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The ‘psychological turn’ in self-help services for sexual abuse victims: Drivers and dilemmas

To kvinner holder hverandres hender (illustrasjonsbilde)

In a recent study, researchers from NOVA have studied how sexual abuse counselling centres in Norway are affected by a ‘psychological turn’.

In a new research article from the Norwegian Social Research institute NOVA (oslomet.no) at OsloMet, the researchers Kari Stefansen (oslomet.no), Ingrid Smette (oslomet.no) and Jane Dullum (oslomet.no) discuss how the professionalization of sexual abuse counselling centres in Norway affect the centres’ original user group.

The sexual abuse counselling centres in Norway, which originally operated as self-help organizations at the grassroot level, have undergone a profound transformation. They are no longer staffed by volunteers but by a mix of social professionals, and they are increasingly intertwined with other professional services for victims of violence and abuse.

The researchers find that the centres have adopted ways of thinking and working that stem from the discipline of psychology and the powerful trauma-discourse that has permeated the organizational field they are part of – a ‘psychological turn’.

The ‘psychological turn’

The consequence of the ‘psychological turn’ involves a regression from what used to be the centres’ purpose and niche – to care for the most vulnerable and marginalized victims: women who are severely affected by childhood sexual abuse.

The majority of the around 20 sexual abuse counselling centres in Norway were established by survivors of sexual abuse or the next kin to a survivor as a reaction to how victims were treated in mental health services. The centres were small and operated at the grassroots level with an open-door policy, and they relied on voluntary work and private donations.

Since then much has changed, and today they all have employed professional staff from different social professions. The researchers found that the centres have adopted ways of thinking and working that stem from the discipline of psychology which focus on psychological healing processes and recovery rather than stigma reduction.

Different user groups

At the centres, professionals distinguished between two main categories of users – the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ types of users. The main difference between the categories was their ways of using the centres and the services they offered. The ‘old’ type comprised women who had experienced incest in childhood and suffered from ‘complex trauma’. They came frequently, stayed long and had been doing so for many years, and for many of these women the centre comprised their principal arena for interaction with others.

The ‘new’ users were mainly young women leading normal lives who wanted assistance to cope with sexual assault they had experienced as young people or adults. They usually came for one-to-one conversations with professionals or self-help groups facilitated by a professional. They generally avoided the public areas and socializing with other users.

Through the interviews and site visits, the researchers became aware of a number of tensions around the ‘heavy users’, which often comprised the ‘old’ users. One of the concerns the professionals had was that if the centres were primarily associated with heavily traumatized women, other kinds of users would not think of the centres as having services for them.

According to the researchers the ongoing professionalization of the sexual abuse counselling centres is part of a more general ‘psychological turn’ in anti-violence work. They argue that while the centres may be helpful for individual recovery, it simultaneously marginalizes both the original user group of the centres and the alternative knowledge bases for working with victims of rape and sexual abuse.

Reference

Stefansen, K., Smette, I., & Dullum, J. (2020). The ‘psychological turn’ in self-help services for sexual abuse victims: Drivers and dilemmas. International Review of Victimology. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269758020918797