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#MeToo and the Shame Codex

Ruth Bader-Ginsburg recently gave her opinion on a very modern yet age-old issue.

"Every woman of my vintage knows what sexual harassment is, although we didn't have a name for it," she said. "For so long women were silent, thinking there was nothing you could do about it, but now the law is on the side of women, or men, who encounter harassment and that's a good thing."

Our turbulent political climate seems to have fostered a surfacing awareness of the abusive treatment of ambitious young men and women in entertainment, in government, and in sports, by individuals who hold power. In the furor surrounding Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey’s fall from grace, many women and some men joined the #MeToo movement, which in turn was strengthened by the 2nd Women’s March on the anniversary of President Trump’s ascension to power and chaos.

Brigitte Bardot, among others, has said that those calling out powerful men who harassed them are hypocrites. Many commentators have asked why those who were abused or sexually harassed did not speak out 30 years ago… And yet today the doctor of the US Olympics gymnastics team is facing life in prison for molesting over 160 young athletes while their mothers were in the examination room with them.

I would like to suggest 3 habitual patterns of thinking that can shed light on these responses:

  • Arouse no suspicion, the subject of my first blog in this series, is the instinct to conceal a shameful event by pretending it never happened, blanking it out of memory through the process of dissociation.

  • The injunction by the perpetrator Do not tell, or else… (subject of the second blog) strengthens the shame response in the victim and inspires fear or terror.

  • The disbelief of parents and family members when a victim tells their story effectively silences them even more forcefully.

In 1992 the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) was founded by Pamela and Peter Freyd, after their adult daughter Professor Jennifer Freyd accused her father of sexual abuse when she was a child. The aim of the society was to show that false memories can exist or be imprinted by incompetent therapists; the desired end result of intervention by the Foundation was family reunification. FYI, Jennifer Freyd is the author of the book Betrayal Trauma, a classic of the trauma field which is well worth reading.

If we go further back in history to the dawn of the psychoanalytic age in late C19th Vienna, Freud himself, whose earliest cases involved severe sexual abuse and dissociation, was overwhelmed by what he learned from his clients - some of whom were friends. So he formulated the Oedipus Complex to explain it, shifting the story into a universal process and - subtly - the focus of blame onto the child.

I have watched with empathy many of the young women of my daughter’s circle of friends posting #MeToo on Facebook and Instagram. And I hear Rowan Farrow say, “Why shouldn’t I want to take him down?”

I tell my clients who have experienced sexual trauma, “We are living through a sea change. Ruth Bader-Ginsburg is right. You can tell your story, and it’s a very good thing that the law is on your side. And one fearless woman judge has spoken for you.”

Watch this blog space for further articles in the series The Shame Codex.


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