New Zealand gave me the strength to keep fighting
Written by Dr Jessica Eaton FRSA
18 May 2019
I am writing this blog in the final hours of the 27 hour flight home from beautiful New Zealand. I’ve been constantly reflecting and rethinking whilst I have been working in Auckland and Hamilton but this is the first time I’ve had the (albeit forced) time to sit down and write about the impact New Zealand has had on me.
Don’t worry, this isn’t about to turn into a travel blog. New Zealand is by far the most beautiful part of the world I have ever seen and I’ve taken thousands of photos, but it was the people who taught me to keep fighting. That’s what I want to write about in this blog.
But first, I need to explain some things for context.
I flew out to New Zealand the morning after I successfully passed my PhD Psychology Viva. I was extremely ill during the viva, owing to me having an allergic reaction less than 24 hours before my viva was due to take place. In reflection, pulling that viva off with only a small amount of minors was nothing short of divine intervention.
I had been studying my PhD part time around my family, full time job and building my business. Despite it normally taking 6+years, I completed the PhD in 3 years and 3 months which was stupid, don’t ever do that. Ever.
This meant I was working all day and then studying and writing all night and every weekend for years. During the PhD I also wrote The Little Orange Book with my wonderful friend Dr Claire Paterson-Young, I created four new flashcard resources, wrote three national evidence scopes, published three peer reviewed reports and delivered training and speeches to thousands of people.
To put it bluntly, I was fucking knackered. Physically knackered. But my brain was still going 100mph and loving every second of it.
That was until I was faced with numerous people (many of which I had never heard of before) who went out of their way to bully, discriminate against and attack me for years. Now, let’s not pretend I’m some shy, retiring fucking wallflower who doesn’t speak her mind or challenge the status quo.
But let’s also not pretend that I deserve to be told I am unfit to be a psychologist because I have a baby from a rape from when I was just a kid. Let’s not pretend that I deserved to read 110 pages of sickening emails about me sent by and to well-respected psychologists in my field. (Still not received an apology by the way!) Let’s not pretend I deserved to be falsely distance-diagnosed as ‘mentally ill’ by jealous academics whom I’ve never met or spoken to. (Still not received an explanation for that by the way!) Let’s not pretend I deserved to be stalked and harassed online for years. Let’s not pretend I deserve rape threats. Let’s not pretend I deserve being doxxed and my kids put at risk by professionals who don’t like my work. Let’s not pretend I deserved being no-platformed, conferences being cancelled, speeches being pulled and projects being cut because of who I am or what I stand for.
There have been years of personal attacks – about where I grew up, what I look like, how I speak, how I work, what topics I focus on and why I centre women and girls. I eventually learned how to use very strong filters on twitter which mean you lot can still see the abuse I get but I can’t see it at all, this cut out about 100 abusive and misogynistic tweets to me a day. They still happen but I can’t see them. I deleted LinkedIn because of the amount of misogynistic abuse I was getting from men in my field and men who don’t know their arse from their elbow, mansplaining my own research to me every single damn day.
In addition to this constant shit slinging from people who would never dare talk to me like this in real life – I have also experienced backlash from some charities, local authorities, police forces and individuals working in child sexual exploitation (CSE).
Generally, this is because I come at CSE from a critical feminist, social psychological, trauma-informed and anti-victim blaming stance – I tend to see the abuse and exploitation of children in a very different way to others.
I teach it in a much more critical way. I don’t teach professionals that children put themselves at risk. I don’t subscribe to the notion that only the ‘vulnerable’ children will be abused. I don’t use ACEs. I don’t advocate for shock tactics with any traumatised people. I don’t support the pathologising or medicalising of people subjected to abuse, oppression, trauma or violence.
I teach strengths-based, feminist, trauma-informed, anti-blaming and anti-psychiatric approaches to working in the most human way possible with children and adults who have been harmed by others.
This means that some people commission me repeatedly and know that their staff or delegates will be challenged and will learn a great deal about a different way of working and thinking – and some people wouldn’t commission me if they had a gun to their temple.
I can live with that. It’s not my job to please everyone. I’m not here for popularity. My aim is to reduce victim blaming in abuse, violence and oppression and to raise the bar in research and practice. I genuinely am not here to make friends or to kiss up to people who think they are running the game. (Despite this, I have strong networks all over the UK of women and men who love me and I love them. Love to all my radicals, trouble-causers and critical thinkers.)
So why is any of this relevant to my trip to New Zealand?
Because, in all honesty, I went there to teach and I was totally fucking burned out. I told a few friends and my husband that I was so exhausted from battling with professionals over the most basic stuff (e.g. children are never to blame for sexual abuse, children who have recently been raped should not be diagnosed with personality disorders, you can’t quantify abuse and trauma and use it to predict outcomes of humans).
I was so exhausted in fact, that I was worried that I didn’t have any energy left to battle anymore. I knew I was flying out to New Zealand to deliver advanced workshops to groups of experienced professionals and I just didn’t want to spend those days banging my head on yet another wall about why it can’t possibly be the 12-year-old’s fault that she was trafficked and raped.
I didn’t know what I would be faced with in New Zealand – but I knew I didn’t have the energy to battle the way the UK forces me to do. The looks. The whispers. The comments. The boycotts. The complaints. The delegates arguing back that some children ‘do put themselves at risk’ and that ‘some girls do ask for it though’.
Someone needs to do a PhD to explain why it’s such a hard task to convey the message that kids who are being abused and exploited are never to blame and deserve our unconditional compassion and support.
Imagine my shock when I delivered the following four workshops in NZ, to APPLAUSE:
Day 1: Trauma, abuse and gender role stereotypes
Day 2: Learning about abuse from the voices of real children
Day 3: Psychology of victim blaming and self blame of women and girls subjected to sexual
Day 4: Critical perspectives of child sexual exploitation and abuse practice and theory
Not only did all professionals engage well, interrogate the evidence and debate in depth – they totally understood that children were never to blame for abuse. They already knew they wanted trauma-informed practice. They had already noticed the damage the medical model is doing to our abuse practice and support services. They already knew that CSE films were disgusting and unethical. They already understood why having separate definitions of CSE and CSA was causing problems and misunderstandings in social work and policing practice.
Each workshop finished with interesting debates, swapping of details, further conversations, gratitude and thanks.
I haven’t been received like that for years (except in feminist and critical thinking orgs and communities).
In those four days in two different regions of New Zealand, not one professional attempted to argue that children ‘put themselves at risk’ or that ‘some women are just inherently more vulnerable to being raped’ or ‘we can predict the outcomes of children from what has already happened to them in the past’.
No one said anything like that.
And that’s when it dawned on me.
If New Zealand professionals are listening to me saying the same shit I’ve been saying in the UK for years – and they don’t think it’s controversial, and they don’t sit there glaring at me, and they already have a better person-centred, trauma-informed foundation than many others I teach – then maybe it’s not me with the issue?
Maybe we have a cultural issue in the UK around the way we perceive, talk about, practice and theorise in abuse, violence and exploitation.
Let me be clear here, I’m one of the thickest-skinned people I know. When people are being shitty with me or are trying to pull me down, there’s always a voice in the back of my head that says, ‘This is nothing.’
However, years and years of ‘Jess is too controversial’ and ‘Jess is really critical’ and ‘Jess is just too challenging’ – had started to wear me down. I had started to wonder if the UK just was not ready for my work yet.
But New Zealand taught me to keep fighting. New Zealand professionals taught me that progress is possible and the ethos I am desperate to see in our work and research – already exists in other fields in other parts of the world.
At the end of one of my workshops, the professionals stood up and sang Maori thank you song, ‘Te Aroha’.
I burst into tears. The beauty of a room of people deciding to show gratitude in such a beautiful and traditional way was emotional enough, but the reason I started crying was because that was the moment that I realised my fight wasn’t going unnoticed and that I had to keep going.
I spoke to the delegates about how I was received in the UK and they thought I was joking.
I told them about the professionals who are set in boycotting my work, discrediting me, making fake profiles to bully me online so they don’t get caught by employers or police, stalking me on social media, trying to get me to retaliate to them every single day. I told them about the way academics attacked me for my childhood because they had nothing else to throw at me.
I told them that the week before I flew out to New Zealand, a group of professionals had deliberately refused to attend all-expenses-paid-for training course because I was too ‘challenging’ about the way our CSE and CSA practice was placing blame and responsibility on children who were being abused and oppressed. I told them that a venue had pulled out of my event that week too, citing that they could ‘no longer support’ my work. The event was about reducing victim blaming. So go figure.
As I was telling them, I realised how ridiculous I sounded. After these amazing, nourishing, humanistic workshops here in New Zealand, how would anyone believe that these exact workshops cause so much drama when delivered in the UK?
‘We thought the UK was way ahead of us in this stuff. We thought New Zealand was behind,’ they said to me.
No. No, one thousand times. Nope.
This raised some important issues:
What is stopping professionals from practicing true trauma-unformed practice in the UK and why are we content with the buzzword bullshit we are being sold at the moment?
What is it that makes professionals and organisations in the UK so uncomfortable when I say that NO CHILDREN can ever be to blame for rape, abuse, trafficking and oppression?
When will we all put our money where our mouths are? We talk a good game about this ‘trauma-informed, child-centred, anti-pathologising’ practice, but let’s be honest, it’s rare.
And if we are so committed to radical change in our abuse and support services, why does radical and critical work freak so many people out and cause organisations to shut down or silence speakers?
The UK either wants progress in this area or it doesn’t.
We can’t keep talking the talk if we aren’t prepared to walk the walk. I am so sick of hearing professionals tell me that ‘it’s really hard to change and it’s really difficult hearing that our practice might be harming children or blaming them.’
Know what’s harder?
Being a child or adult who is raped, exploited and trafficked around the UK and then being told by police or social workers or psychologists that it’s your fault or you put yourself at risk, or that you have to work on your own vulnerabilities to stop sex offenders from abusing you.
This narrative of ‘oh it’s so hard for us professionals to consider a new perspective’ is insulting to the amount of kids living through abuse, trauma, violence and oppression whilst we sit around the table arguing about how ‘hard’ it is for us to consider new emerging evidence and better ways of working.
I will no longer accept that excuse for poor practice and inaction. I no longer care that it is ‘so hard’ for professionals and researchers to consider new ways of working that don’t blame victims of abuse and trauma.
So thank you, New Zealand. Thank you to all of the professionals I met and taught. Thank you to Selena Needham for commissioning me.
I land in 50 minutes and my feet are hitting UK soil with a renewed sense of strength and fight that people had been trying to beat out of me for years.
Radical change and progress is possible.
Let’s go get em. Are you in?
Written by Dr Jessica Eaton FRSA
18th May 2019