When Sexual Violence Goes Public

Well, the weather turned warm again, with a bit of rain; now the temperature is dropping slowly and there are hints of blue through the overcast. There are rumors of a snowstorm next week and more before Christmas. We shall see.

Here in North America we tend to forget how pervasive sexual violence is, and how retraumatizing public conversations about sexual abuse and harassment can be for victims of sexual crimes.

This was brought home to me again yesterday while speaking with a colleague in Boston. She works with severely traumatized individuals and spoke about her clients’ experiences of retraumatization due to the recent flood of sexual assault accusations against prominent men. We agreed the resulting, much-needed, public discussion about sexual assault has resulted in a cascade of memories and fear for our clients. This adds to the retraumatization caused by the behavior of government officials who seem Hell-bent on glamorizing sexual assault while destroying the social framework. We also agreed we are experiencing much increased anxiety as we try to understand how to provide some sense of safety to our clients and ourselves in an increasingly difficult social environment.

Not surprisingly, our culture’s focus on sexual assaults and intimidation by males has felt isolating for clients who were abused or harassed by women. Somehow we as a society appear to have once again lost sight of the uncomfortable fact that women can also be abusive. Perhaps there is less attention to assaults by women simply because abuse and harassment at the hands of women appears to be underreported in general. In addition, men, particularly, report experiencing more shame when speaking of being abused by women and are, thus, more reticent to report being assaulted.

The sad truth is that people of all genders are capable of harming others when given the opportunity. Further, such abuses become more frequent when openly, or tacitly, accepted by communities. I’m sure we will hear much more about sexual abuse by persons with power in the days to come. How we respond is crucial.

15 thoughts on “When Sexual Violence Goes Public

  1. Yes, women do cause a lot of harm and it is never reported. In.my country, it may be elsewhere too, women cause a lot of trouble to other women, mothers-in-law to daughters-in-law and the other way too.

    1. Yes, women can and do create much harm, just like men. I have heard many painful stories in India, and throughout Asia, about the harm created by women with power. I wonder what might happen were we to always name and address abuses of power by everyone.

  2. Great post, Michael. I find it important, that all this kind of abuse, both against women and men, come out in the daylight. Of course, it has a cost for each of the victims, when all come up again, but it is needed to get these discussions.

  3. I am interested in the “retraumatizing” that you mention in your post. This is not necessarily a negative thing. It can be a gift. (yes, you heard right!) By that I mean simply that the person who is re-traumatized and reliving the experience of sexual assault is being presented with the challenge to face their buried pain and heal it. There is no other way and it requires a great deal of courage to feel that pain again and bring it out into the open.
    While accepting that women can be abusers (I have had experience of that too!) in a patriarchal society such as ours, there has been centuries of male entitlement with regard to sexual assault against women. What we are experiencing at the moment is the extent of the problem in every strata of society. This has to be faced if society is to change. This is positive. Change happens when things are brought into the light. Many males will feel threatened and anxious because of what is happening even if they have never abused a woman but we can’t halt the process and sink back into the status quo so that everyone feels comfortable again. In the present situation, males as well as females have to step up to the plate and act with great courage for the sake of humanity. Thank you for your post. Always interesting!

    1. I think there is a difference between re-stimulation and retraumatization. It is indeed useful to have issues arise and be addressed. How that happens is very important. In this environment there is little hope for justice or healing.Of course, we hope that the attention to bad behavior will create needed change; may that in the end be so.

  4. I would like to think that this spotlight on abuse will make a difference, it does feel like some kind of turning point, though time will tell. But yes, when communities are fragmented and social services are cut, how can the victims really be supported, past and present.

  5. I have been thinking about this too, Michael. Many women target men, in addition to mistresses of wealthy men (or not so wealthy). The huge movement is going to have problems, as you write about so eloquently.

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