Sexy But Psycho: How the Patriarchy Uses Women’s Trauma Against Them
This book has been burning away inside my brain for years.
Getting it all out, writing it down, and sharing it with the
world is a mixture of relief and fear.
Relief because, I know as those years have passed, I’ve
noticed more and more professionals have come to question
the pathologisation and labelling of women and girls, which
has been reassuring, to know that I’m not alone.
Fear, because alongside a growing critical movement, there is
a growing pro-disorder movement which has been deliberately
constructed to encourage and support the diagnosis and
pathologisation of women and girls. Every single time I’ve
tried to speak out about it, I’ve been ridiculed, harassed,
silenced and threatened. A woman questioning systemic
pathologisation is like a red rag to a bull for so many people.
This book won’t make for comfortable reading for anyone, though. But the question I am going to pose is:
Why are we deliberately pathologising, sectioning, labelling
and medicating women and girls around the world?
It is now commonplace for women and girls who report rape,
abuse, distress, or trauma of some sort to be quickly diagnosed
with a range of psychiatric disorders, medicated and then
discredited. This practice is not specific to the UK, and women
from all over the world write to me every day to ask me for
help. The emails are heartbreakingly similar – so similar that
they could have been written by the same woman over and
They are the types of stories and experiences I am going to
share with you in this book, and explain how women and girls
are being convinced that they are mentally ill – and why this is
so intrinsically linked to objectification, sexualisation and
I have several reasons for writing this book, and causing the
debate that will no doubt follow. I have been both the woman
who is pathologised, and the professional working with
women who are pathologised. The only position I have never
taken up is of the professional who pathologises women and
girls. This is something I will be eternally grateful for,
although I am unsure as to why I was never sucked into the
misogynistic culture of my fields and my studies.
Throughout my education at school and university – and
throughout my socialisation as a woman in the world – I have
been sold the same lies and misinformation about women’s
mental health as everyone else has. But for some reason, I
wasn’t buying it.
Maybe it was because of an incident in 2009.
It was a sunny, early morning on the day two police officers
knocked at my front door. They had woken me up with a
phone call thirty minutes earlier, to tell me that they were coming over and needed to speak to me. I had been waiting
months for this day.
The day we finally got the court date for the trial of the man
who had raped, abused and terrified me for five years.
As a teenager, I had become pregnant by him twice. The first
time had resulted in a miscarriage after he pushed me down a
flight of stairs. The second time (only a couple of months
later) resulted in me having a baby when I was seventeen years
old. The case had been horrendous, and I had been ignored for
months at a time. Every time I tried to get in touch with my
police officer, he told me that they were just waiting for the
trial date to be set. I found out later that he had written on my
notes that I was a ‘tattle tale’.
A ‘tattle tale’ for ringing the police when I was being beaten
up, threatened and abused.
A ‘tattle tale’ on the day he kicked my front door in and said
he was going to kill me.
A ‘tattle tale’ for ringing 999 as I lay on the floor with a
dislocated shoulder and torn neck, frantically clinging on to
my baby as I was thrown across a dining table.
I had been waiting for fourteen months for a trial date, and I
was often treated like a nuisance by the officers in the case.
Throughout those long and frightening months of waiting, I
had been stalked, harassed, threatened, beaten up, my social
media had been hacked and I lived in fear of my life every
single day. I moved forty miles away from where I grew up, in
an effort to stay safe and undetected. I had a one-year-old child
from the rapist and I was trying to protect my child with
everything I had as an eighteen-year-old woman, which wasn’t
much more than sheer determination.
The police officer in my case was stood at the door with a
woman I had never seen before. I assumed it was good news
and we were finally going to trial. They sat on the little faux leather two-seater and the male officer quickly said what he
had come to say:
The case had been dropped. The bail conditions had been
At that time, they were two of the most terrifying things I had
heard come out of someone’s mouth for a long time. Not only
had the entire case of thirteen charges been dropped, but they
had removed all bail conditions that were barely protecting me
as it was.
I, of course, burst into tears.
The officers then did something rather peculiar, and something
that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
They reached into their bag and pulled out a leaflet on mental
disorders and medication. A purple trifold leaflet about
personality disorders and bipolar disorder. The woman whom
I’d never met smiled pitifully at me, and started to explain
gently to me that the police thought I was mentally ill, and
would benefit from medication.
I was a feisty, inquisitive eighteen-year-old and I instantly
challenged them on why and how they thought I was mentally
ill, especially as one of them hadn’t seen me for fourteen
months, and the other hadn’t seen me before in her whole life.
They explained that they felt I had become ‘obsessed’ with the
trial and the case, and that I was ringing the police too often to
report harassment and death threats from the perpetrator. They
said that they had apparently met the perpetrator every month
as part of his bail conditions and he ‘seemed a good guy’, and
that it was clearly me with the issues.
I told them that I had kept all the forty-seven text messages
detailing the death threats, and that I had managed to record
some voicemails he had left me. I told them about the men he
had sent to my house to attack me, and the way I had hidden
under the table with my baby when they came banging on all
of the windows and doors to get in.
They suggested that maybe those things didn’t happen, and I
needed help. They wouldn’t look at the text messages or listen
to the voice-mails. They had lost interest in me, and had
started to regard me as a mentally ill teenage girl.
It was one of those moments in life when you question
whether you are awake, and whether any of this is really
happening to you.
I had gone from desperately waiting for a trial date to being
told that there would be no trial, and that instead, the police
(whom I had met only two or three times) felt that I was
I stood up, still crying, and calmly told them to get out. I said
no other words. I pointed at my front door, and glared at them
I never did go to a doctor, or get medication, or get a
diagnosis. I threw the leaflet in the bin. I instead used music, I
read books, I learned about abuse and trauma, I accessed
anonymous counselling helplines and vital women’s services. I
wrote journals and poetry, and tried to process what had
happened to me.
I consider myself exceptionally lucky not to have been
dragged down a medical route with my trauma, and every time
I get a letter or email from a woman who has been through
this, I realise how easy it would have been for that to have
happened to me, too.
I won’t pretend that I didn’t struggle to do all of that on my
own. I did. I developed physiological responses to trauma
which took me years to figure out. I had panic attacks that
would cause me to collapse sometimes up to eight times per
day. I was often in hospital. No one knew what was ‘wrong’
with me and I was often treated as some kind of attention seeker, or a hysterical woman who kept pretending to faint in
the middle of Poundland, or whilst she was making
ReadyBrek for her toddler.
It took me several years to understand that trauma presents
itself physically, and not just psychologically. I was probably
twenty-five years old by the time I had everything under
control. The panic attacks were few and far between by then; I
would have a few per year. The nightmares had stopped. I had
read an enormous amount of literature on understanding my
body and my brain.
I had been working in forensic services and women’s services
since I was nineteen years old and I had started to notice that
my experience of being pathologised, ignored, minimised and
reframed as mentally ill or exaggerating physical illnesses was
very common indeed.
The first job I had was in magistrates’ courts at nineteen, and
every week, I watched women and girls give evidence in
domestic abuse trials against men who assaulted, abused and
controlled them. You could almost script the trials, sometimes.
The questioning of the women and girls was always along the
same lines. A lot of victim blaming and character assassination
and then the final blow, comments or accusations about her
mental health, sometimes with old medical records,
counselling records or lists of medication.
I was present for the case of a sixteen-year-old girl who had
been badly beaten up by a twenty-two-year-old man. He had
broken into her house after they had split up. He pinned her to
the floor and headbutted her eleven times in the face. This was
not the first time he had beaten or raped her, but it was the first
time that the girl had ever told anyone.
As she stood in the courtroom, being watched by him and his
family, the defence barrister started talking about her ‘history
of mental illness’. She looked confused. I put my head in my
Not this again.
The defence barrister asked the girl if she had ever had help
from mental health services as a child. She hesitated, clearly
not understanding what a ‘mental health service’ was. The
defence barrister proceeded to explain to her that they had
evidence that she had accessed mental health services at
twelve years old when her dad left. He said that she had
developed an eating disorder and started to cut her arms and
She stared at him, but agreed that this was true. He then used
this to argue that his client was in fact innocent, because she
probably headbutted a wall or caused all of the injuries to
herself, as she ‘clearly had mental health issues’.
Her jaw dropped. Her eyes filled up with tears. She turned
bright red. She couldn’t answer his questions.
I sat there, willing the magistrates to intervene. But nothing
Instead, the defence barrister continued to push her and upset
her about her dad leaving, her eating habits and the self-harm.
None of this had anything to do with what this man had done
to her four years later.
I watched as a sixteen-year-old girl was painted as a mentally
ill teenager who had caused significant injuries to her own
head because four years ago, she had attended two sessions at
CAMHS because of self-harm when her dad left.
It was clearly, and obviously, total bollocks. Everyone in that
room knew it was bollocks.
And yet, I went on to see this process repeated hundreds of
times, in hundreds of different cases. Like Groundhog Day.
She’s unreliable. She self-harms. She’s autistic. She’s
manipulative. She’s bipolar. She’s secretive. She’s borderline.
She’s crazy. She’s malicious. She’s obsessive. She’s
promiscuous. She’s delusional.
In some cases, there were no historical mental health records
to use, so instead, defence teams sought to suggest or imply
undiagnosed mental health issues or psychiatric diagnoses. In
many cases, defence teams in criminal courts, or solicitors in
family courts, requested psychiatric assessments of women
and girls in order to discredit them.
No matter what field I worked in after that, the story was
always the same. I worked in rape centres, counselling
services, child trafficking services and victim services. Women
and girls were being pathologised everywhere.
A new day, a new woman or girl was positioned as a crazy,
jealous, psychotic, paranoid, delusional ex with a vendetta and
a personality disorder.
It was soul-destroying. It still is.
Only this week, I spoke to a woman who was diagnosed with a
delusional disorder because she reported to social care that her
child keeps saying she is being sexually abused. Instead of
taking the disclosures seriously, professionals have suggested
that Mum is delusional and is making these disclosures up.
The woman even recorded her four-yearold daughter talking
about the sexual abuse, to prove that she wasn’t delusional, but
when she showed it to them, professionals changed their
approach and instead told her that she could have coached her
daughter to say those things, because she was delusional.
The issue with being perceived as delusional is that everything
you do or say can be put down to delusions.
Say you were abused by your husband? Delusional. Report
that your ex tried to break into the house last night? Imagining
it. Compiled proof that you’re being stalked online by a guy
from uni? Obsessive. Reported your ex for rape? Malicious.
Prove that your kid is saying that they have been sexually
abused? Coached them.
1 Mental illness: the myths we live by
2 Sexism, homophobia and racism in psychiatry
3 A history of perfect women and crazy women
4 Reframing women’s trauma as mental illness
5 Using psychiatry against women and girls subjected to
6 Pathologising women and girls in the courtroom
7 Ignoring and minimising women’s health issues
8 Professionals who refuse to pathologise
9 Sexualising ‘crazy’ women and sectioning sexually non-
10 Lifelong trauma reframed as incurable madness
11 Curing a sick system
|September 29, 2022
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