Kristin Canan, LMSW, interviewed by Michaela Williams
Michaela: I know you do a lot of crisis intervention work, so within your experiences in that do you see many people coming to you after experiencing sexual abuse? How do you handle experiencing this day after day?
Kristin: I experience survivors coming to me for sexual violence, in some sort, on a regular basis, professionally and not professionally. I think part of the reason for that is that is where I started my career. I was a sexual assault victim advocate for the first seven years of my career. That entailed answering crisis calls, going to the hospital and supporting survivors through sexual assault nurse examinations, going to court with survivors, and providing emotional support throughout that whole entire process. Within the context of that, my responsibility was to respond to and provide support, specifically to sexual assault survivors. Then I moved into a role on college campuses, where I provided education, emotional support, training for staff and students, and education to kind of challenge some of these cultural norms but also to educate people about healthy relationships, consent, what sexual assault is and is not, and providing that education but also providing that emotional support. So within the context of that, I, as part of the response team on college campuses, to walk survivors through that process and provide that support throughout that process, also do some prevention and education work. Because what we know is that if we’re not doing prevention and education our response is still needed but so much less effective if we’re not doing anything to address the problem. What that looks like today, within the context of my church, within the context of my work as a social worker, within the context of my work as a trauma therapist; I would say a majority of the women that I see, if I have to put a percentage on it, probably 98% of the women that I see also have some sort of experience or history with sexual violence. Now given the context, some of the work that I do, you know I was working in a residential treatment center for women, so the women have experienced some sort of mental health issue than the majority of the population. So we know that those women are at higher risk for experiencing extensive trauma histories. Even outside of that, when I was doing outpatient work that was still applicable, a majority of the women that I saw had some sort of experience of sexual violence and so for me it’s about the response and the crisis response in the moment, which we can go into if that’s helpful, in providing that empathy and support and empowering them to engage options even if we don’t agree what those choices are in the support that they get in the legal processes, that they choose whether or not they are going to engage and who they choose to disclose to and what they choose to do in response. Empowering the survivors we work with is so incredibly important because realistically they’ve had their power taken from them already; we don’t want to be another person added to that list; we want to do everything that we can to provide that person an opportunity to take some of that power and control back and to start making decisions for themselves. We want to make sure that empowerment is provided and, more than that, they are in a safe environment. And then in the long term form, you know I’m a trauma therapist, so I have the immense privilege of walking with people through their long term healing and being able to witness the ways that God works in them to provide them healing. The first time that they internalize that “Maybe what happened wasn’t really their fault” or when they start believing, “Maybe I am worth something,” or when they feel safe for the first time, or, “This happened but this doesn’t define who I am because who I am is so much more than what happened to me.” You know, one of my favorite things that I do with my survivors and in kind of challenging that shame and guilt is what I do with my survivors who identify as Christian. I’ll have them write a letter and do a Bible study. I’ll have them identify the ways that God sees them, as His children. I have them challenge some of the distortions that they have about their worth and what this means about them or their value or how God sees them or how other people see them. I have them go back to His word and identify, “What does God say about how He sees you?” It’s really powerful for the women and men that I serve. The other thing that I really love to do with my survivors is have them write a letter to themselves – but it starts off with them writing a letter to someone else. So identify somebody you love, that you care for, and pretend that they have experienced exactly what you have experienced. Ask them, “What would you tell them, what would they need to know, what would you want them to know, what would they need to hear?” I would have them write that letter and then have them read it out loud to me. And as they are reading it out loud, it starts that self-forgiveness process and then I’ll have them go back through and have them place their loved ones name with their own name and then reread it. Because what we know is that we criticize and blame ourselves so much more than we would ever criticize or blame someone we love. If what you’re saying is true for that person you love, and you are equally as loved and valued by God, then it is true for you too. But it’s really hard for us to see that sometimes. So one of the things I have my survivors do, as they are working, is practice talking to themselves like they would talk to somebody they loved. Because realistically they would never tell other people a quarter of the things they tell themselves; they wouldn’t tell people they don’t like a quarter of the things they tell themselves. It’s cultivating that compassion and that empathy and starting to challenge some of the lies that we believe when someone takes advantage of our bodies or of our sexuality or of our worth and tries to sends us messages of that we are somewhat less than or less valuable, when in all reality that’s not true.
Michaela: I find that so inspiring the way that you handle that, especially from a Christian perspective. Now, I know that a lot of men are using the hashtag “#IDidThat” in regards to committing sexual abuse, owning up to their own shortcomings, their interactions with women, and their taking responsibility for their language about women. Do you think this is helpful to be speaking out about the actions they have committed? Or do you think this is putting all of the attention on the men rather than focusing on the women?
Kristin: That’s a really great question! I think that it’s something that is so helpful because of those cultural and societal constructs that I talked about before. What that is doing when a man comes forward and says, “#IDidThat,” is it is challenging the blame and the shame and the responsibility that we as a society have misplaced on the survivor. It’s placing it back on that person. The other thing that it is doing is it’s starting the conversation, because the second part to “#IDidThat,” is “I will.” So the man is saying, “I did this and I feel horrible about this and moving forward I am committing to [blank].” Then they start listing all of the things that they will do differently. So that’s where, when we talk about response, this has the potential to be so incredibly powerful, because if we just stop at “#MeToo” and nothing else is done, nothing would change. So “#IDidThat,” is one step further to get that conversation going a little bit further and to start challenging some of that misplaced blame irresponsibility. Then “I will” is the next step. The man says, “This is what I am committing to do; I will [blank].” This doesn’t just apply to men who have engaged in some sort of sexual harassment or sexual violence, this hopefully is something that all women are encouraged to do. What we know is that 7% of men are sexual offenders of some sexual assault. That number goes up when we talk about sexual harassment. But the 7% of men really give all the other men a really bad name. One of the things that I encourage the men that I teach and supervise, the men who are colleagues of mine, men in ministry and leadership, is to start taking the responsibility to respond and lead by example. So what happens when the 93% of men who don’t defend in some sort of way start speaking out? When you’re at a college part and you know that girl is way too drunk to go home with that guy— what happens if instead of the “uncool” thing being you say something, what if the “cool” thing is for him to be taking her up the stairs to begin with? We have 93% of our men who can change that culture. And we can start leading by example. And if we look at numbers alone, non-offenders outnumber the men who have engaged in some sort of sexual offense or harassment. And then we had the men on top of that who will be able to say, “#IDidThat,” and “Here’s what I’m doing and committing to now.” We can really encourage a cultural shift and show our men and boys, who are in the process of growing up, and our women and our girls how they deserve to be treated and what those healthy relationships look like. How much more amazing could their relationships be with other guys with the women and girls they are around or love or date or marry, if they were able to shift this culture around what it means to, “Be a man.” Or what it means to love and respect a woman and in all reality respect and love the men that they walk with on a daily basis, speaking truth and love.
Michaela: I feel like a lot of women these days have actually lowered their expectations because it kind of seems like it is so out of control that there are no “good” guys around. So I want to thank you so much for letting me interview you and asking you questions about the “#MeToo” Campaign and giving us your insight about it.
Kristin: Of course, absolutely!
Kristin Canan, LMSW, has empowered individuals’ healing journeys in a multitude of leadership, therapeutic, program development, and community-based roles through her work in residential treatment, addiction services, outpatient psychiatry, victim crisis response, outreach, and bereavement services. In addition to a Master of Social Work and Interpersonal Trauma Certification from University of Denver, Kristin is trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. She specializes in navigating the intersections between trauma responses, mental health disorders, and presenting maladaptive coping skills such as substance abuse, self-harm, suicidality, and eating disordered behaviors. Kristin has been invited to speak at national and international conferences, and has served as a trauma and grief expert for an international crisis intervention training organization. Kristin has also authored and published multiple articles on effectively responding to sexual violence, created training materials for victim advocates, and developed curricula for the Graduate School of Social Work at University of Denver. As a frequent speaker and educator, she is passionate about ensuring that every community has the ability to respond to trauma survivors in a way that honors their processes, leads them towards healing, and allows them to experience how loved and worthy they are. For further information on supporting trauma survivors or organizational response needs, please reach out to Kristin by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling her at (920) 850-6496.
Michaela Williams was born and raised in Northern Virginia. She is a student at Liberty University studying Psychology with a concentration in counseling. She is an intern at the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC). She enjoys working part-time at her local coffee shop and teaches paint classes at her local art studio. Besides school and work, she is involved with Woven Together Ministries where she writes blogs and co-hosts on their radio show. She is passionate about others learning about Jesus and finding healing through the love and grace the Lord provides.