their own stories is a word web. Together, Jans and a client will brainstorm words related to the client’s experience and put the words on a web (a set of circles drawn on a paper in a weblike pattern). Jans finds this exercise helps clients get comfortable talking about the subject and, eventually, these words become part of their narrative.

VanDuser also suggests getting out of the office. Sometimes she takes child and adolescent clients to a store to get a candy bar. On the way, she will ask them what they are feeling or noticing. If clients say that someone walking by makes them feel strange, VanDuser asks how they would address this feeling or what they would do if someone approached them. Then they will talk through strategies that would make the client feel safe in this situation.

Taking back control

Survivors of child sexual abuse often feel they can’t control what happens around them or to them, Frazier says. So, counselors can get creative using interventions that return control to these survivors and make them feel safe.

Viviani helps clients regain some sense of control in their lives by teaching grounding and coping skills. “Coping skills are so important to helping them begin to trust in themselves again so that they have the skills to really uncover and deal with the abuse,” she explains.

In sessions, counselors can help clients recognize what their bodies feel when they are triggered. Then they can help clients learn to deescalate through grounding skills such as noticing and naming things in their current surroundings or reminding themselves of where they are and the current date, Viviani says. Rather than reliving the incident — being back in their bedroom at age 5, for example — clients learn to ground themselves in the here and now: “This is Jan. 10, 2019, and I’m sitting in my office.”

VanDuser highly recommends trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy (TF-CBT) for work with survivors of child sexual abuse. TF-CBT is a short-term treatment, typically 12-16 sessions, that incorporates psychoeducation on traumatic stress for both the child and nonoffending parent or caregiver, skills for identifying and regulating emotions, cognitive behavior therapy and a trauma narrative technique.

For a creative approach, VanDuser suggests letting children use crayons and a lunch bag to create a “garbage bag.” She first writes down all the bad feelings (e.g., fear, anger, shame) the client has about the abuse. As the child finishes working on one of the bad feelings, he or she puts the feeling in the garbage bag. When all the feelings are in the bag, VanDuser lets the client dispose of it however he or she wishes — by burning it, burying it, throwing it in the actual garbage or some other method.

Jans and Holmes suggest empowering clients by giving them some control in session. For example, if clients are feeling sad, the counselor can remind them of the coping strategies they have been working on (perhaps progressive muscle relaxation and grounding techniques) and ask which one they want to use to address this feeling. The counselor could also list the goals of therapy for that day and ask clients which one they want to work on first, Holmes says.

Holmes acknowledges that clients may never make sense of the abuse they suffered, but counselors can help them make sense of the abuse’s impact and aftermath. For Holmes, this meaning making involves clients being empowered to reclaim their lives after abuse rather than being held hostage by it, realizing that trauma doesn’t have to define them and learning to be compassionate with themselves.

The hero who told

Holmes encourages counselors not to shy away from discussing child sexual abuse. “If clinicians hesitate, clients will hesitate. If the clinician avoids it, the client will avoid it,” Holmes says. “It’s the clinician’s responsibility to take the lead on this topic. Sexual abuse is so widespread in our society that we do our clients a disservice when we don’t incorporate sexual abuse histories into our [client] assessments.”

Typically, however, counselors are not the first person a child will tell about the abuse. Often, children first disclose the abuse to a teacher or other school personnel, and their reaction is crucial in ensuring that the child gets help, Viviani says.

Thus, she advises counselors to partner with schools and child advocacy organizations to educate them on what they should do if a child discloses sexual abuse. “They need to know what to do,” Viviani emphasizes. “They need to know what to say to support that child because we may not get another chance, at least until they hit college age when they’re not under that roof anymore, or we may never get that chance again.”

Counselors must also empower survivors of child sexual abuse. “They shouldn’t be waiting for the therapist … or their best friend to ride in and save them. We want them to be the hero of their own story,” Holmes says. “And how we do that is through finding ways they can start to recognize and make safe and healthy decisions about different pieces of their life, and we want to model that even within the therapy environment.”

The end result of TF-CBT is the child writing his or her own narrative of the sexual abuse. VanDuser emphasizes that no matter how the child’s sexual abuse story begins, it always has the same ending: the hero — the child — who told.

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at consulting@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

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