An Outstanding Advocate for Young Women’s Healing
I cannot praise Dr. Patti Feuereisen’s book “Invisible Girls: The Truth About Sexual Abuse” enough, nor do I have the words to properly convey the profound respect I have for Dr. Feuereisen’s life legacy. She has a master’s degree in creative arts therapy as well as a doctorate in psychology, and uses her credentials to help young girls who have suffered rape, incest, and other types of sexual abuse. Her website, girlthrive.com, is a medium through which young girls can post letters to Feuereisen about their abuse and she will respond. Her academic knowledge, her experience as a psychotherapist, combined with her nurturing, supportive, and empathetic character, make her a powerful ally and listener.
Invisible Girls interweaves Dr. Feuereisen’s research and findings on sexual abuse with first-hand accounts of sexual abuse from survivors. This method of structuring a piece of non-fiction allows readers to read the cold facts of sexual abuse, and then to compare them to the real life stories of girls who have undergone these emotional traumas. It’s similar to reading a textbook account of a rape, and then to read the diary of the rape victim. It has a jarring, heart-breaking effect. On one page you read that one in four girls experience sexual abuse by the time they’re sixteen, and on the next you read a first-hand account of father-daughter incest written by an incredibly strong nine-year old. Terrifying.
From a feminist lens, Dr. Feuereisen is a god-send (or deity-send, or simply an incredible natural occurrence). Not only has she excelled in academia, an area previously only open to men, but she has created a space in our misogynistic culture to combat abuse, to discuss taboos and what occurs behind closed doors, and to welcome sexual abuse survivors into a place of recognition and of healing. Here are a few of what I consider the book’s highlights:
• Feuereisen takes a firm stand on the feminist debate concerning consent between an adult and a minor. Should young girls be allowed to dictate the terms of their own sexuality when it comes to having a relationship with an adult? Should we criminalize the relationship between, for instance, a seventeen year-old female and a nineteen year-old male? Feuereisen argues yes. In her words:
“An older man and a teenage girl cannot have a healthy sexual relationship, no matter how mature she may be or how much it feels like love. There’s just too much power in his hands and not nearly enough in hers. Period.” (144)
• She also admittedly equates all prostitution to sexual abuse. This is another heavily debated topic in the feminist community; are female prostitutes selling their bodies, or a service? Can prostitution ever be a woman’s choice, or is it always the outcome of a sexist society and poor social conditions? Do we call it prostitution, or sex work? Can a women “in the life” be empowered? Or is she always a victim of oppression and control?
Feuereisen’s extensive work as a therapist and counsellor has brought her to the firm opinion that there is no empowerment or positives for a woman in prostitution. She argues that “it’s just not normal to buy and sell our flesh. Girls and women do it because they’ve been so degraded by other life experiences that this seems, somehow, the best option, or the only option.” (216)
• In the final section of her book, titled “The Road Back”, Feuereisen addresses some of the questions abused girls might have about healing. Two huge misconceptions that society has about victims of sexual abuse, and which I admittedly shared, are that:
1) victims must always report their abuse
2) victims should forgive their abuser in order to move on.
Feuereisen flat out rejects these commonly held notions.
As throughout her entire book, she puts the needs of girls before the expectations of society. She argues that reporting abuse to authority figures might be helpful in deterring an abuser from hurting other girls, but that it is not the responsibility of the victim to bring an abuser to justice. Often, going to trial is just as traumatic an experience as the original event, since the victim will have to face her abuser, and will have to relieve the experience in detail before a court full of strangers. She states that:
“Most girls who choose to report end up feeling violated all over again by the criminal justice system” (236).
I have watched many crime shows where the only thing standing between a lawyer and putting a rapist in jail is a victim of assault who simply refuses to testify. Until reading this book, I have always sided with the frustrated lawyer. Surely the victim wants justice? Can’t they just get it over with, then they can move on and there will be one less monster on the street? I will definitely be viewing this more critically and in favour of the victim from now on.
As for forgiving an abuser, she is fiercely against it. She argues that “you don’t owe him a thing”, and she believes “clinically and psychologically that forgiveness is not necessary for healing” (236).
Perhaps Feuereisen’s most beautiful and poignant idea is that justice for girls who have suffered sexual abuse does not necessarily come in the form of court cases and jail sentences. Instead, justice for an abused girl might be when she feels safe at school, when she can sleep soundly throughout the night, when she feels comfortable in her own skin, and when she feels trusting enough to go out on a date. Justice does not need to revolve around the abuser, Feuereisen seems to suggest, but instead centers itself in the healing of a young girl.