6 Rules for Ethical, Trauma-Informed Advocacy

There are many pitfalls waiting to entrap the well-intentioned advocate. As a male survivor of sexual abuse and other forms of childhood trauma, I work every day to advance the rights and issues of other male victims. I know that the work I do helps other survivors in many ways. However I also know that the work I do occurs in a social environment that has yet to fully acknowledge the prevalence of victimizations boys and men face, and we certainly have not made meaningful strides to help male victims of violence and abuse. This is because the idea that male victimization is as significant and important to address as other kinds of injustice is controversial for many reasons.

A major reason advocacy for males has been deemed controversial is because there are advocates for men and boys who have used virulently hateful rhetoric and other abusive tactics in their work. Let me be clear, while I may share parts of their frustration, I do not use or endorse tactics that abuse others or that cause people to fear for their safety. Further, I do agree that there are many ways that women and members of other social groups currently suffer because toxic masculine and toxic patriarchal values continue to infect many parts of our social and political structures. We must continue to identify and uproot these toxic norms wherever we find them. But condemning toxic masculinity must not lead to condemning masculinity itself. When it does, the rush to judge the sins of our fathers often pre-emptively condemns and silences our sons.

Sadly, there are zealots on all sides. Sometimes our ideals can make us blind to how an ideology can tacitly accept or ignore the pain and suffering of outside groups. My efforts to call out the perils of toxic advocacy when I see them, combined with the fact that the core of my advocacy work is focused on helping male victims, sometimes lead people to presume that I endorse, if not outright promote ideas and tactics of individuals and groups that are virulently (and sometimes violently) anti-feminist. The fact is that any ideology, when taken to an extreme can give rise to the spread of massive injustice. Frustrated by these constant battles and the far too frequent misinterpretation of the work that I do, I felt compelled to make clear some of the core beliefs that inform my advocacy.

1. There are survivors of abuse (and perpetrators) in every community. We must move beyond the current 'Oppression Olympics" where certain groups' have their victimization elevated at the expense of others. Compassion is an infinite resource therefore the fight for social justice for all is not a zero sum game. There are survivors of abuse and perpetrators in every community – all we need to do is listen with an open mind and heart to survivors’ stories.

2. Survivors are empowered to define their experience of trauma on their schedule. Trauma-informed, survivor centered advocacy gives survivors the right to define the extent to which they have been hurt. Sometimes this requires us to educate people as to what abuse actually looks like so they can identify the abuses they have endured as such. But as we educate, we must be willing to learn that the same abuse can give rise to profoundly different levels of harm in different people. Further, many people don’t fully understand the depth to which they may have been impacted by a given trauma for years, sometimes decades. We cannot presume to know how much someone has been impacted by a given trauma without allowing them to express their truth to us over time. We must create responses that focus less on categorizing perpetrators and more on empowering victims to come forward on their terms.

3. Survivors are empowered to identify with community(ies) of their choice. It is just as unethical to take ownership of someone’s story as it is their body. I do not consider myself an MRAer or a feminist, however many people would label me as one or the other depending on their bias. Well-intentioned advocates can presume to speak for the good of someone else simply because they share the same trauma, the same gender or same cultural background. However without actually checking with that person we can appropriate elements of their lives without their consent. That is disempowering and disrespectful of a victim at best, and can be revic​timizing and traumatizing at worst.

4. Be Good to Other People and Approaches. Without trust there can be no healing, and it is far too easy for someone who has been hurt in the past to read a difference of opinion as evidence of hostile intention. I try as much as possible to refrain from criticizing ideologies that I disagree with because it only serves to create more division and mistrust. Even if I disagree with someone over what the root cause of an injustice may be, or how to best solve the problems at hand, I hope that we can agree that the end goal of creating more healing and less harm in this world is an ideal we can share. As a survivor myself I have to constantly check my own reactions, and sometimes admit and apologize for failing to live up to this standard.

5. There is no unified theory of advocacy. Complex problems need complex solutions. As such there is not unified theory of women’s rights, men’s rights, LGBTQ rights, or black, white, Asian, Latino…. Etc advocacy. Within any ideology there are varying schools of thought and various voices of influence. Some voices within any group may be toxic and make statements that are harmful. Saying this is not an indictment of a whole movement.

6. Fighting for what is right does not make you right. Pointing out the places where certain movements have left some groups of survivors in the shadows should not be framed or taken as an attack, but evidence of the need for improvement If any social justice movement wishes to remain vital and relevant, it must remain open to critiques from people who are allied with a movement and from their opponent and critics.

Trauma stems from the experience of being disempowered. Abuse occurs when people act in ways that cause people to feel powerless. The work of helping people heal and addressing systemic injustices must be done in ways that empower people. We cannot do that if we are quick to discount the very real lived experiences and lessons that can be learned from people whose stories don't always fit so nearly into the categories others have established. photo credit: Sandi Capuano Morrison/IVAT

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