Therapeutic fencing workshops for survivors of sexual abuse: The French experience
The French support group "Stop aux Violences Sexuelles" has since 2013 put in place fencing workshops for survivors of sexual abuse based on the principle of "therapeutic transference". This document describes the program with a view to its adoption/adaptation in other countries.
The idea was developed by Dr Violaine Guerin, a physician who felt that fencing had therapeutic and educational virtues which were particularly relevant to survivors of sexual abuse who often internalize their trauma. Simplifying to the extreme, fencing allows survivors to "vent" their anger or even "murderous energy" in a safe fashion. While boxing (or judo, wrestling, etc.) may achieve the same "venting" goal, there are several differences and specific characteristics of the proposed fencing workshops:
- Most importantly there is no direct physical contact between two fencers. The emphasis in on the "physical distance" between them. This is important for those who have often been wounded by extreme unwanted physical contacts.
- In addition to providing protection the masks worn by fencers create a sense of anonymity which makes it easier to "project" the fencer's "attacks" as being aimed at the aggressor.
- Fencing and its vocabulary bring to bear notions that are relevant to survivors' traumatic experiences. It involves rapid "attacks", "counter-attacks" and "parries" which channel the venting while emphasizing "quick-thinking self-defense".
- Fencers are followed closely by their instructor ("master" in fencing parlance) who help them rebuild their self-confidence and trust in the male/female relationship.
The workshop's objective is to improve participant's physical and mental well-being through the discovery of a new sport which is well adapted to their traumatic experience. The goal is to help participants overcome their trauma and lead a fulfilling life with a restored sense of self-confidence and trust in others.
The workshops are organized in 10 half-day sessions over 10 months for 10 or 12 participants (usually all men or women). There is a "theme" for each session:
The sessions are run by a team of trained professionals (the "facilitators"): a physician, a psychotherapist, a physiotherapist and of course a fencing instructor - with a preference for the sabre (as opposed to the "épée" or the "foil"). Ex-champions have quite happily offered their services. Participants are closely monitored by a "logistician" who documents the group's progress.
During the first session the facilitators help each participant describe the particular areas that require "rebuilding": self-confidence, trust, interacting with others, etc. These objectives are put in writing in a sealed envelope.
Halfway, during the fifth session, participants orally share their progress and fill a "visual analog scale" (VAS) questionnaire: the goal is to assess the effect of the workshop on their physical/mental well-being.
During the last workshop the facilitators debrief the group and share their assessment of the participants' achievements, both as a group and individually. Participants open their sealed envelope and reflect on the progress made (or not). More VAS questionnaires are filled.
The fencing workshops devised by "Stop aux Violences Sexuelles'' build on a proud French tradition going back to the Three Musketeers and reflected in the fact that much of the jargon uses French words (épée, corps-à-corps, etc.).
There are sessions all over France, for men, women and children. Similar workshops have even been conducted in prisons for convicted perpetrators of sexual abuse.
The workshops have greatly helped hundreds of survivors in France deal with their trauma. They could be used in /adapated to other countries, including for victims of clerical sexual abuse. They require committed participants and facilitators, the latter being highly trained and made available to a dozen participants over several months.
This comes at a cost in France of 13,000$ for the 10 sessions - amounting to roughly 1,000$ per participant (It could be more in the U.S.). These are significant amounts but well worth it if these workshops help traumatized individuals rebuild their lives.
Marc Artzrouni ([email protected])
SNAP Europe Coordinator
If you have specific questions about the program you can send them to Marc Artzrouni who will forward them to those running the workshops and act as go-between in providing the answer.
Site: stopauxviolencessexuelles.com/ runs the workshops.
A book by Dr Violaine Guerin, with a few pages on the fencing workshops (in French):
- Guerin. (2014) Comment guérir après des violences sexuelles? Tanemirt Editions. Available from Amazon.
A youtube presentation by Dr Guerin, together with her "fencing master" in which they explain the principles behind the workshop (in French): https://youtu.be/AxUHeUT5YdI