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Member Spotlight: Quandra Chaffers

Member Spotlight: Quandra Chaffers

By Steph Auteri | From the August 2015 Issue

1. Can you give me a quick rundown of what keeps you busiest these days?

During the day, I do psychotherapy at the YWCA Metro St. Louis. My department is the Women's Resource Center, where I work primarily with survivors of sexual abuse ages 14 and up. My oldest client is in her 70s! At the YWCA, we have educators in our Sexual Health and Disability Program (SHADE) who present on topics of prevention and community responses to ending sexual violence against people with disabilities. I’m also very proud of our Sexual Assault Response Team (SART). We are the only agency in the area that responds to all 19 St. Louis County and City hospitals and one military base. We’ve recently expanded to three big college campuses so that our advocates can serve as an impartial voice to students navigating Title IV. Then we provide free counseling services to people from all sorts of marginalized communities, including trafficking victims, male clients, and queer clients.

We also have an annual Task Force Conference that helps train police officers and attorneys so they can better support sexual assault survivors through the criminal justice system and the reporting process. This year, I am excited to deliver a presentation on vicarious trauma and sex as a resource alongside my co-worker Jessica Naslund, M.S.W., LMSW, CSE!

For the past six years, I have co-facilitated batterer intervention programming (BIP) on Sundays through the oldest operating anti-violence against women program in the country, Rape and Violence Ends Now (RAVEN), working with men who have been court mandated for intimate partner violence. I make sure my men know all about male privilege and I regularly confront them on sexually abusive tactics.

I just presented this summer at the Annual AASECT conference in Minneapolis, providing a social justice lens to how African American women face unique challenges in healing from sexual violence. The reviews were very positive!

Recently, Planned Parenthood asked me to speak on a panel about sexual violence and how we as a community can advocate to keep adolescents safe as they transition into college. I see myself as eventually owning my own consulting business and would like to do presentations more often. I spoke about how teaching young women to defend themselves is a prevention myth and how martial arts and self-defense work better as an intervention to reclaim body awareness and sense of control. I spoke about raising girls to be better self-advocates and to work against the cultural norm to be nice even when facing a situation that is violating their boundaries.

I also do a lot of graduate coursework from day to day. I just did two semesters with Susan Stiritz, M.S.W., Ph.D., CSE at the Brown School of Social Work. For the past two semesters, I've been Susan's teaching assistant in her Sexuality Across the Course of Life class. I'm starting a third semester with her this fall. Sometimes I get to add a clinical touch to the curriculum because of my particular area of expertise in trauma work. I enjoy encouraging the students to role play interactions with clients they'll meet in the real world.

2. What are your main areas of interest within the sexology industry? What would you consider your special niche?

Helping victims of sexual assault is really my focus. Not everybody feels comfortable listening to the worst experiences of people's lives. People move through sexual trauma and then usually come to a natural point in their healing process where they want to experience consensual sex, sometimes for the first time in their lives! They realize they're ready to start dating again. They realize it's okay for them to be bisexual. These are natural questions that come up. So, in an effort to make sure I was giving my survivors the most accurate information possible, I started learning about issues in sexuality.

3. What has most informed your trajectory within this field? How did you get to where you are today?

I was 16 when knew I wanted to be a counselor. I was 19 when I became enraged and impassioned about sexual violence. I was studying psychology at Spelman College. Then our college campus had a Take Back the Night that got surprisingly big. It turned into a small march for solidarity around the various campuses that were part of the Atlanta University Center Consortium. Morehouse College was closest and, at the front gate, they were having some sort of donor's fundraiser. When all these women marched onto the campus with candles, cheering, it looked to them like they were being protested. People made victim-blaming statements. Some men didn't really know how to get on board if they were interested in showing solidarity.

I wasn't there for the march. I was there for the backlash. I heard about it from my classmates in my African Diaspora of the World foundations class. It kind of shocked me to my core when some of my classmates started talking about their personal experiences with sexual assault. They had no idea others had shared their experience. It was strange for me to hear that people would blame themselves for their assault. What was even more impactful was that, by the end of the discussion, there were only four of us, including myself, out of a group of 22 that had not been sexually assaulted (or had disclosed about it). I couldn't understand how this had happened to so many people. Eighteen out of 22 had had the exact same experience, but everybody thought they were alone! I started looking for programs that addressed this. My search brought me to San Francisco Women Against Rape (SFWAR). I got trained as their then-youngest state certified crisis line counselor. I eventually took what I learned back to Spelman and taught it to a group of my peers interested in solving mental health issues on campus with the backing of our campus social workers. That's where I started and, roughly nine or 10 years later, I finally became a licensed clinical social worker and I get to do this in more specialized ways.

4. What obstacles have you faced over the years, and how did you overcome them?

I was met with a little bit of resistance at my work when I wanted to get certified as a sexuality educator. It wasn't initially understood how it could benefit our clients directly. My argument was that I've naturally come to this place where I need to better understand sex so as to help my clients. It's something I'm trying to use to be a better therapist. My clients are already asking for it.

Sometimes people see sexuality as something you can live without. They think it's not a basic need like food or shelter or water. Sometimes I think people talk about their experiences as if they're not rooted in sexuality. People try to divorce the problems they're experiencing in their relationships from their sex lives. But it's a part of your entire relationship, and it's not just intercourse. That's why it's a foundation fro Maslow's Hierarchy. It's how you see yourself. It's how you relearn your body. It's how you experience pleasure or give your partners pleasure. It can be a form of stress relief. It ends up impacting all these areas of your life. I think of sex as very much a basic need and it's something that all my clients end up talking about in some regard and need help exploring and redefining for themselves on some level.

5. What has been the most exciting project you've worked on, and why?

Last year, at our YW Teen high school conference, I got to talk a group of bright young ladies on the topic of Consent and Relationships. It was really exciting because I've done similar psychoeducational things in smaller settings, like when I facilitate a group of roughly four girls through our Teen Survivors of Sexual Abuse group at the Women's Resource Center. This was my first time presenting two rounds of the presentations to such a big group! It was daunting to do it in a room of 40-60 girls and make sure they were all engaged.

During the first presentation, a girl disclosed and adamantly affirmed that her abuser had lied about why the abuse was okay, and she didn't have power then to refuse. Afterward. groups of three and four girls at a time asked me for advice on their abusive relationships and experiences on healing from sexual assault. It was so rewarding because I got to set up shop afterward and create these small private spaces to really talk more candidly, one on one, with teens, without some of the pressures that happen in schools, where one needs parental notification and schools won't let you talk outside of an abstinence-only curriculum.

This was very much led by what the girls wanted to hear. They got to bring to me real questions about what it's like to actually have an orgasm or whether it's true that boys really like to hear girls moaning. These girls wanted to sort through fear about pregnancy and separate out the truth about pleasure. You don't usually get to have those unfiltered conversations. You're usually limited as to what you can say. It turned out really well.

6. What do you like the most about the field at this point?

Right now, with the sexual abuse work I'm doing, there's been a lot of attention paid to solidarity though hashtag movements like #IAmJada and #TheEmptyChair. The movement used to be more victim blaming, like let's give the new female freshmen tips on protecting their drinks. Then there was a move toward peer intervention and bystander intervention, and that was really exciting for me to see. Now there's this shift toward the consent model. We're trying to shift more of our attention to the accused perpetrator and force that person to define how they knew they got a yes. I'm excited for all those shifts. I'm particularly excited for how, even on the state and national levels, people are asking for consent definitions and developing laws regarding consent.

7. Where do you see your career five years, or even 10 years, from now?

Recently, I became a licensed clinical social worker. This year, I will finish my certification in sexuality education. Next year, I should be done with my EMDR certification. I continually incorporate what I've learned into better sexual history taking and curriculum redevelopment. I want to give more presentations. I want to start working on my own individual projects. I hope some of that will include a bridge between tech and therapy, or being able to redevelop programming materials.

8. How has your relationship with AASECT affected your career?

It's been really beneficial. It's a phenomenal networking opportunity! It's been really great in diversifying my network and connecting me to people in completely different fields of work. It's really nice to be a part of a nonjudgmental community that also has a lot of fun. Where else can you get off an elevator and say you're all going to go meet at the dungeon for a Taste of Kink!

9. Do you have any tips that might be of interest to educators and/or therapists?

Save money. Make use of student discounts if you are still in school. Look for people who can sponsor you within the sexuality field. It's very expensive to go down this path.

Always search out mentors interested in fostering your ideas in whatever space you're using. People who can guide and direct you. People who have been doing it longer.

Also, toot your own horn. Don't think you have to get to a certain level before you can have an opinion. I have been my own worst critic and enemy. I regret not starting things sooner.

I think of sex as very much a basic need and it's something that all my clients end up talking about in some regard and need help exploring and redefining for themselves on some level.