“When a story is based solely on damage, it not only ties it to perceptions of damage, but it can also fasten the teller to a damaged identity.”
-Dr. Smith & Dr. Woodiwiss
Narratives are powerful tools in social work employed on the micro, mezzo, and macro levels for therapeutic benefit and to garner investment from key allies. A key purpose of narratives is to communicate harm and elicit an “emotional arousal” from the audience (Ghatak, 2019). This “harm-orientation” places emphasis on the detrimental impact an event or social issue may have on an individual. For individuals who experience sexual assault, these narratives of harm have inadvertently become the standard for “proving” the need for services within the field. Instead, social workers should move away from a harm-orientation to a justice-orientation, where issues are understood through a social justice lens and individual experiences are validated without demonstrating harm, especially as they relate to sexual abuse.
At the individual or clinical level, commitment to harm-orientation over moral orientation has the potential to interfere with client agency and growth. Assuming a client’s experience will manifest in a certain type of harm can result in the clinician defining the experience for them. Clinicians can impose a narrative of harm on clients where wrongfulness is contingent on the expression of harm (Smith & Woodiwiss, 2016). Not only does the clinician’s narrative impact the way clients understand and talk about their experience, but clinicians may also interpret their clients’ future behaviors as being driven by their internalized harm (Smith & Woodiwiss, 2016). By shaping the clients’ experience to fit this construct of harm, the clinician impacts the services and treatments clients ultimately receive.
A justice-orientation provides the opportunity to recognize the abuse as wrong, while also empowering the client to generate their own narrative, fulfilling both the commitment to social justice as well as client agency and self-determination.
The narrative of harm that has characterized the clinical relationship is also present in the relationships individuals have with other community members. For example, self-blame is a common response to sexual assault. Having someone who counters these blaming messages with affirming ones can serve as an important protective factor. This affirmation can lead to more successful police interactions and a more positive emotional response overall (Lorenz, Kirkner, & Ullman, 2019). Affirming responses are not the norm, however. Many who experience sexual assault will be minimized by society, blamed for the assault, and told they should not talk about the incident to avoid being treated as “damaged goods” (Ullman, 2010). These responses are rooted in the harm-oriented perspective and fail to recognize the moral injustice of the assault, ultimately causing more harm to the person. In addition to these interpersonal interactions, the harm-oriented perspective also permeates the larger systems through which survivors will navigate.
Navigating societal institutions such as the criminal justice system and mass media, presents significant challenges for individuals who have experienced sexual assault or abuse. When seeking medical services for sexual violence, which may also provide evidence for legal proceedings, individuals may be retraumatized by their contact with medical professionals and police officers (Campbell, Patterson, & Bybee, 2012). While professionals are concerned about the physical harm of the assault, they often fail to uphold the dignity of the client.
To promote an individual’s wellbeing in these difficult situations, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) programs train nurses “to minimize the physical and psychological trauma” while ensuring evidence is properly collected (Campbell et al., 2012). Minimizing re-traumatization is vital, and organizations that aid people who have experienced sexual abuse have a moral obligation to respect the client. Without this support, individuals who experience sexual violence may be less inclined to seek services. Additionally, although the media tends to depict a favorable view of the system’s ability to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence, this portrayal is not always accurate (Lonsway & Archambault, 2012). In fact, while considering whether to press charges, prosecutors evaluate the evidence, the ‘seriousness’ of the offense (in other words – the amount of harm done), and the ‘credibility of the victim’ (Beichner & Spohn, 2005). Taking a harm-orientated perspective could reinforce the message that those who experience sexual assault must demonstrate they have sustained great harm to ensure their offender is prosecuted. Instead, the wrongfulness of the assault should be recognized and prosecuted legally, independent of the amount of harm demonstrated.
Unfortunately, assigning merit based on harmfulness is not unique to sexual violence. This orientation shapes the way many social issues are conceptualized. Social movements such as the #MeToo movement call awareness to the wrongfulness of sexual violence and demonstrate solidarity on a moral basis. However, the call to action for most social issues often involves a harm-oriented approach, rather than a recognition of moral injustice. The use of a justice-orientation does not negate the reality of harm, but instead validates the narratives of those who are oppressed without demanding the demonstration of harm. It is crucial that social workers act from the moral-orientation in order to combat social injustices and serve clients without retraumatizing them.
Beichner, D. & Spohn, C. (2005). Prosecutorial charging decisions in sexual assault cases: Examining the impact of a specialized prosecution unit. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 16(4), 461-498. DOI: 10.1177/0887403405277195.
Ghatak, S. (2019). Book review: Inside story: how narratives drive mass harm. Social Forces, 1-3. doi: 10.1093/sf/soz077
Campbell, R., Patterson, D., & Bybee, D. (2012). Prosecution of adult sexual assault cases: A longitundinal analysis of the impact of a sexual assault nurse examiner program. Violence Against Women, 18(2), 233-244. DOI: 10.1177/1077801212440158.
Lonsway, K. A. & Archambault, J. (2012). The “justice gap” for sexual assault cases: Future directions for research and reform. Violence Against Women, 18(2), 145-168. DOI: 10.1177/1077801212440017.
Lorenz, K., Kirkner, A., & Ullman, E. (2019). A qualitative study of sexual assault survivors’ post-assault legal system experiences. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 20(3), 263-287. DOI: 10.1080/15299732.2019.1592643.
NASW Delegate Assembly. (2017). Read the Code of Ethics. National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from: https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English
Smith, M. & Woodiwiss, J. (2016). Sexuality, innocence, and agency in narratives of childhood sexual abuse: implications for social work. British Journal of Social Work, 46, 2173-2189. DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bcw160.
Ullman, S. E. (2010). Talking about sexual assault: Society’s response to survivors. Washington,
DC: American Psychological Association.