#MeToo: Being a survivor in psychology

Psygentra Director, Jemma Tosh, talks about her new chapter in the edited collection #MeToo: Counsellors and Psychotherapists Speak about Sexual Violence and Abuse.

[*Content Warning* - mention of sexual abuse and homophobia]

Video Transcript:

Psygentra: psychology done differently

#MeToo Book Launch

What is the chapter about?

[Jemma Tosh] The chapter is about the topics that I usually research about, so sexual abuse, gender, and sexuality, and how they all kind of interconnect in complicated and nuanced ways. What makes this one different is, it includes summaries or kind of overviews of academic work in that area but it intertwines that with my own personal experiences and reflection on that lived experience. So, the beginning of the chapter focuses on growing up and growing up in Northern Ireland as queer and genderfluid, and how that impacted on my experiences as being a survivor of sexual abuse as well. So how the, kind of, messages that I received about what sexual abuse is, what it is to be a survivor, and what it is kind of all intertwined with messages that I was receiving around sex and sexuality in general, and gender as well - because all the messages around sex and sexuality are also highly gendered. So, that it’s kind of what I argue in my academic work, but really showing through personal examples how you can’t separate those topics. You can’t talk about sexual abuse without talking about gender, without talking about sexuality, and for me it kind of highlights the problems with approaches that have a very binary way of thinking - both in terms of gender and assuming that there is only male and female and doesn’t really include trans voices or nonbinary or intersex perspectives, and also the binary of perpetrators, of assuming that women are victims and men are perpetrators. That when you assume everything is heteronormative, the voices that you’re silencing in that process as well, not only continues silencing queer voices but also queer survivors.

So, when I saw the call for chapters for this book I was like looking for an opportunity to do this for a while and this just seemed like the perfect one because I would be able to ‘academically come out’ as everything.

Why talk about your own experiences?

[JT] It’s interesting because when you start training in psychology you tend to learn statistics first and approaches that encourage you to be very objective, and not talk about yourself and to not use ‘I’ statements, but to y'know be factual and objective, and distant or as detached as possible really. And then I got my training in qualitative methods which was very different, it was about being transparent, it was about being reflective, and seeing how you interpreted that information, and what you were bringing to that, like a co-construction of knowledge and meaning and all that part of it. It was interesting because it took so long still to talk about my own personal experiences. I did that in my PhD but I kept it very private, it was discussions with examiners but it wasn’t something that I published about. So, there was this kind of conscious awareness for - later on in my research and publishing - that I was keeping a part of myself back. That, y'know, I would be writing about sexual abuse but as a survivor but not kind of stating that I was a survivor. And also, y'know, academically analysing texts regarding specific forms of sexual abuse that I had personally experienced and not drawing on that knowledge as well, became very, or just became more obvious over time and the other aspect was that I wasn’t ‘out’ - I wasn’t out as bisexual, I wasn’t out as nonbinary, so I was also writing about issues around gender, about transgender, about nonbinary, and again keeping that part back because of all the complexities and issues and risks around coming out on those things, both personally and professionally. So, when I saw the call for chapters for this book I was like looking for an opportunity to do this for a while and this just seemed like the perfect one because I would be able to ‘academically come out’ as everything.

How sympathetic and supportive are people going to be when they find out that some of my abusers were women? Will I be blamed for that because being queer is seen as ‘bad’ in this context?

What’s the key message?

[JT] I would say the key message in the chapter is complexity regarding sexual abuse - the importance of specifics in each individual case, that you can’t generalise people’s experiences and that all aspects of who you are and where you are, and the context and culture that you live in are all pertinent when we are looking at healing from or analysing issues around sexual abuse. Because my upbringing and the context of Northern Ireland and the kind of extreme forms of homophobia that I learned about was an absolute key aspect of that because how do I, y'know, manage that tension between my identity as being Irish when at a time being queer was seen as being incompatible with that, and then having these coercive sexual experiences while at the same time being shamed for my sexuality - all of that kind of merges together in this big mess of trauma. And if I address it only looking at the coercive part, the consent part, the trauma of the violence part, without looking at how my experiences as queer was a part of that, how those sexually abusive experiences impacted on my queer identity and whether or not it felt safe to come out, y'know, if this is the violence when I’m perceived as being straight, how much worse is it going to get if I come out in a context where I’m told that homosexuality is a sin and I’m going to hell for it? How sympathetic and supportive are people going to be when they find out that some of my abusers were women? Will I be blamed for that because being queer is seen as ‘bad’ in this context? So yes, culture and context and history, all forming a part of that necessary analysis and understanding so that the healing can not just be this one narrow focus but how it impacted all aspects of my identity.

How did you survive psychology?

[JT] I survived psychology as a survivor of abuse, as queer, as genderfluid, by making connections with other queer, nonbinary, and trans psychologists, as well as connecting with those areas of psychology that reflect on the profession, look at its history, look at it currently, and critique it, y'know, what could we be doing better? Where are we unintentionally causing harm? Where are places potentially intentionally causing harm? What can we do better, and looking at y'know how do we broaden out from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ and instead of a constructed ‘norm’ where we try and get everyone to be in the same way on the assumption that that’s somehow ‘best’, how actually do we open that up and broaden it and include so many voices that it’s impossible to even think of a ‘norm’? And realise again, like sexual abuse, you have everyone’s experiences, identities, cultures, and contexts creates a uniqueness and specificity that, y'know, requires that much plural and diverse options for healing and how do we make space for that? So, yeah, that’s how I survived, was finding those spaces and thriving in those areas.

The book #MeToo: Counsellors and Psychotherapists Speak About Sexual Violence and Abuse, featuring Jemma’s chapter, ‘Sexual Abuse and Surviving with(in) Psychology’, is available now.

Missed the live book launch on Twitter?

You can read a summary of the online discussion here.


* I use the terms queer and bisexual to describe my sexuality. I define bisexual as having an attraction to people with the same gender as me, as well as those with a different gender from me. It is transgender, genderfluid, nonbinary and intersex inclusive. This term best represents my sexuality as it positions my gender as central to the definition (rather than a term like pansexual), which is important to me and my relationships

** I use the terms genderfluid and nonbinary to describe my gender. I define genderfluid as having more than one gender and I use nonbinary to refer to genders that encompass more possibilities than a binary of male/female allows. This can include multiple genders (ie. demiwoman) as well as no genders (ie. agender).



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