30 things I’ve learned in 30 years

Dr Jessica Taylor

This is a personal blog post to mark my 30th birthday. I have been thinking about a way to write about reaching this milestone for months. 30 has simultaneously scared and empowered me. I have lived through so much that at times, I wouldn’t have believed I would be able to get to 30, or even want to get to 30.

However, I am here (somehow) and I want to share some of the things I’ve learned and some of the values I live by.

I hope to look back on this one day and see if I change in the next decade or two. I also hope some of this helps others. I feel I’ve learned an immense amount about myself so far, and expect that to continue for the rest of my life.

Here are my ‘30 things I’ve learned in 30 years’.

1. Popularity is a distraction from purpose

This one has been a slow lesson, but properly hit home when I was about 26 and I’ve never been able to ignore it since. There were so many times as I grew up, through my adolescence and then particularly through my twenties when I was trying to do something or achieve something – but it was making me unpopular. Society pins popularity as one of the most important things we can achieve, so it becomes really scary when we realise we are not popular. We might even be threatened with our popularity (no one will like you/we won’t be your friend/we will unfollow you).

I’ve been in these positions many times. Once when I needed to report poor practice in a rape centre. Once when I was trying to protect children from CSE. Once when I reported poor practice in a prison. When I supported radical feminism. When I resigned from my job. When I challenged my university. So. Many. Times.

Popularity is the threat that keeps you quiet and compliant sometimes, and it distracts you from what is really important.

When I was 26, I was directly told by someone senior in local government that I was making myself unpopular by challenging poor practice and that was the first time that I genuinely laughed in that person’s face and said

‘I think you’ve got the wrong woman, mate.’

I then realised the game that was being played against me and I’ve not worried about who likes me and who doesn’t ever since. I’ve got shit to do.

2. Being the underdog is powerful

Ahhhh I used to hate being underestimated. Always underestimated, always predicted to fail. It’s always been that way, since I was a little girl. I spent so many years trying to ‘prove’ myself and to ‘show’ people that I wasn’t stupid, that I wasn’t useless and a waste of space. It took many more years to realise that being the underdog in every process and every situation you’re ever put in is actually brilliant. This only occurred to me in my late twenties.

Being the underdog does mean that people assume you’ll fail, and that might hurt you, but it’s a great place to be.

If everyone is expecting you to fail, they aren’t paying any attention to you. When they aren’t paying attention to you, you can do the things you need to do without them noticing.

It’s also a lot of fun to see people squirm when you succeed, like you knew you would. I haven’t tired of that yet. I hope I never do.

Some people will never see your potential and that’s okay. As long as you can see it, you can carve out your own life and then they can watch you from the sidelines, stood there trying to figure out how you did it. Haha. Brilliant.

3. Authenticity keeps us healthy

This one has been so important to me as the years have passed. There are many things that will happen to you during your life, but if you stay authentic to yourself, you will at least know how you really feel about those things.

It’s so easy to get pulled into being someone you are not. Whether that’s putting up guards that aren’t real or being a pushover when you don’t want to be. Whether that’s faking who you are to fit in, or deliberately isolating yourself when you really want to be the centre of something.

Know thyself.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that to be sure about things in your life, you have to know yourself. Really know yourself. And then you need to honour yourself. If you feel angry, say so. If you feel sad, feel it. If you feel compromised, pay attention. If you think you’re being lied to, you’re probably right. If you have a gut feeling, don’t ignore it. If you believe in something, stand by it.

Don’t bend and change for people. Don’t be a different person to different people. Live authentically, live by your own values and live honestly.

This won’t always feel comfortable or easy. Often it will put you in positions where you’re the only person who won’t toe the line. It might mean you end up the whistleblower over and over again. To the point where you are sick of being authentic.

However, I’ve always felt healthier and more content when I am being completely authentic. Cognitive dissonance makes me feel ill and stressed.

4. Beliefs seem more important than facts but that doesn’t make them right

From childhood I’ve been a stickler for facts, science and the truth. I don’t particularly have much time for what people believe, especially if it’s contrary to fact and truth. I won’t tell people what they can and can’t ‘believe’ but I have no interest in colluding or supporting it when I know it’s not true.

As I’ve aged, this seems to becoming more and more common, in an era that seems vehemently anti-science and anti-reality. Social constructionism has taken over from empiricism and common fuckin sense and this means that I often state facts that people don’t want to hear, or don’t want to believe.

I’ve had to just find some comfort within that strange place, and know that lots of people’s minds can’t be changed with rational argument or facts. My close friend once said to me, ‘you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.’

She will know who she is. The brainbox.

Anyway, what she means is that if someone has arrived at a belief or conclusion which comes from emotion, coercion, manipulation, deception or some other means, you can’t usually use rational reasoning or facts to deconstruct their beliefs – because they aren’t based on facts or reason in the first place.

This has become more and more obvious to me as the years have passed. It’s tiring but it’s something I have learned.

5. Throw yourself in the deep end and see if you swim

This is one of my favourites. I learned this one early on, and I still do it to myself often. I have a real tendency to throw myself into things I am scared of, or don’t know much about – and force myself to learn, experience and to listen.

This might be anything from a new topic I know nothing about, to a new job or idea that seems huge and impossible.

I’ve not sunk yet.

6. Never show your hand to people who don’t respect you

I say this to those around me whenever they need a reminder that not everyone who smiles at you is your friend. Don’t reveal your ideas, thoughts, secrets, personal business or work projects to people who don’t respect you. If you’re not sure whether they truly respect you, don’t tell them shit.

You have to keep your cards close to your chest, and protect your ideas, personal life and work.

If someone you barely know, or you are unsure about, keeps asking you about your projects, ideas, writing, personal life etc – steer well clear. You’ll thank me later.

7. People want change until you cause change

Ugh. This one has only really sunk in for me in the last year or so. I’ve been suspecting this to be the case for about 5 years, but now I’m sure of it.

Lots of people (obviously not everyone) demand, ask, need, want, expect change in one way or another.

It’s probably more apparent for me in my job, because I am often commissioned or contracted to undertake work which causes change, improves something or removes something. The point of my work is to make services better for victims of abuse and trauma. However, I have been frankly astonished how many times I’ve done exactly what has been asked of me and then disciplined or criticised for causing the change they said they needed or wanted.

I was once asked to work on a project to improve a service that (by the leadership’s admission) had become dangerous and clients were at risk. I did everything asked of me. I highlighted all of the areas of danger and risk in the practice.

Annnnd then I got threatened.

I was once commissioned to cause serious change in a service which had an issue with victim blaming children subjected to CSE. I caused so much change that eventually I was taken to one side and told that I had motivated the staff ‘too much’ and they were now challenging the management and the poor policies.

I have often concluded that some people who say they want change, don’t actually want systemic change. They want something superficial and quick that they can show off.

8. Never stop learning or reading

Fairly self-explanatory, but this has been a huge part of my life and I hope it always will be. Never get to the point where you think you know all there is to know. Accept that knowledge and wisdom changes, and accept that you can learn from others.

Read as many books and articles as you can. Read them from perspectives you disagree with. I own several books from authors I disagree with on pretty much everything they write, but it won’t stop me from reading it.

As an example, I have a book by a man who basically thinks that women who are raped are the most privileged and protected class of people on earth and that the most oppressed group is rich white men. The book is drivel, but it was so interesting seeing how he argued it and what on Earth he was citing!

(Note: turns out, he was citing very little, and some tabloid articles.)

Learning goes beyond reading of course, and I feel strongly that we should never pass up an opportunity to learn no matter how old we get.

I promised myself that I would go back to playing music when I had finished academia and I did. I started piano lessons in September and have loved every moment.

On my list for the future is to learn a new language to a decent standard of conversation and to learn another few instruments.

I have also decided to undertake some other forms of training and education because there are areas of knowledge that I feel I need to learn more about.

I hope I always feel this way about reading and learning.

9. Music is a lifeblood

Every year that passes just cements this one for me. Music is everything to me. I have it on constantly. In the shower. In the car. In the kitchen. While I clean. While I work. When I’m chilling out. In the background when we have people over for drinks/food etc.

I couldn’t and wouldn’t be who I am today without my music collection, and my fascination in the history and context of my favourite genres and styles. I love learning about the meaning and origins of music. I think it has to be one of the greatest achievements of humans.

10. Money is a trap

This one has only occurred to me in the last few years. Having spent my entire youth and younger adult years scraping around to pay the bills, often not actually paying the bills and ending up in serious trouble: all I wanted was to be financially secure.

When I was a kid, I dreamt of having the things I needed. I figured out pretty early on that you needed quite a lot of money to live comfortably. I think there is a message we give that you can live comfortably and healthily on minimum wage or low paid jobs as long as you work hard enough – and it just isn’t true.

I knew that wasn’t true as one of 6 kids.

However, whilst this definitely influenced and motivated me to seek employment (I had two part time jobs at 15 years old – one in a pub and one in a restaurant) it also led me into a trap.

The thing I’ve noticed is that once you have had secure income, you become absolutely terrified of ever losing it again. You never forget what it feels like to be hungry or to be cold or to be in debt, and it scares you to death. You do literally anything you can to keep it. Even working yourself into the ground. Even forsaking your well-being or your family.

That’s why it feels like a trap, to me.

11. Misogyny is relentless

Gah. There are some days where I can’t even face how much the world blatantly hates women and girls. Don’t bother commenting or emailing me your essays about how women and girls are equal. It’s bollocks and I don’t care what you have to say to defend or minimise or deny the global oppression of females.

That’s it. I learned that misogyny is relentless and it hurts. Not all of these lessons are positive.

12. Classism is real and it’s tough

Another negative lesson unfortunately – I had absolutely no idea what classism was until I went to do my PhD. The thing about classism is that you’re kinda insulated from it until you step into an environment where you don’t ‘belong’.

I had no idea what class was. Or how it impacted me. Or what I was. Because I lived in an area and in a family where we were all the same. The definition of rich was someone who had a 12 plate car and had some decent trainers. Or a permanent full time job. We were all the same, we all sounded the same, we all lived the same ways.

It was only when I became surrounded by people from middle and upper middle class in my work and in academia that I really started to feel odd, but I didn’t know why.

Comments about my accent, my tattoos, my childhood, my lifestyle, my communication style, my kids – it came thick and fast but I still couldn’t put my finger on why I was different.

It was only when someone made a specific comment about where I grew up and laughed at me was that I realised that I would never be seen as ‘one of them’, and that I was some sort of… novelty.

13. I learned nothing in high school

I know people say this all the time, flippantly, but I actually didn’t learn a thing. I realised recently that I learned all of my ‘school’ learning from primary and middle school. I went to high school at 14 and learned precisely fuck all from 14-16. All I remember is saying to my friends ‘didn’t we already learn this in middle school?’ and then cramming for exams.

I learned that I was worthless, and that my teachers expected nothing from me and most of my friends. I learned that rules were only applied to kids they didn’t like. I learned that they didn’t respect us but we were supposed to respect them. I learned that grown ups were allowed to bully kids but kids weren’t allowed to bully other kids.

But education? Nothing. Like many kids, I was by that age, a very different kind of learner, and I struggled with bureaucracy and power dynamics. I loved learning but I hated how oppressive and patronising school felt.

It completely put me off sixth form and university – and I left school at the beginning of year 11. I had no interest in ‘education’ like that. And I thought I would never get my love of learning back.

However, I have to thank The OU for giving me my love of learning back, and allowing me to do a degree with no other education.

To be clear, school is not necessarily the same as education, and school is not always conducive to learning for lots of kids. Don’t write them off, they just don’t fit there. Loads of us don’t.

14. The body keeps the score

This one has been a hard, long lesson. One I love and hate. One that keeps cropping up for me.

However, it is one lesson that has changed my life.

I have struggled with health issues since I was 18, and not one doctor could ever put their finger on what was wrong with me.

Most noticeably, I had chest pains that never resolved, lasted 9 years and would double me over in pain. I was admitted to hospital countless times and never got any clarity as to what the pains were. At 27, I decided to invest in some manual physiotherapy from a guy who was highly recommended and in one session, he solved the chest pain. He told me that I had an old injury in my shoulder and spine and that the chest pain was actually referred pain round my ribcage. He told me that when I was super stressed, I held all my tension in my shoulders and neck which caused the years of pain. 6 weeks of treatment and the pain had gone. However, he was absolutely right, and every time I was going through a rough patch, the pains in my neck and back would come back.

Later on, when I realised I was lesbian and I had fallen in love with a woman, I became extremely ill. At the time, there’s no way I would have connected the two issues, and everyone told me it was because I was working too hard.

However, the body has incredible ways of responding to anything from guilt to stress – and my body couldn’t deal with the conflict and the sudden realisation that I was in love with a woman and needed to be openly lesbian. I stopped being able to eat, suffered from malnutrition and it took a long time to get better.

What was nothing short of amazing, was that when I did get to be openly lesbian and with the woman I loved, I started getting better within a couple of weeks. It was so strange.

The bottom line, your body will tell you when there is something wrong. If you aren’t listening to it, it will get worse. Stress and trauma will play out in physical symptoms. Pay attention.

15. Self belief is a super power

There’s a reason people don’t want you to be confident and believe in yourself. Because once you do that, you don’t need permission or support from anyone to do the things you need to do.

Self belief is a super power – you can achieve anything if you believe in yourself and nurture yourself.

It doesn’t matter what others say to you or about you, if you know you are capable of anything. It makes you mentally bulletproof.

Lots of people struggle to understand how and why I’m able to do the things I do, and the answer is simple really: I know I can do them, so I do them.

I’m not scared of failure and I’m not scared of having to adapt or learn, because I believe in myself. That has taken me so far already.

16. Success is the best revenge

All I have to say about this one is HA HA HA.

Nothing pisses off people more than having to watch you do well when they really really don’t want you to do well.

It’s hilarious.

You don’t always have to do anything specific to exact a form of revenge – you can just focus on yourself and your own development and dreams – and know that people who wanted you to fail squirm every time they see you or hear your name.

Once I’d learned this, I stopped getting angry at people who had hurt me and realised that I hurt them by focussing on myself, doing well and ignoring their sorry ass.

17. I’m all in, until I’m all out

I probably learned this one in my early 20s, and has no idea this was part of my character until then.

I always put 100% into everything and everyone I care about. I’m all in. All the time. No matter what.

I realised that, contrary to popular belief, I’m extremely slow to anger. I can be poked and prodded and mistreated for a long time whilst keeping calm.

But once something changes in my mind about a situation, a job, a person or a relationship – that’s it, I’m out.

This was an important learning curve, because I didn’t know this about myself when I was younger.

It also means I pay attention to feelings of discomfort or injustice in a situation or relationship, and try to confront it quickly, because I know once that switch has flipped, nothing will get me back there.

18. I can’t do fake nice, so I don’t

I was 18 when I realised I was not capable of lying to someone’s face, or pretending to be nice when I didn’t like them, or when I didn’t respect them.

I’m not capable of it, and whilst this might sound like a nightmare, it does make life much simpler.

I choose not to spend time with people I don’t like, and I never do ‘fake nice’ to anyone.

I’m genuine with everyone, even if I clearly don’t like them, which is usually when I avoid or choose not to spend time with them.

I’ve had people in my life who really struggle with this, and will say to me ‘just be nice, it doesn’t matter, just lie.’

And when I say I can’t, they just don’t get it.

I’ve grown to be comfortable with this and I’m glad I don’t mislead people.

19. Body image is a bastard

Fuckin hell, I hate body image issues so much. So much, that I choose not to write about them, campaign or get involved in activism around it. I am not at a place where I can discuss or work on these long standing issues which undoubtedly come from years of abuse – but rather than pretend to be a face of feminist values around body image, I simply tell people that I’m not able to be useful in this arena because I have processed my shit around this.

I truly hope that if I get to 40, 50, 60, 70 or 80 – that this mental torture and societal expectation on me as a woman to look like a fuckin living doll will end.

One day, I want to truly love my body. I’m sad I didn’t achieve it by 30, but I’m glad I’m aware of it.

20. I don’t seem to fit in anywhere and I’m getting more comfortable with that

I spent so many of my younger years trying to fit into something or some place. As I found my voice and my talents, I thought I would fit in to new places.

I thought I would fit in to new workplaces but I didn’t. I thought I would fit in at uni, but I didn’t. I thought I would fit into certain friendship groups, but I didn’t. I thought I would fit into feminism, but I often get told that I don’t.

What I’ve noticed is that I’m too much of a mish-mash of a person to truly ‘fit’ into a category or into a group.

I end up sticking out in one way or another – and I used to hate that about myself.

I’m only just learning to love that, and it’s probably why I’ve been successful.

Because I don’t fit anywhere, and because I carve out my own space to thrive. If this is you, stop trying to make yourself fit in. You will clip your own wings.

21. Children are the future, and we treat them like shit

As I’ve gotten older, and moved away from childhood, and had my own kids who are now reaching their teen years, I’ve noticed something.

We have such disrespect for our youth. We treat them, talk to them and approach them like idiots. We underestimate them. We hold them down. We are hypocrites. We ignore their ideas. We expect their undying loyalty and respect. We don’t believe them when they tell us they are being abused and harmed. We don’t protect them in the ways we should. We abuse and exploit them.

And then we sit back, scratching our heads and say ‘why do these kids behave like this?’

Us. Because of us.

But we just don’t wanna see it, do we?

We go on and on about how ‘society’ harms kids. Newsflash. You are society. We are society. We are the adults. We are the harm.

This has been a hard one to swallow, especially as I work so heavily in the abuse and exploitation of children. Children who have many adults and professionals around them, treating them like dirt and then wondering why they won’t trust or respect them.

The answer is much simpler than we think, but we are creating new generations of traumatised and unheard kids. Then we hold them responsible for our mistakes and we move on.

22. Psychiatry is a con and we’ve all been played

This one really took hold in my mid 20s, and not through personal experience. I realised that psychiatry was a con after working with thousands of women and girls who were totally normal, rational and average – but were told by doctors that they were mad, ill, disordered, abnormal and unstable.

Every woman and girl I met with these labels was wrongly diagnosed.

They were oppressed, traumatised, bullied, abused, scared and poor – but they were not mentally ill.

I started to suspect that psychiatry was labelling social impacts on oppressed humans as internal mental health issues as a way to individualise structural harm and oppression.

I decided to educate myself and read this topic – and realised that many others felt the same way I did. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

23. People want you to succeed until you succeed

This one has been so hard. I’ve had to learn this one, despite wishing it wasn’t true. I have been completely baffled, saddened and shocked at how I’ve been treated as I got more successful. I really didn’t expect it, which was naive of me. But I didn’t.

I thought people would understand what I was doing and how hard I was working, but my success just attracted more abuse and hatred.

It felt as though the same people who wanted me to succeed and told me they supported me – instantly disappeared or turned on me when I became successful.

This was a real shock.

I then started to notice this happening to other women, and then realised it was a pattern. Sad, but it was a lesson I had to learn.

24. Real love feels amazing and fulfilling

Wow. This one has been quite a journey. It’s amazing what you will position as ‘real love’ when you’re being controlled, abused and harmed by people around you who profess to love you.

Maybe you think that your partner only checks your phone and checks where you are because he loves you.

Maybe you think your partner who belittles you is doing it to ‘keep you grounded’, because they love you so much.

Maybe you think your partner keeps you away from your family because they love spending time with you.

Maybe they tell you that they want you to lose weight or look different because they love you.

Maybe they tell you that they only treat you badly because they love you so much and they are scared of losing you.

It’s all bullshit. But I wouldn’t have believed it, if someone would have told me these things. I thought love was hard, scary, frustrating, painful and exhausting. I thought that was normal. I thought you were supposed to put up with it because you loved them.

None of it is true.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to fall in love with my best friend and have her love me back, and I’ve never felt anything like it in my life. She loves me as a whole person, completely. I didn’t know that was possible. She loves me for things I have never even noticed about myself. She loves parts of me I hide. She loves things I do that I wasn’t even aware of. She supports me completely.

I’ve never felt this before I met her, except in our friendship.

Being with her has been a huge learning curve about love, partnership and communication. It’s made me realise that we name a lot of things ‘love’ that are not even close to love.

25. Talk about ideas, not people

I once read a post on the internet when I was in my early 20s which said that smart people talk about ideas, not people.

I pondered it for weeks.

It did that thing where it bounced around my brain for days. What did it mean?

Once I realised that we could further the human race and our social causes by focussing on ideas and challenges instead of talking shit about individual people, I tried to stop completely.

I chose not to gossip about people. I chose not to listen to people sharing secrets about others. I chose to back off from conversations about people’s personal lives or struggles.

As I then went into my career, I tried hard to focus on the bigger issues and the impact on society, instead of talking about people.

Now, I’m only human, and sometimes I will definitely slip and talk specifically about a person or people who I disagree with or who have abused or harmed me. But I often regret it. Not because I regret what I’ve said, but because it’s not wise or a useful thing to do.

Talking about people won’t change shit. And it’s a waste of your brain power.

If you’ve just sat and talked shit about someone for 40 mins with someone else – what have you both achieved? What could you have been doing instead?

Think what might have been discussed if you had a 40 min discussion about your ideas about the world instead of that woman you don’t like very much.

26. Cut out anyone who tries to bring you down

Short and sweet: you don’t need or want people like this around you, get rid of them. They will harm you short term and long term. They bring you down because they want to bring you down to their own feeling of shit. Run from these people. Fast. Never look back.

27. The people don’t know their true power

Thinking more broadly, it’s been hard to learn how powerful and powerless people are. The people (us, you, anyone) have the power to change the world, but we don’t or can’t do it, for several reasons.

Whole groups and classes of people could revolt and change the world, but we don’t. That’s hard to stomach sometimes, especially in politics.

A lot is invested in making us feel powerless and worthless – so we don’t rise up and change the world.

Once I realised that, I was fired up, and also very sad.

It meant that global change was possible, but it wasn’t going to happen. And that was gutting.

Sometimes we see these little sparks of revolution, and they are smacked back down by authorities and powerful individuals – so we don’t do it again. But we are capable of immense power if we wanted and needed to change the world. We really are. But we don’t work together as a team and we often don’t work for the benefit of those who need our help most.

28. We are capable of literally anything

Linking to the lesson above, I have realised as I aged that we are capable of anything, really. Humans are incredible. We are capable of great good, and great harm. We are capable of amazing engineering and design. We are capable of leading nations and changing the world.

I remember this about myself and use this every day. Every time I get stuck, I remind myself that I’m capable of anything I put my mind to. Anything.

This has served me well, and continues to be a source of my strength.

It is also an important part of my ethos when working with children and adults – strength based working is vital. Seeing all humans as capable of incredible things.

29. Being able to live as a lesbian is the best thing I ever did for myself

This is a very recent lesson for me, as I only came out at 28 and today, I am 30. However, so many things in my life have clicked into place since realising I was gay, and have been gay since I was a kid. Everything makes so much more sense. Don’t really wanna go into details here, but I’ve been through some rough stuff that I thought all ‘straight’ women went through, until I realised I wasn’t actually straight at all.

Being able to be lesbian and love a woman so wonderfully is easily the best thing I did for myself. It was truly a gift to choose to change my entire life and start again from scratch, to live as my real self. It was so hard, but it was the most liberating and psychologically healthy thing I’ve ever done.

I cannot believe that I repressed my sexuality for so long, when it was so obvious to me. I’m sad that I put myself through that, but I’m also proud that I faced it and proudly came out, and told my best friend that I loved her.

30. If you think you can do it better, stop moaning about it and do it

My final lesson is about making a change when you know something is wrong.

As I’ve said, we are all capable of brilliant things – so why not do them?

We all have ideas, thoughts, principles, approaches and feelings that go round and round in our heads – but we often don’t listen to or trust those ideas.

We sometimes moan or talk about wanting change, but don’t make change.

I’ve learned that the fastest way to achieve change is to do it yourself, or to work towards it yourself.

I’ve loved learning that, and I’ve been able to cause all sorts of personal and professional change by just… doing it.

So there’s my top 30 things I’ve learned about myself and the world in my first 30 years of being alive.

I hope I get many many more years, so I can look back on this one day and explore how much I’ve changed (or not).

If you got this far, well done. This was the most indulgent thing I’ve ever written. Why on earth did you read it all? Go and do something fun!

Lmfao

Cheers to being 30, eh!

Jess xxx

‘Men only target vulnerable women’ & other myths

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Dr Jessica Taylor

15th October 2020

Content warning for rape, abuse and blaming of women and girls.

One of the biggest lies we’ve ever been fed is that women and girls have an innate vulnerability which causes sex offenders, domestic violence offenders and child abusers to spot them and target them.

I write this blog to dispel this powerful myth, and to reassure millions of women and girls that it wasn’t their ‘vulnerability’ which led to them being beaten up, abused, raped or harmed.

I want to make this argument in six points:

⁃ The vulnerability myth is based on some very old, and very shit science

⁃ We like to deny our own vulnerability by calling other people ‘vulnerable’

⁃ We teach children that only ‘vulnerable’ kids get abused and harmed

⁃ We have an oversimplified understanding of abusers and offenders

⁃ We don’t know how to tackle the global epidemic of male violence

⁃ Vulnerability does not lead to other humans committing crime

The message which I hope to convey is that ‘vulnerability’ is not the cause or the source of the abuse that women and girls are subjected to. Further, we have leant on this explanation so heavily that services, programmes, interventions and policies are based upon it, despite it being incorrect.

The vulnerability myth is based on some very old, and very shit science

Calling women and girls ‘vulnerable’ is so commonplace now, you might not even notice it. You might not notice that when a woman or girl is abused, someone will point out her ‘vulnerabilities’. You might not notice that the conversation often becomes about her background, her personality, her childhood or her understanding.

The truth is that this process of seeking and assessing ‘vulnerabilities’ of women and girls who have been abused and harmed is deeply embedded into social care, psychology, mental health, counselling, policing, legislation, education, law and justice.

To understand how we got to a place where we pick apart the woman or girl and lay out her ‘vulnerabilities’ as reasons for being raped, trafficked, abused or traumatised – we have to look at some of the old theories which have continued to influence our thinking.

One such theory is almost 80 years old, and comes from positivist victimology.

Key theorists in victimology and criminology as far back as 1948 argued that only certain types of people became victims of crime and often brought it upon themselves.

Hans Von Hentig wrote in Time Magazine (1948):

‘Certain characteristics of law-abiding citizens arouse a counter reaction in the criminal. The inexperienced businessman, for example, invites embezzlement; the nagging wife is flirting with murder; the alcoholic is a natural for robbery. Thus, the victim becomes the tempter.’

As you can see from this example, it is theorised that victims ‘tempt’ and ‘arouse’ criminals to commit crimes by being vulnerable, inexperienced – or… a woman.

Spoiler alert: There is a lot of misogyny in vulnerability theories and research.

Later victimology theorists such as Benjamin Mendelsohn and Stephen Schafer also suggested that victims caused crime by being weak, vulnerable, female, old, disabled or young. All three theorists suggested that victims precipitate crime by provoking offenders. Whilst this sounds somewhat outdated, these perspectives are alive and well.

Many theories within psychology and criminology still rely on the assumption that women subjected to sexual and domestic violence either brought the offence on themselves, should have done something to protect themselves, should have behaved in a different way or that their vulnerabilities led to the offender targeting and attacking them.

Victim precipitation theory and research suggests that victims precipitate a crime by their behaviour, vulnerability, character or even the way they walk. This research is still ongoing, and only recently I spoke to an academic who was conducting research into which women were ‘vulnerable’ to being raped by their gait and style of walking.

The argument goes that if a woman or girl walks in a way which is not confident or assertive, she gives off some sort of signal to offenders that she is vulnerable and would therefore be a good target for rape or abuse.

Walking isn’t the only thing which academics have suggested to be a vulnerability in women and girls – everything from their appearance to their childhood has been explored in the literature for decades. There are thousands of articles and studies which seek to name the ‘vulnerability factors’ of women and girls, with the aim of reducing them by changing something about that woman or girl.

Interestingly, the same cannot be said for men who are raped and abused, they are not generally discussed as if they were ‘vulnerable’ to offenders or ‘giving off signals’ to be raped or abused.

It’s as if we see rape as a violent crime when committed against men, but as natural process of taking of an opportunity of a weak person, when rape is committed against women.

The reason that I reject this research and these theories entirely is simple: none of it is true, and if you look hard enough for correlations, you’ll find them no matter what they are.

If I looked hard enough, I bet I could find a correlation between which vegetables women eat and being subjected to violence or abuse by men. The reality is that violence against women and girls is so common, that you can often find correlations that don’t really exist, purely based on how common one of the variables is.

I, and thousands of other professionals, have been working with abused women and girls for decades. Those of us who have done these jobs know that we come across women and girls from every background imaginable. I’ve never seen a particular personality, character, appearance, walk or background that has formed any sort of pattern in the women I have supported.

I’ve supported everyone from female MPs to child victims of trafficking. I’ve worked with lawyers and police officers who were being raped and abused by their husbands at home. I’ve worked with social workers who work in safeguarding teams every day and live in fear of their partners. I’ve worked with women who were experts in martial arts who were raped and beaten up by men. I’ve discussed experiences of abuse and rape with women in the military and women who are now veterans.

Equally, I’ve worked with women who have been in care since they were toddlers. I’ve supported girls who have been trafficked around the country. I’ve worked with girls who have never known a safe place to live and have struggled to get a decent meal.

I can’t think of any ‘vulnerability’ that any of these women or girls had in common. They were a mixture of confident, nervous, strong, terrified, healthy, unwell, believed, ignored, extrovert, introvert, popular, lonely, religious, atheist, old, young, poor, rich, supported and isolated women and girls.

The only thing they had in common was that they were females in a patriarchy, and that means that statistically, they are at constant risk from male violence.

We like to deny our own vulnerability by calling other women ‘vulnerable’

You might be wondering why we go to such efforts to name the vulnerability in the woman or girl.

My work, and the work of many others, explores the concept of ‘denial of personal vulnerability’.

Simply put, this means that we are all vulnerable at some level, but we like to pretend we are not.

We are vulnerable not because of innate characteristics or behaviours, but purely due to how common abuse and rape is. At any given time, any of us could be attacked, assaulted, abused, threatened, groomed or even murdered. But to think in such terms would leave most of us anxious and terrified to live a normal life, so we instead tell ourselves that it would never happen to us, because we are not ‘vulnerable’ like those other women and girls who are raped and abused.

We tell ourselves that we would never be that stupid, never be that trusting, never drink that much, never date that guy, never go to that place. We tell ourselves that we would ‘see the signs’. We tell ourselves that the first time he laid his hands on us, we would be out of the door.

It’s all bullshit, of course. But we like to redirect our own feelings of personal vulnerability by pointing the finger at victims and then picking out their ‘vulnerabilities’. We then say ‘ahhh, that’s why she was raped, well, I would never do that, I would never let that happen to me.’

It’s a defence mechanism. A coping strategy for living in a patriarchy. We blame and name other women and girls as ‘vulnerable’ so we don’t ever have to face the fact that it could happen to us.

This is true even when academics write papers about ‘vulnerabilities’ of women and girls subjected to male violence. The difference is, they get to dress it up with big words, theories and titles so that we all nod and agree. It must be the vulnerabilities of the victims! Of course!

We teach children that only ‘vulnerable’ kids get abused and harmed

We invest a huge amount of time and effort into convincing each other that only the vulnerable will be abused, raped and harmed. This starts early, as early as primary school.

Children are taught in PSHE, assemblies and workshops that only the vulnerable children will be abused or groomed. Resources from everywhere from NSPCC to Barnardo’s have endorsed the myth that only the vulnerable children will be abused, and that if we remove their ‘vulnerabilities’ they will be safe from sex offenders and child abusers.

It’s again, all total rubbish. But that doesn’t stop us from showing children videos, resources and sessions which encourage them to identify the ‘vulnerability’ of the child who is raped and abused. It also doesn’t stop us from constructing entire vulnerability assessments in professional practice which erroneously attempt to identify which vulnerabilities of the child caused the abuse, so we can ‘solve’ them.

A common example of this is when professionals conclude that a girl has been exploited or raped because she didn’t ‘have enough education about consent and healthy relationships’.

This leads to plans around the child which suggest that increasing her knowledge of consent and abuse will protect her from the sex offender who is exploiting her, because once she has more knowledge, she will use the knowledge to defend herself and protect herself better.

This completely ignores the fact that even the most educated professionals who work in abuse every day, are still just as likely to be abused as anyone else. There has been no research which suggests that knowledge of abuse is protective. It is educative at best. This is because power dynamics and the choice to commit violent crime against women and girls has literally fuck all to do with the victim and has everything to do with the motivation and personal choices of the offender.

If we are to tackle this myth, we need to look at why we embed it from such an early age in girls and boys around the world.

We have an oversimplified understanding of abusers and offenders

One of them main issues we have is that whilst we like to scream ‘monster’ and ‘pervert’ and ‘paedo’ at offenders, we don’t actually get taught anything about these men. This leads to serious misunderstandings about offenders who commit domestic and sexual violence offences.

One such misunderstanding is that offenders carefully seek out and then deliberately target the most vulnerable women and girls in society.

This is very easily disproved, especially as direct qualitative research with sex offenders and domestic violence offenders shows that men who commit these crimes target their victims for hundreds of reasons, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with vulnerability.

In interviews, sex offenders have said that they targeted girls because they liked their hair, their tights, their body shape and their smile. Sex offenders report targeting children because they are confident and happy. Some talk about their specific sexual fantasies. Some only target girls of certain ages and ethnicities. Some sex offenders report not caring who their victims are at all, and will rape and abuse any child they can.

When it comes to online sex offending, there is plenty of evidence that sex offenders target children and adults randomly, based on whoever responds first and in a way they want. This means they can literally use a scattergun approach to attack and groom hundreds of victims per day, and never know anything about their so-called ‘vulnerabilities’.

In chat logs of sex offenders abusing children which were analysed by Kloess et al. (2017), most offenders never even asked for details about the child. They were not seeking vulnerabilities to exploit. They were targeting hundreds of different kids. They had very little in common.

With the abuse and grooming of adult women, the same can be said. It is seen as ‘common knowledge’ that abusers target vulnerable women – and yet, many offenders actually target assertive and confident women who spend the rest of their lives wondering how that man managed to grind them down and destroy their sense of self.

The reality is, for lots of misogynists, destroying confident and healthy women is part of the fun. It’s part of the kick they get out of belittling and humiliating her. Why would an offender always target vulnerable women, when they enjoy breaking down women and controlling them?

The vulnerability theory is just myth. It suggests that offenders don’t target or abuse ‘strong’ women, and that if you are a strong woman, it shouldn’t ever happen to you.

This is particularly true for Black women who are generally positioned as strong, aggressive matriarchs due to racism. So it’s even harder for Black women to be seen as victims of abuse and male violence, because we assume they are all ‘strong, assertive’ women who would never be targeted by abusers. There has been much written about this phenomenon, and it deserves a lot more attention. Especially as it exposes so fluently, the stereotypes we use to build the ‘perfect victim’, and what happens when you as a woman, sit outside of that perfect victim stereotype.

If you are not seen as vulnerable or weak, you can often be positioned as a liar or a malicious ex.

It’s almost as if we believe that all victims of male violence must be inherently vulnerable women and girls, and they are not vulnerable, they are not real victims.

We don’t know how to tackle the global epidemic of male violence

This is probably fairly obvious, but we don’t actually know how to (and there is very little appetite for) challenge and end global, systemic male violence.

We did get to a point where we started to take notice of the fact that 97-99% of all violent crime is committed by men globally, and that we had to do something about the way men and boys were being socialised and brought up to regard fighting, violence, sexual power, competition and bullying as masculine traits to aim for.

However, more recently, we have seemingly gone backwards. When we talk about male violence or male crime stats, we are shouted down and told we are misandrists and man-hating feminist bitches, (ironic, but okay).

It seems that if we cannot even publicly address decades of solid evidence and statistics, we definitely cannot work towards tackling male violence yet. As much as I would love to see that for the good of our entire species, you can lead a horse to water but you cannot force it to drink.

Everyone knows the reality of violent crime, but many are reluctant to do anything with it.

We’ve now moved away from holding men responsible (again) and gone back towards positivist theories of victim precipitation and vulnerability.

Vulnerability in one human does not lead to other humans committing crime

My final message has to be the clearest.

It does not matter how vulnerable a woman or girl is, it never ever ‘causes’ another human with free will to choose to abuse, rape or kill them.

Absolutely nothing inside that victim has any power or effect on the choice-making of an offender.

They are capable and competent adults who make active choices to harm women and girls for one reason:

Because they want to.

You don’t need any other theories. Offenders do it, ultimately, because they want to. That’s why they are able to keep their cool with their boss, or their best mate, or some dickhead they play footy with – but ‘lose their cool’ with their girlfriend at home or abuse little girls.

This isn’t about vulnerability of the woman or girl, it’s about a choice that is made by a misogynistic, violent offender who wants to abuse and harm women and girls (and in some cases, children in general rather than just girls).

Let me explain something to everyone reading this blog:

If vulnerabilities lead to some sort of human arousal or temptation in us to exploit or abuse or kill weaker humans, we would all do it (or at least the majority of us). And yet, not only do the majority of humans not commit these crimes, but women hardly commit any.

Globally, women are only responsible for around 2% of violent crime. So does this mean that victim precipitation theory only applies to male offenders and female victims?

If the vulnerability theories were real, that would mean that if you came across a drunk woman, accidentally separated from her friends and lost in the high street, you would think ‘she’s vulnerable and alone, I could do something to her right now!’

But you don’t, do you?

Most of us have never had a thought like that in our lives.

You might instead see her and think ‘shit, she’s alone, is she okay?’

Or you might approach her and ask her if she’s safe, and where her friends are. You might ring an ambulance or police if needed. You might help her back to somewhere safe like a taxi rank or a bar where her friends were.

That’s because you made a CHOICE.

100 people could walk past her and the majority would see all of her so-called ‘vulnerabilities’ and either try to help her or not stop at all.

And yet a handful may stop and make a choice to harm her, rape her, rob her or kill her.

Her ‘vulnerabilities’ had nothing to do with it. It is all about the active choice making of the offender.

It is ALWAYS the choice of the offender.

Vulnerability of women is just a myth used to distract us from the real cause of male violence: men.

Written by Dr Jessica Taylor

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