The journey at Street’s Hope started with the desire to grow my personal clinical skills as a trauma counselor. As a mental health counselor who plans to work with clients who have experienced traumatic pasts, my personal goal is to be able to work with any client with any range of trauma who walks through my door. In order to do this I searched for an internship that could give me that experience. Before coming to Street’s Hope I had worked as a victim advocate with a police department, and done multiple other internships that range from Domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault. This background gave a base of knowing how to deal with trauma and crisis management, however I soon found that the population at Street’s Hope varied greatly from previous experience.
My first meeting with the clients of Street’s Hope was a formal introduction with the current clients in the program. I sat down in a chair while the women sat around the room with all eyes on me. Going into to the meeting I was aware that the women had violent pasts with men and my presence would be cause for anxiety and uncomfortability. One of the women physically was unable to sit in the room with me while others gave me a piercing stare that said, “I see you and I’m ready to do battle”. The first two questions I was asked by the women was, What do I know about sex trafficking, and What makes me want to work with them? My response to these questions came from a place of humility and core beliefs about respect for women. I wanted to avoid at all costs the appearance of coming off as an expert or dominant male who was confident as I assumed this was the behavior they were expecting that would confirm their assumptions of me.
During the course of the internship there were many instances that arose that challenged my clinical skills, boundaries, and defense of humanity. One particular experience of this was during a group meeting, in which I was co-facilitating with the program director. The group began as normal until one client verbally expressed to the PD that I was not a good group facilitator and that group was a waste of time. These remarks were then followed by questioning my purpose for being in the group, in the internship and why I cared enough to be there. This moment was terrifying for several reasons; (i) I was new to the group and internship and felt I had to prove myself to my PD, who I was now being thrown under the bus to; (ii) I was being personally challenged by a group member about my personal reasons for being there; (iii) I knew that the client was looking for a reason to challenge me and the answer I gave would set the tone for the group and my internship from that point on. At the moment I was surprised the PD did not jump in to stop the comments, however I learned later that the PD was giving me the space to build rapport with the women in the group. I took what seemed like ten minuets to respond trying to collect my thoughts and how I wanted to respond, searching my brain for anything I had learned about self-disclosure and ways to respond to client’s questions that I had learned in school. Ultimately my response included all of the things I had learned and a little self-disclosure, just enough to answer but not giving any details. I responded to the client by saying, “ I am here because I was raised to believe that women and children are to be respected and honored, and it is a core belief of mine that I act in a manor that upholds these beliefs. The world does not share my point of view and you all have experienced this. I do this work to make the world a better place and to do my part in changing the way the world views and treats women”. Following my response I was expecting some sort of challenge from the client but instead I received a response I was not expecting. The client responded to me, “ I wish I would have known that because I respect you a lot more now that you told me that”. This experience was one of the most terrifying yet powerful moments in my internship and paved the way for the rest of the group and working with the women.
Through the internship I came in everyday with several things in my mind that I wanted to be cognizant of. Before arriving I would first think about what I am wearing that day, what do I portray about myself based on what I am wearing. Do I portray power, wealth, or dress in a manor that makes me look professional. I would purposely not wear specific watches because I did not want to wear a watch the costs more than what they receive a month from disability and have them judge me based on my watch. I took special consideration in the way I spoke and the words I used. Having a case manager or therapist that uses foul language does not set a good example for the women I am working with. Also the men that they associated with before coming here most likely used profanity toward them, and I wanted to differentiate myself from them as much a possible. Certain words used regularly by women have a completely different connotation when used by men. The same word said by a female can turn derogatory and privileged when used by men. I paid attention to where I sat in a room or when I was with a client. I would never sit so that I was above the women to not unintentionally assert dominance and to help them gain some of the power back for themselves. I am 6’2”, 250 pounds so in order to do this I would often sit on the floor as they sat on a chair or the couch as to be either equal or below. I considered my voice and how deep or how loud my voice was when speaking with the women and regularly spoke softer to not be such a big presence. When with a client in a room I never sat in front of the door or an exit, I always tried to sit at a 45 degree angle to the client, one to build rapport and also to never have them feel like I was between them and the exit should they feel uncomfortable.
Being the only male on a team of all women and working with all women, it was inevitable that topics of conversation would come up that are geared toward and audience of women. Topics such as birth, feminine hygiene, feminine issues, sex, and others arose during my time here. It was interesting to notice that when these topics came up the conversation would continue until someone remembered I was there and they would look at me as almost to assess if I was uncomfortable with the conversation. I have worked with an all female population for a number of years so the topics were not anything I have not already heard before, however although this was not new it also was not my place to saying anything to contribute to the conversation, which goes back to the idea of things women say that have a different connotation when said my men. Of all the things I experienced or considered during my work with the women none compare to the considerations during a clinical experience with the clients. Doing one on one counseling with a female client as a male who has experienced physical, sexual and psychological abuse their entire life from men can be a daunting task. Building rapport is slower and it is hard to see when a client wants to share en experience but does not feel comfortable enough yet with me to do so.
As a look back on the work I did and things I learned I can not help but reflect on the way I view the world around me. Each step of my clinical experience has come with a new way in which I view clients and how I approach therapy. I admit that when I first began my work with domestic violence and sexual assault I had this desire and wanting to protect, provide and help fix those that I was working with. I began to learn that “saving someone” was the wrong way to look at the work we do. After some experience in the field I shifted my opinion to one that many hold, that in this work we need to give the power back to the women. The restoration of their power will enable them to recover.
I believe this to be one of the flaws that we can see in the world of commercial sex work. Popular picture media often portray films in which a person is set free from a place of imprisonment; they are saved from the dire situation they are in. A guard opens up a jail cell and tells the person they are free. If watched closely, one can see that the person is perplexed by this gesture and will often stay in the cell no believing it is real. In the film Count of Monte Cristo after the main character escapes from prison, there is a scene in which he has a luxurious bed that any person would envy but yet he sleeps on the floor. Although he has his freedom and luxury he still lives with the habit and comforts of his previous life. While I offer my appreciation and gratitude to the individuals of law enforcement and the FBI putting themselves in harms way to rescue women, I relate the efforts to the movie mentioned above. A woman who has spent decades surviving commercial sex work, and a lifetime of complex compounded trauma is one day “rescued” and told she is free, and yet we are surprised when we find out she has gone back to the only life she has ever known? Afterward we label them drug addicts, resistant, not wanting help or see the effort as a waste of time, but when one can understand, truly understand the complexity of the situation and the trauma bonding that has occurred, we can begin to see that it is not about doing more or better of the same but about doing it differently more efficiently.
After my time at Street’s Hope I have learned that it is not about giving back the power or giving them their “freedom”. The work is about helping these women find within themselves a strength and belief that they are of value; that they can have a life of their own choosing; that they they are loved not for what they will do but for who they are; and that it is ok to dream, something that many of them have never had the chance to do in their lives. Its not about restoring power, its about instilling hope, encouraging strength, and fostering self- efficacy.