Sexual Abuse Recovery: Balancing Recognition & Disrespect

This is a summary of my PhD research “Balancing Recognition and Disrespect: Recovery as the Process of Identity Formation. A New Zealand Study of How Services Shape Recovery from Sexual Abuse. I have presented these findings at the 15th Australasian Conference on Traumatic Stress, Melbourne, earlier in September 2008. The study looked at the experiences sexual abuse survivors had with a wide range of services, such as hospital, mental health services, crisis services, A&E services, GP, police, social worker, counsellors, and teachers.

I used critical theory and in particular Recognition Theory developed by Alex Honneth for the analysis of the qualitative study. I interviewed 10 survivors of sexual abuse and 7 providers of services for victims of sexual abuse.

Recognition cycle Analysis of the data uncovered the dynamics that led to recovery. Survivors of sexual abuse noticed an improvement of their psychiatric symptoms when they received recognition in the form of emotional support and care from health care professionals. Care and support enabled them to develop self-regulation skills, which in turn led to a strengthening of their self-confidence. This in turn put in motion a self-re-enforcing cycle of improvement of symptoms followed by an improvement of self-confidence. This dynamic worked similarly with recognition through the granting of rights and through solidarity.

In contrast, experiences of disrespect caused a deterioration of psychiatric symptoms that led to a Disrespect cycle deterioration of the person’s self-relations. It set in motion a self-re-enforcing cycle of decline increasing hopelessness and bringing recovery to a halt. In some cases it led to suicide attempts. Whether survivors came out the other end and achieved recovery depended largely on having had recognition mainly through guidance, emotional support, and care. Without that level of care they did not recover. They collapsed, i.e. suicide attempts, going crazy, or going down the criminal track.

Recovery was experienced when survivors had enough emotional support and care to resist acts of disrespect. This had occurred through them Balancing internalising recognition and balancing it with acts of disrespect. They were able to stand up for their rights and knew that “They deserved better than that”. When they realised that they are now not afraid anymore and are able to stand up for themselves, they were able to take in that they have develop a positive sense of identity.

The Findings of my study showed that survivors of sexual abuse had to balance experiences of recognition with experiences of disrespect in order to develop their identity. Whether they came out the other end depended largely on having had guidance, emotional support, and care (Love). Without that level of care they did not recover. They collapsed, i.e. suicide attempts, going crazy, or going down the criminal track.

A core finding of this research is that recovery from sexual abuse is only possible through engaging in the struggle for recognition and resisting acts of disrespect. By being able to overcome or resist acts of disrespect that have been described in the findings chapters, participants discovered new aspects of their identity, realised that recovery had progressed, and they became aware that they no longer needed professional assistance. Rather than continuing to respond from their ‘abuse-based identity’ of helplessness, dependency and submitting to disrespectful treatment, participants trusted their newly developed self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem and asserted themselves challenging service providers or any other persons they came in contact with.

For full recovery survivors need both experiences of disrespect and recognition.  The need more of recognition in order to cope with the disrespect of the past and from their current life situations. They need to have experiences of disrespect to have something to fight against.

When survivors have positive self-relations they can stand up against disrespect. Therapy gives them resources to overcome disrespect. It’s not ok for services to be disrespectful, but as therapists we need to know how to get survivors balanced. If everything is warm and fuzzy then survivors won’t know how to deal with disrespect.

2 thoughts on “Sexual Abuse Recovery: Balancing Recognition & Disrespect

  1. Gudrun says:

    Hi Uz, you are exactly right – in the next weeks / months I will get more into the finer details of the findings and talk about that. It appeared that people struggled enormously and half of my paricipants tried to commit suicide or got really really unwell when they were ‘only’ taken care of by public mental health services who most of the time didn’t pay any attention to the sexual abuse but only provided monitoring of medication … maybe in some cases gave some living advice. Only when survivors had a health professional (therapist, doctor, nurse) that gave them time and listened and were available for support did they start to improve.
    Cheers Gudrun

  2. uz says:

    I must admit that I think that the mental health services in this country are great at displaying disrepect if we really need it…. ummm!!! not sure about that. Its ok I guess if you have a good therapist but if you don’t I guess a person would get lost in the mental health services. e.g. getting disrespected and then if no guidance and emotional support and love would end up going crazy and attempting suicide and left to just go around in cycles unless a good person comes into their life where they may beable to get the good. Some don’t though and they are the ones that we need to be concerned about cause they end up in mental institutions being pumped full of drugs etc. I reckon its quite sad.

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