*** This post comes with a series of trigger warnings- sexual assault, violence against women and children, pregnancy and birth trauma
It isn't often that I'm asked what I did for work before becoming a doula. Most of the time the subject comes up during a random conversation. Even when my past career does come up, I often gloss over my title and don't give much information or especially a description. Why? It makes some people uncomfortable.
See, for three years of my life I was a sexual assault advocate at a rape crisis centre before moving to Ireland. I supported survivors of sexual abuse and their families. I helped advocate for men, women, children and babies that had been abused. I worked on the front line supporting survivors of horrific traumas and came face to face on a daily basis with the epidemic of rape culture. I saw first-hand how sexual violence impacts not only individuals and families, but entire communities.
What do I mean when I say I was on the front line? I was on call for survivors of sexual abuse and supported them when, where and how they needed. I was comforting and supporting people following one of the most traumatic moments of their lives. I helped inform adults of their options- they could report to the police (or not), they could go to hospital for evidence collection or treatment (or not), they may be asked to testify in court, etc. No matter what a survivor chose to do or not do, my role was to respect the decisions they felt were best for them. I wasn't hearing their story on the news or reading it in a newspaper. I was meeting them at the hospital, child advocacy centre (where children were interviewed), the police station or anywhere else they may have disclosed their assault. Sometimes I was there immediately following the assault (often at night) and other times it was days, weeks, months or even years after. I was at the hospital multiple times when forensic evidence (swabs) were collected from women and children. I was in the room when a mother was told her husband had sexually abused their daughter. I was in the police station when a teenager disclosed her grandfather molested her when she was four. I was at a domestic violence shelter when a woman told me her partner forced her to perform oral sex on other men for drugs. I was on our 24 hour telephone hotline with a woman whose partner sexually assaulted her with his gun- he was a police officer. I was in the courtroom when a landscaper was charged for assaulting a female client in her 80s. I was at a jail multiple times supporting men and women who were sexually assaulted while in custody. I've seen a mother arrested for allowing sexual access of her daughter in exchange for shelter and drugs. I've also supported children and their families who were victims of child pornography. The perpetrators of such crimes can be ANYONE. I have seen pastors, teachers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, bus drivers, coaches, foster parents, firemen, childcare employees, police officers, sports figures and more all be found guilty of assaults on adults and children. As a society we don't want to believe that the adults that have access to our children are the same people that could in fact abuse them. We don't want "the nice guy/woman" to ever be accused of committing a sex crime. These are a small fraction of examples. The devastation I have seen is more than anyone should witness in a lifetime. The work that I did was very rewarding, however challenging. Self care was a must, as was debriefing with a supervisor and other colleagues. I had rounds of trauma informed care trainings so I would know how to better support individuals with a history of trauma.
Another aspect of my work was sexual abuse prevention education. I went to numerous institutions to educate individuals from ages 3 to almost 100 about sexual abuse prevention. I visited creches, schools, faith organisations, universities, nursing homes, parent organisations, Scouts, hospitals, youth centres and more to educate the public about sexual abuse and help challenge the patterns of rape culture. I organised events for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which is April. I educated teenagers and college students on what is and what is not consent. I spoke to children about their bodies and how they belong to them. We talked about the anatomically correct names for genitalia, appropriate vs inappropriate touches, boundaries, secrets, adults they trust and what they could do if someone tried to touch them inappropriately or made them feel uncomfortable in any other way. I used a variety of "tools" (books, DVDs, anatomically correct dolls, activities, etc.) to help with my teachings depending on age. With pre-teens, teens and adults I discussed consent, gender stereotyping, healthy relationships, sexting, victim blaming, bullying and discussed the process of reporting sexual violence to police. I became a facilitator of the Darkness to Light programme (which I love!) so I could educate professionals and parents on child sexual abuse prevention. Some days were beyond challenging. Young students would make rape jokes or sexist jokes while I was in the classroom. Some would shrug sexual violence off as something normal or expected. I heard friends and family members of convicted sexual predators try to minimise the sexual assaults they plead guilty to or straight up defended men who repeatedly sexually abused children. This is what rape culture and toxic masculinity does. It makes us complacent. It tricks us into believing this epidemic of sexual violence is normal, okay, worth joking about or not as prevalent as it really is. It influences our values, attitudes and ultimately how we respond to disclosures of abuse. The victim blaming questions, "What was she wearing?" and "Well, why was she drinking that much anyway?" are the DIRECT result of living within rape culture. Don't even get me started on "lads will be lads." I already have an acidic taste in my mouth.
SUPPORTING FAMILIES IN ANOTHER WAY
I may not be a sexual assault advocate or prevention educator by profession any longer but I am still one in my heart. I will always believe and respect anyone, including my doula clients, who share their story with me. Individuals who are survivors of sexual abuse often have unique needs during pregnancy and birth. There are many aspects of maternity services which can be particularly difficult, including language use, consent, exams, birth positions and more. Some mums have reached out to me and shared that certain aspects of their previous or current care have been traumatic. When I support my clients (with or without a trauma history) we spend an antenatal session going over any fears and/or anxiety they may have and how we can help minimise it.
For example: I am a survivor of sexual assault myself and I can say my pregnancy and general gynaecological care have definitely been impacted by my experience. I choose to limit internal vaginal exams and transvaginal ultrasounds during pregnancy and labour. In regards to labour, I found having men see me in labour particularly triggering. I feel very vulnerable in labour, as many women do. For me, the male gaze, exams and presence of men creates a climate of fear versus trust. I have discussed my history with numerous professionals and essentially made choices so men simply wouldn't be at my birth unless there was an emergency. I also limited internal exams, chose to be clothed for the majority of all my births and requested that every procedure be explained to me so I could consent or not before anything was done to my body. This is only my experience. I work alongside clients to see how we can minimise any unique potential triggers they may have. I encourage all expectant mums to inform their health care team of their wishes and reach out to someone for support if they need it while creating birth preferences. A trusted friend, family member or Rape Crisis Midwest are a good place to start. Alternatively, I am also here for anyone who wants to reach out.
With approximately 1 in 3 women globally being affected by sexual assault, I stand in solidarity with others against sexual violence and rape culture! I urge you to do the same. Call people out on their sexist attitude or victim blaming. Educate others on the prevalence of sexual abuse. Teach your kids about their body and what consent means. Attend rallies supporting survivors of abuse. Donate to or volunteer with your nearest rape crisis centre. Every April I make an effort to talk about sexual assault more, to share more articles online, have more conversations with my children about their bodies and what consent is, etc. It is important that we have these conversations and weaken rape culture in Ireland as much as we can.
It's never too late to create change.
If you have been affected by sexual violence and would like doula support during your pregnancy, please reach out to me. I am offering partial scholarships to sexual assault survivors for the entire month of April. I hear you. I respect you. I support you. You are not alone. #IBELIEVEHER and #IBELIEVEYOU always.
Help & Further Resources: