March 11, 2011

Sexual assault and Intervention

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:22 pm by sacetalks

For anyone who hasn’t watched A&E’s Intervention, it’s a reality show that follows the addiction and intervention of a person with an addiction.  The show begins by informing the audience that the subject of the episode has been told they are being interviewed for a documentary on addiction.  The person is then asked many questions about the addiction, filmed taking drugs, and documented as s/he explains what s/he feels is the root of the addiction.  Throughout the documentary, friends and family members of the person in question are also interviewed on how the addiction has impacted them, on the childhood of the person with the addiction, etc.  At the end of the show, the “subject” is told they are going to their final interview.  In actuality, their friends and family have planned an intervention for them in which they all read letters outlining how the addiction has negatively impacted their lives.  They give the person with the addiction their “bottom lines” in order to coerce the person into going to a rehabilitation clinic (presumably sponsored by A&E).

The show is problematic (at best) on many levels.  Of course there is the question of whether or not a person experiencing an addiction can give informed consent to participate in a programme that will be aired on national television; of whether or not the family and friends are being exploited as they worry for the life of their loved one; and that’s not to mention the question of whether or not interventions are at all helpful for someone experiencing an addiction.

All that aside, the interventions tend to have a common theme: the person experiencing the addiction has often also experienced either child sexual abuse, adult sexual assault, or both.  Research has already documented the strong link between child sexual abuse (and other types of childhood trauma) and addictions in adulthood.  Therefore, the relationship doesn’t come as a big surprise.

What is surprising, however, is when the intervention counsellors blame the survivor’s addiction – rather than the offender’s behaviour – for the sexual assault.  For example, in Season 8, Episode 5, Amy, a woman who self-harms, abuses alcohol and has an eating disorder, discloses that she was sexually abused when she was 8.  She began drinking heavily as an adult, despite her sister’s “warnings.”  One night, as Amy explains, she was date raped.  She told her sister Jennifer, who told her that she shouldn’t have put herself in such a risky situation.  Of course, as a tearful Amy explains to the camera, she never told anyone else because she was afraid of being blamed again.

In another episode, a young woman named Lana abuses various drugs, including alcohol.  There was one time in which she went on holiday with her friends.  A year after she returned, the police contacted her; they had a video in which she was being gang raped by a group of men while she was passed out, drunk.  The police forced her to watch the video.  During her intervention, as Lana was minimizing the impact of her drug and alcohol abuse, the interventionist told her that her addiction resulted in her being raped.

It is important to make one thing very clear: addiction does not lead to sexual assault.  Alcohol does not lead to sexual assault.  Drugs do not lead to sexual assault.  The only thing – the only person – that leads to sexual assault is the offender.

 Some will argue that when people experience addictions, they put themselves in “risky situations” which heighten the risk of experiencing violence.  Let’s think this through for a second.  Does our culture promote drinking?  Well, if we look through a magazine, watch television, or even observe billboards on the side of the road, it would be hard to argue that it doesn’t.  We are constantly bombarded with messages telling us that drinking is fun.  How, then, can someone that’s so much fun be suddenly seen as “risky” when someone is sexually assaulted? 

Of course, drinking alcohol and taking illegal drugs are two different stories.  In all honesty, I understand the need for people to take personal responsibility.  And really, we are responsible for what we do.  For example, Amy is responsible for the $5000 she stole from her parents to pay for alcohol.  Lana is responsible for treating people in her life badly.  Neither Amy nor Lana, however, are responsible for what other people to do them – regardless of the situations in which they find themselves. 

Shows such as Intervention do a great disservice to sexual assault education.  People watching these programmes often believe the counsellors on the shows are experts and believe everything they say – including information that is not only misleading, but outright harmful.  Addictions are not responsible for sexual assault; offenders are.

I don’t know if there’s any way for a show such as Intervention, given its premise and its inherent exploitation, to be free from problems.  I do, however, think it’s possible for it to avoid contributing to myths surrounding sexual assault.  People who have experienced this trauma need to be reminded that they are not to blame; that it is not their fault; that it is a good thing they told.  They do not need to be shamed, guilted, and humiliated – they do a good enough job of blaming themselves already without other people adding to this misplaced responsibility.

-Pragya Sharma


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