BlogNewsSummer Internships

Invisible Women, Invisible Wounds

by Sequoia Patterson-Johnson, Summer Intern 2017

As a rising psychology major and summer intern at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, a non-profit law firm, everyone tells me that psychology and criminal justice go hand-in-hand together. They tell me that I’m right where I need to be, because psychology is so important. It matters–the way the human brain works and functions to govern our daily actions and thought processes. And it’s these very actions and thought processes, or rather the interruption of such, that lead more and more women into the harsh hands of our criminal justice system each year. This makes sense, right? So why is it, then, that psychology is so under-addressed when considering the fate of those under the State’s clasp? Why are we so quick to write women off, ignoring their invisible wounds?

Since working on the Women’s Project with my amazing mentors, Sasha Naiman and Tiffanny Smith, these are the questions that riddle my mind each day. The OJPC Women’s Project takes a trauma-informed approach to providing pro bono legal assistance to survivors of human trafficking with criminal records, and to women serving long prison terms for crimes against their abusers. With this approach, the attorneys behind the Women’s Project take into account the fact that women’s histories of victimization and trauma are often directly linked to their criminal records. This being said, the psychological trauma resulting from such abuse causes many women to be far more vulnerable to being re-victimized by sex trafficking and severe domestic abuse.

Multiple empirical studies have been conducted that clearly demonstrate the links between childhood physical assault (CPA) and childhood sexual assault (CSA), and the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. Various psychological research has also demonstrated a direct link to PTSD from CPA and CSA that significantly increases one’s likelihood of becoming victim to both forms of abuse during adulthood. Studies have shown that experiencing physical and/or sexual abuse during childhood nearly doubles the probability of re-victimization to these same kinds of abuse in their adult life. This is because the resulting PTSD symptoms from earlier abuse minimizes one’s ability to recognize danger cues that sex traffickers and domestic abusers display early on (Risser et. al, 2006).

Psychological research also indicates that due to gender based violence (GBV), such as rape and intimate partner violence, women are more than twice as likely as men to develop PTSD (Silove et. al, 2017). Symptoms of PTSD, such as re-experiencing events of the trauma, avoidance of reminders of the trauma, and persistent hyperarousal result in heightened vulnerability. Persons with PTSD are also more likely to seek routes of escape from their symptoms, such as substance abuse or a sense of familial belonging. It is this exact vulnerability that sexual predators and domestic batterers prey on. Predators commonly offer drugs and false love as an escape tactic to their victims, which then becomes a means of control and coercion. Predatory abusers play on women’s invisible wounds to turn them into invisible victims.

When this happens, women become psychological slaves to their abusers, doing whatever necessary to stay in their abusers good graces and to keep themselves safe. Abusers often use physical abuse and chemical dependency to control and exploit their victims, often forcing them to continuously endure violations to their basic human rights. This can look like forced sexual abuse for the abuser’s profit (prostitution), drug trafficking, severe beatings, and even control over every aspect in one’s life, which is overwhelmingly common in cases of domestic violence. These forced actions often result in criminal charges and extensive criminal records that lead victims to incarceration and multiple barriers to healthy reentry into society.

As a system, we force women into lives of painful invisibility to acquire wounds that we do not care to see nor address, and we incriminate them due to the status of their victimization. It is this exact invisibility that OJPC and the Women’s Project aims to eradicate.