Asking the right questions

Psychologist Dr Nina Burrowes talks to Lizzie Atkinson about her online video project that opens up the conversation on sexual abuse

, 21 October 2014

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Nina’s first online video Why are sex offenders able to get away with it? heralds the beginning of an accessible and organic campaign that addresses the reality of sexual abuse, along with society’s attitudes and preconceptions – and most importantly, invites our response.

So Nina, with the project already making a real impact, what’s the background to it all?

To be honest, the main background is probably just my experience of meeting people in a social situation – of course someone asks you what you do for a living and when I give an answer, the phrase “sexual abuse” is in that answer.

And my experience has been that people normally meet that phrase initially with fear (and I think a genuine fear of sexual abuse is a sensible stance to have against it).

But then if I’m able to show my enthusiasm for the subject area and actually make it okay for them to ask me questions, we end up having a long and very interesting conversation. And I think they surprise themselves with how much they were actually curious and wanted to know.

And I enjoy it too; I learn about sexual abuse when I talk to anybody about it, even if what I learn is where the gaps in understanding are. So the project kind of came from that. I know from my own experience that members of the general public have a curiosity about this: what I want is for someone to feel empowered and then actively seek out an education on this topic area. And if that takes a conversation with me first, then fantastic; how do you scale that?

You’ve really made use of the internet as a way of taking the conversation to a wider audience.

The internet is such an awesome resource, so I’m trying to utilise that as much as possible, but I think that also one of my frustrations is the lack of this type of conversation in the media. So in a way this is me doing what I can: these are the things we should be talking about. I think we should be giving people the opportunity to ask questions, rather than me assuming that I know what they need to know. I want to engage them, I want to meet them where they’re at, I want to answer their most important question first.

And so this is what I’m trying to do. If you want to get people interested in something when they’re not necessarily someone who would consume that kind of content, then you have to go out of your way to deliver that content in a way that’s easy for them to engage with.

I think the really sad thing about the work that I do is that it will always be a good time to talk about this because sexual abuse will always be in the media

You’ve talked about the lack of this type of conversation in the media – but in a way, the conversation is absolutely everywhere at the moment, isn’t it?

It is but it isn’t! I absolutely 100% do not engage with it. The purpose of my work is to reduce the prevalence and impact of sexual abuse and I see nothing in the media that has got anything to do with my work – it’s a whole different game.

What I see is people looking for someone to blame and lining up the next person to blame when it goes wrong the next time. I just want to have the conversation about “Let’s try and understand the offenders, why aren’t we talking about them?” For every one column inch about the offenders, there’ll be hundreds and hundreds about the politics. And there probably won’t be too many column inches on the victims either!

So it’s like it’s a play, but the two main roles are never invited in. And because my job is about those two main players – the perpetrator and the victim – I don’t recognise what is discussed in the media. And so I’m keen to create content that I recognise: let’s really try to understand how and why somebody would sexually abuse somebody else. And let’s really try to understand what it’s like to have that experience and how we can help people who’ve had it.

It’s simple and yet apparently it’s not news. So that’s okay, I won’t try to be news! But let me find a platform I can use to talk to people.

Granted, the media aren’t having the right conversations when it comes to sexual abuse, but there’s been a surge of news around this issue. Do you think your project’s time has come?

I think the really sad thing about the work that I do is that it will always be a good time to talk about this because it will always be in the media.

I think at the moment it is interesting in terms of what I am trying to offer because I think this isn’t just a British problem. Internationally, governments and the public are recognising that this is a huge problem that we need to do something about. And that is a relatively modern phenomena and it’s happening across the world at the same time so I’m sure that there is something at the root of it.

We’re talking about sexual abuse, but we’re not quite yet having the conversations yet that are going to help. And I think people like me coming forward with the content that I’ve got exactly now is pretty good timing because I think people will start to look for solutions. And I think their knee-jerk reaction will be policies and it’ll take people like me to explain that you need a lot more than policies – this isn’t something you can get rid of with policies!

I see my job as holding people’s hand through something that’s quite uncomfortable, which is often your job as a psychologist

We need to make sure we’re asking the right questions. Currently we are most definitely not – I don’t think people even know what the right questions are. I don’t think people realise how much we understand about sex offenders because we don’t talk about it at all. There’s all this knowledge; it’s just about making it accessible and easy for people to hear.

And so in some ways what I’m doing is really simple and in other ways… [it’s] completely ground-breaking… I’m trying to encourage people to seek out other sources and other places of information, but if they were to say “Okay great, where should I look?”, I’m not really sure where I’d refer them to! But hopefully other people will see what I’m doing and they’ll also start producing their take on the same thing.

In your first video, there was a point I’d never really considered at all: that people aren’t always ready to admit to themselves that they are a sex offender! What is your attitude to these complicated people?

I think sexual abuse is tragic and it is tragic for absolutely everyone involved. I mean I’ve worked with perpetrators, I continue to work with perpetrators and in order to be able to do my job I have to be able to look for the human in them, just to be able to understand them. And because we don’t think about them at all, because we don’t make them human, we make them monsters. I think the only way to solve this problem is to look for the human in them and try to understand what has gone so horribly wrong that you’ve needed to hurt somebody else in this way.

These are people. Nobody grows up wanting to become a sex offender; it doesn’t come from a healthy, thriving, alive place in them. It comes from brokenness and destruction and all sorts of horrible things. But ultimately they choose to hurt someone else and that choice I could never, ever respect or understand; I couldn’t.

But I want to – and need to – understand everything that leads up to that choice and comes afterwards and see the human in that. Because these people that are in prison serving sentences, they have mums and dads and they have friends and they have people who love them. And they’re shocked that it’s come to this. We need to have the courage to look at that. If there was another way, I would mention it but I honestly don’t think there is another way!

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I guess it raises the issue of people’s potential complicity in this if they distance themselves from perpetrators and victims. The minute they start to see perpetrators as human, they have to accept they’re not simply monsters down dark alleyways! And they may find it difficult to believe victims because it challenges their idea that they could never be sexually abused themselves.

That’s why what I’m doing is very difficult but it’s also quite a big risk. I’m asking people to look at something they would much rather avoid and a lot of my message and my content, it’s challenging to hear. And so the way in which I work through these videos is really, really important.

In a way, I see my job as holding people’s hand through something that’s quite uncomfortable, which is often your job as a psychologist. But there’s even more psychology in how I work than there is in my message, so for all of my projects it’s about being smart and using my skills to think “Okay, so this is the audience and this is the message, how am I going to make this easy to hear? How am I going to make this something people can take on board and not put them off, but actually get them curious and engaged?”

Sometimes I’m frustrated because I’d love to have a regular column in a newspaper and have much easier access to the public, but actually I do think that one of my assets is that I’m so obviously just one person doing what they can on this issue. I’m not an organisation, I’m not a huge charity; I’m simply me. And I think it’s me being quite vulnerable and obviously human that will be an asset to this project.

Take my videos: I’m conscious in terms of video production that they’re not that brilliant but actually I think that’s really important. If I had a huge budget and were doing this from some flash studio, I would be losing the bit that actually makes it work!

There are different challenges in different cultures but no society, no culture is immune

I noticed that the illustrated banner of your video channel features a cross-section of society – different demographics in terms of age, ethnicity and gender. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on discussions of sexual abuse within different cultures?

I think there are different challenges in different cultures but no society, no culture, is immune. No society, no culture, can sit there and say they’ve got all the answers and are doing really well on this issue.

I think it’s important to recognise what the specific challenges are, but the one thing that everywhere has got in common is that it’s something that’s generally not talked about. And finding a way to make it okay to talk about it: to me that’s the key. The rest is in a way a lot simpler! It’s about making it okay to talk about in a way that’s constructive and that’s no small task.

I think it’s very important that I’m aware of the limits of where my knowledge is. There are loads of things I’m interested in, but don’t feel I have enough knowledge of to be teaching others about at the moment. Though I get called an “expert”, I’m a student too; I’m constantly learning, constantly growing in this space and there are absolutely areas that I’d like to understand more and to be able to contribute to more.

Would you welcome sexual abuse being discussed as part of compulsory education in schools?

It’s not something I’d be against, of course. I just think it’s important that everybody understands this stuff!

Our knee-jerk response to so many things is “Oh, we should do this in schools” but you know what, with that sentence you just wrote off 85% of the population.

Sometimes we like to think things are for other people to learn and not us. So yeah, let’s talk about it in schools but let’s also talk about it in churches and universities and in the workplace and in retirement villages and everywhere! Let’s not leave it for the national curriculum to solve because it’s just not good enough.

Your upcoming videos answer questions ranging from “Why didn’t I fight?” to “Someone I care about has told me they were abused – what should I do?” What can we expect in future seasons?

When I wrote down a list of all the things I wanted to do, I had a list of about 30! There were a few topics which I haven’t included just yet but I see this as a process – when people know me and maybe trust me a bit more, they’ll be ready for me to talk about these kinds of topics. So there are some things that I’m very keen to talk about but I don’t think now is the right time.

There is already quite a lot of content about the perpetrators in the videos and I would like to help people understand offenders quite a lot more, but I think my priority for these videos is first of all: let me help you understand why – up until now perhaps – you haven’t really looked at the topic of sexual abuse. And let me help you also understand why there’s not a lot of content like this out there.

So that’s been my agenda. And also to have a balance, by having a mixture of stuff for people who have experienced it or for people who are living with others that have been abused.

There’s plenty more and I’m genuinely curious to find out what people’s questions are. I’m going to learn as much from this project as anyone else. The answers to the question “What do people want to know about this topic?”… that’s not just interesting for me; I am going to learn a lot as well.

So get involved! Do submit your questions and your comments, do share the videos and give me feedback, because the more I can engage with people and the more I can learn the better. In many ways this video series is an invitation… will you take me up on it?

Nina’s ongoing series can be accessed via her video channel, Sexual abuse: The questions you’ve never had the chance to ask, as well as via Youtube.

Dr Nina Burrowes is a psychologist who specialises in the psychology of sexual abuse. Read her book about life after sexual abuse The courage to be me and find out more about her work at www.ninaburrowes.com or follow Nina on Twitter @NinaBurrowes

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