Four types of responses you receive when you speak from lived-experience.

Have you ever been to a conference or training day and listened to a trauma survivor speak from lived experience? (The chances are you have, REIGN were the speakers, and that’s how you’re reading this blog now. – Hello! Thanks for staying in touch.) The ‘lived-experience slot’ is a feature of many large and small conference agendas. It’s as common as coffee from those big portable thermal dispensers. Hearing from a ‘young person’ or ‘service user’ in-between all those wordy, academic lectures on policy and research helps break up the intellectual heaviness of the day by replacing it with emotional heaviness instead. A change is as good as a rest. 

 After listening to a stranger speak from the heart about their harrowing journey, you may find yourself compelled to connect with them to let them know about the ways their speech affected you, but what do you say? What can you say? 

I love getting the chance to chat with delegates, students, and event organisers after delivering a workshop. It’s a quick and effective way to debrief and evaluate how the presentation went and they’re always such lovely people. Sometimes these conversations happen right at the edge of the stage, sometimes in the queue for the ladies’ toilet, or often as we are packing up our materials and trying to remember the time of our return train. It’s always welcome. 

However – and there wouldn’t be a blog if there wasn’t a however – there are certain comments that we’re used to receiving that I want to pick apart. This is not an exclusive list but I will start with one of the most common types of compliment we tend to receive. It’s anything along the lines of “You’re so articulate!”

I wonder how many other conference speakers, university lecturers, or guest trainers are told ‘you’re so articulate’ by their students or audience. I bet it’s zero. 

The young people who come in and talk about being sexually abused or growing up in the care system often aren’t viewed the same as other professionals, despite the popularity of the arguably euphemistic term ‘expert by experience’. Ph.D.’s from the school of life don’t fetch much cred, (and this can sometimes be observed in who and who isn’t offered an honorarium). Unfortunately, being called ‘articulate’ doesn’t feel like a compliment because what it’s actually doing is revealing the low held expectations of us. We grew up experiencing all sorts of troubles so it would be a shock if we turned out to be intelligent and expressive, right? Contrary to the stereotype, being raped doesn’t lower your IQ. 

The next word on my hit list is ‘inspirational’. We once banned the word ‘inspiring’ from our feedback survey and found that when not allowed to use it, the responses were a lot more descriptive and well thought out. Inspirational is an unavoidable or serendipitous side effect of our training. We don’t market ourselves as motivational speakers or paragons of strength and resilience, we’re there to educate and inform, yet the ‘i’ word comes up every time. As disability activists will tell you, there is something uncomfortably objectifying about someone drawing inspiration from your lived adversity. It strikes of ‘Inspiration porn’. It’s hard to be mad about the intended compliment but I’m sure it’s understandable why victims of sexual exploitation might be sensitive to those undertones.  

On the other end of the spectrum there’s a response I have received only a couple of times and that’s the expression of pity or sympathy. “I’m sorry to hear about what happened to you.” This one is tricky and at first, I had no idea what to reply with. ‘Thank you’ was probably the polite option but I wasn’t feeling particularly thankful for the comment. I am not the most socially graceful woman and I struggled to avoid the awkwardness in these interactions. What do you say when someone apologises for something they haven’t personally done to you? For me, there was an instant urge to minimise it, dismiss the reality of my experiences and shove in a positive, upbeat comment about how I’m doing really well now! I found myself trying to comfort the person offering me the pity. As a contingency incase this happens again, I have had to think up a plan for how to respond to “I’m sorry to hear about what happened to you”. I’ve decided on “Yeah, it was really awful.” That will be enough. 

The last one I want to talk about is the disclosure. Without a doubt, there will be people listening to our stories who have been sexually abused themselves. When we speak from lived experience we unashamedly display our wounds and I think that makes people feel safe to show us theirs in return. This, to me, is wonderful and I’m really glad we are able to create that environment for people to reflect and connect with us. I think it’s a very human desire to express our commonalities but when you’re wearing a professional hat that can be very hard to do. Bringing your personal life into the room when you’re representing your profession could be frowned upon as ‘inappropriate’ or some shit like that. We more often get told about how someone’s sister’s daughter went through a similar experience to us and disclosures of direct lived traumas are generally vague or are hinted at. We see you though. If you want to tell us that you related to what we spoke about or that you’re a survivor too, you are more than welcome. You won’t get a, “I’m sorry to hear about that”, or, “you’re so articulate”, from us. You will get understanding and solidarity, and maybe a hug if you fancy it. We’d love to talk to you.

Our primary goal when sharing our experiences is to educate professionals on the realities of CSE and how best to support children. If you want to tell us it was useful, enlightening, enriching, informative, then that’s brilliant, but please don’t be shocked if you find us to be professional quality presenters ourselves. Professionals and survivors are often the same person.