Non-Consensual Sex on College Campuses

Hands and hair

Non-Consensual Sex on College Campuses

Betsy De Vos has communicated that she intends to rewrite the rules regarding campus sexual assault investigation. This is cause for some concern among many of us. It took years for the phenomenon of campus non-consensual sex to be taken seriously and the types of changes proposed may have detrimental effects on survivors of sexual violations. Controversial discussion is stirring up the pot. Things are out in the open and in the media and voices may speak. Whether they are heard or not, remains to be seen.

In a December 2014 issue of the New York Times, Susan Dominus wrote an eloquent and personal piece about the nuances of non-consensual sex I think Dominus articulated something quite important when, while reflecting back on her own experience that occurred at a college party, she wrote “The language we use for a given experience inevitably defines how we feel about it. I could not land on language that felt right—to me—about that encounter. I still cannot.” Many don’t understand what holds people back from immediately speaking about these painful and confusing experiences. Often, when individuals finally do come forward with disclosing after a long period of time has passed, their offerings may be dismissed or disbelieved. It is not uncommon for people to assume that there is some ulterior motive such as financial gain, for instance.

Dominus is not alone in having been the recipient of nonconsensual sexual attention in the context of college life. Current statistics demonstrate that nonconsensual sex occurs in astounding numbers for young adults in college. For example, a recent study with 207 female undergraduates found that 71% had experienced an attempted rape, while 81% disclosed that they had experienced a completed rape (DeCou, Cole, Lynch, Wong, & Matthews, 2017). Northwestern University did a U.S. survey of reported college assaults as well. In their study, they found a similar trend of large numbers of non-consensual sex. With these kinds of numbers, wouldn’t it behoove us to more thoroughly explore the systemic issues that lead to such actions and to how we may collectively address the depth of disregard in our culture for those who have been affected?

In the face of her perpetrator’s six month jail sentence, the woman who had been at a Stanford fraternity party and sexually assaulted behind a trash bin by star athlete swimmer, Brock, did attempt to speak of her feelings in the aftermath of the assault with “I stood there examining my body beneath the stream of water and decided I don’t want my body anymore. I was terrified of it.” She further read in the courtroom “I wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else” (as cited in New York Post, Associated Press, June 6, 2016)

Before the electronic age, we had myths shared verbally and then written into story form that were shared among families and cultures. Many often look now to the media for models of the beliefs and behaviors that represent the bell curve of the national or global norms and the stories we live by.

Western Mythology is abundant with messages that are to be taken as metaphorical in the context of the whole self, and there have been myths in the Western world that have included such things as the “rape and slaying of the maiden” (Neumann). Sometimes certain myths end up being passed down intergenerationally on an unconscious level and acted upon literally, such that conquest and domination are valued in a subculture of men, for instance, and myths are skewed in their meaning while violent behavior is perpetuated. This type of attitude appears to be prevalent in clusters of individuals who aspire to a “club” sense of mentality and a focus on “winning.” It isn’t coincidental that many rapes take place at fraternity parties, where group or special club characteristics are present. As Robert Johnson has said, if someone wins it is often at the expense of others. Thus, this preponderance of sexual assault may reflect unconscious drives that aspire toward self-mastery, initiation, and wholeness, but that, tragically, have gone awry, such that we are all wounded by the selfish actions of dominance over others. At some level, the perpetrators of non-consensual sex may feel a deep sense of isolation in regard to their own lack of integrity for right action. However, they may not yet be able to necessarily point directly to the source of this psychic discomfort due to overall societal messages that implicitly condone sexual assault, evidenced by outcomes of court proceedings and media representations and other ways of continuing the messages valuing the conquest and control of the feminine.

The entertainment industry represents our major carrier of current mythological motifs through media, film, and other ways of conveying stories, symbols, images, and meanings. We can measure broad attitudes by those portrayed through media. It is easy to decipher cultural norms by how the entertainment industry responds to non-consensual sex. Over and over again, we learn that power and privilege over-ride any repercussions of sexual wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, some of these individuals may then be stigmatized as the kind of individuals who are eager to give of themselves sexually in an indiscrete manner. If they choose to attempt to speak about initial or repeated non-consensual sexual experiences, the social responses towards them may further their shame. Social response is a common fear for the college student who has had the first experience of nonconsensual sex. Indeed, in DeCou et al’s (2017) article, they refer to a study by Ullman et al. (2007) with 636 sexual survivors, in which “negative social reactions to sexual assault disclosure were associated with higher levels of PTSD symptoms and also self-blame and avoidance coping.” Further, they assert “the importance of considering post-assault experiences such as negative social reactions to disclosure among sexual assault survivors as potentially contributing factors to subsequent psychological distress” (p. 167), not to mention silence.

Here is a segment of an article with references included that was recently written by Krahe and Burger (2017) from the Trauma Psychology journal:

It has long been established that the experience of sexual assault may have severe and lasting effects on survivors’ physical, mental and sexual health (Koss & Harvey, 1991; Martin, Macy, & Young, 2011). Among these adverse outcomes, heightened levels of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder have been demonstrated by many studies in both male and female survivors of sexual assault (E.g., Aosved, Long & Voller, 2011; Walsh, Galea, & Koenen, 2012. In addition, specific negative outcomes of sexual assault have been widely demonstrated in relation to survivor’s sexuality, including a heightened risk of experiencing further victimization (Classen, Palesh, & Aggarwal, 2005; Littleton & Ullman, 2013).Given the strong association between sexual assault and self-blame as well as feelings of shame (Amstader & Vernon, 2008; Campbell, Dworkin, & Cabral, 2009), it is not surprising that the experience of sexual assault has been found to significantly affect survivors’ sexual self-esteem (also referred to as sexual esteem). Sexual self-esteem is conceptualized as an individual’s self-evaluations of worth as a sexual being (Buzwell & Rosenthal, 1996) and established as a critical part of the overall sexual self-concept (Deutsch, Hoffman, and Wilcox, 2014).” P. 147

While most of Jungian Analyst, Donald Kalsched’s, work refers to the complex/interpersonal trauma of childhood abuse, there are elements that may be shared by those who have survived sexual assaults in early adulthood, particularly around the concept of shame turned inward into punitive voices of self-hate and the defensive patterns of withdrawal until, through establishing a different kind of relationship with oneself that includes compassion, a new “child” in the self structure may emerge through dreams and waking experiences.

Family of origin and cultural messages about sexuality and gender in the context of punitive religious views about such are crucial to consider, as psychological vulnerability and a punitive self-care system to begin with will certainly augment any suffering that occurs in sexual contexts. In addition, those types of early experiences of punitive sexual messages may impact one’s feelings of safety in disclosing non-consensual sex occurrences as well, which only adds to the complicated and nuanced nature of each person’s unique experience and the outcomes of such.

Many years later, if and when it feels safer to explore sharing certain experiences, the pendulum swings and pent up anger and even hatred and vengeance toward the perpetrator can emerge before the experience is potentially integrated.  Dream material can amplify the struggle towards integrating the experience as well. It is not uncommon for people to awaken from a dream screaming, for instance. Therapy that takes dreams seriously and supports active engagement with the material that arises, such as depth psychology, can be among the most powerful avenues to integrating difficult experiences and perceptions of the self.

Some psychologists support the idea that once trauma occurs, one is vulnerable to further trauma. In some cases, people trust those who should not be trusted, as if to try to mend the original wound by hoping for a better outcome to a similar situation. Sigmund Freud developed a term called “repetition compulsion” for this kind of thing. Shame and blame become a part of the mosaic. The compassion necessary to enter into an authentic relationship with the self (or others) becomes elusive. More blame is added on if substances were involved with such self-berating inner statements as “If I hadn’t been drunk, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s my fault.” What started out as a very unfortunate event often turns into an inner narrative of self-blame and an unnamable experience of ongoing shame and escape into fantasies of revenge or redemption in “some other world” where invincibility is possible (Kalsched).

One must not use considerations from the last paragraph as if they are written in stone and/or to add insult to injury for those who have been violated. There are narratives that emerged in the literature on rape twenty to thirty years ago that we still see carried over into today’s contexts, emphasizing the often unchallenged idea that some people are predisposed to vulnerability to being raped. We must be careful that we do not blame the victim by reading about these studies in an uncritical manner. For instance, the following quote by Krahe and Burger’s (2017) could be interpreted as leaning in that direction: “Depression may undermine the ability to resist an assault, send out signals of vulnerability to perpetrators, and give rise to coping behavior that increases the risk of sexual victimization, such as alcohol use or engaging in sexual behavior as a strategy for handling negative affect (Orcutt, Cooper, & Garcia, 2005). Depression may be both an outcome and a predictor of sexual victimization.” (p. 148).

Let us be mindful of how we reflect on statements like those.

Because of the global history of the treatment of and attitudes about woman, there is a particular concern for internalized objectification and lack of voice in advocating for oneself in the context of sexual experience when one is a woman. Indeed, as DeCou et al (2017) state:

 “Moreover, it may be that assault-related shame remains an intractable barrier to disclosure for some survivors of sexual assault, and thus policy initiatives aimed at addressing assault-related shame via trauma-informed approaches to reporting procedures and due process may assist in increasing sexual assault reporting among female undergraduates….it is imperative that researchers, policy-makers, and clinicians attend to social reactions to disclosure that may exacerbate assault-related shame, which may in turn predict greater levels of psychopathology and ultimately thwart individual and institutional efforts to identify and address incidents of completed and attempted sexual assault” ( p.171).

There is much along the continuum of what would be considered “date rape” or nonconsensual sex, from the clumsy, impulsive, often shared-inebriated moment of youthful misunderstanding in the context of mutual attraction (but not consent to sex) to the premeditated or impulsive active undermining of a person’s agency by someone exerting power over an unsuspecting or confused victim. It is difficult for some to understand that “No” means “No”, yet nonconsensual sex occurs even within marriages. A definition of sexual assault has been posited to include “any form of unwanted sexual touching, attempted or completed sexual coercion, and/or attempted or completed rape” (DeCou, Cole, Lynch, Wong, & Matthews, 2017). Nonconsensual sex is not confined to any culture, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status, yet those who are not bestowed with privilege or power are much more vulnerable to initial and subsequent non-consensual experiences. One rather sad indication of this is the plethora of evidence for the exploitation of youth in sex trafficking circles.

Some discover that they are able to enter a process of healing by integrating the experiences into the larger mosaic of their being-ness and may make movements toward dialogue and forgiveness and even, in certain contexts, reconciliation, bringing an opportunity for the perpetrator to make apologies and take responsibility for past actions, such as Thordis Elver and Tom Stranger. For instance they have shared a video on you-tube and a book about their experience of having been the survivor and perpetrator of date rape, such that others may be inspired to follow suite and address wrongdoings and wounds in a restorative justice framework.

Many struggle to find a path toward healing and may not be privileged to certain conditions that allow for opportunities to come to terms with the past. Having worked in a psychiatric hospital in the past, I heard young adolescent girls who had been raped say profoundly hateful things about themselves such as “Well, I’m just a whore so I may as well act like one. Nobody cares anyway.” Often, those are, believe it or not, the echoed words of parents, who have blamed the victim for “putting herself in the position.” Lives can spiral out of control where one gives up on any sense of propriety and tumbles chaotically from one sexual encounter to another, further damaging self-respect. Alternately, one holds the secret of rape inside and become more and more rigid around any kind of sexual expression or movement toward real intimacy. Somatic symptoms and even postural patterns and weight considerations that silently communicate “Don’t touch me!” are often seen in those who have not felt safe enough to explore their pain with another (Woodman).

On rare occasion, but unfortunate ones at that, these exploitations are perpetrated by psychotherapists themselves, the very people whom one has come to for solace and help. Andrew Samuels highlights this with “Female clients who find that they cannot say “no” are victims of the abuse of power, and therapists who misuse their positions are increasingly being understood as suffering from some kind of deficiency or shortfall in a feeling of authentic potency. But the necessary pathologization of such therapists should not be allowed to disguise the political implications of what they have done” (p. 133). Look at our current political climate and the implicit and sometimes quite explicit views about women and we see that women are still at the very bottom of the hierarchy of worth and respect. Some women know very well how to say no, but the wounding is in the process of actually being heard.

It is clear to me that we are experiencing a collective quagmire. How is it that with all of our layers of developmental complexity as we have evolved over time as a species, this lack of basic relational sensitivity occurs so often—more often than many of us can even conceive?

My Chumash colleague tells me that there is talk of the “Coming of the Grandmothers.” It is time to honor the contributions of the feminine and what Jung has referred to as the “feeling function” or “feminine fourth” which completes the unfinished circle of Trinitarian and male dominated structures of belief and turns to compassion and care, to what Jungian analyst and Curandera Clarissa Pinkola Estes refers to as “fierce compassion” of a Kali-like nature that both passionately protects and loves deeply. This “fierce compassion” invites the feminine in all of us to dignify ourselves against the us versus them mentality that is commonplace and to beckon to what Ken Jones has called a “higher third” a place where we may collectively face our transgressions and explore together where our center of gravity is, while holding the space for and emergence to the next level of psychological and spiritual growth. That is an ideal that is held out and one which does seem to be transpiring, as our current political and social angst has propelled many into action who have never been inclined toward activism in their past. The Women’s March is a great example of such, where no violence occurred across the globe at any of the venues of pink hats and multigenerational, multicultural, and multi-gender action.

There is a term coined by Albrecht, an ecopsychologist, called solastalgia, which basically means being homesick in one’s own home territory because of environmental transgressions. It can be translated over to one’s body home and a deep feeling of loss and homesickness for the integrity of such. That is why trauma dreams are often of a child neglected or abused and we can see the status of one’s relationship with oneself and with Self or spiritual ground by the quality of the experience of the child in the dream, such that when a child is cared for, loved and appears vibrant in a dream, we know that “beginner’s mind” is being cultivated once again in one’s life and one can open to feeling and a sense of embodiment.

A particular Greek myth that offers some metaphorical richness to ponder. Written by Aristophenes, the myth/play presents a rather farcical scenario where, led by Lysistrata, all the women of Greece decide that they will not make their bodies sexually available to men unless they stop fighting in the Peloponnesian War. It is an attempt at establishing a unified, peaceful community rather than one that is structured on ideas of conquest and power-over. This myth symbolically offers the idea that by withholding something, the value of what is being withheld is reflected on more deeply and the wish to have it back, at its deepest level, involves a relational and heart-centered need for human reciprocity. It is really a story of wholeness, of integrating parts of ourselves so we don’t abuse, neglect, or invalidate others, nor do we do so with ourselves.  It is a call for an upper coniunctio.

We all know that these complexities of human nature go way beyond gender. We also know that women have more often than not been the focus of exploitation and sexual aggression for hundreds of years. Jungian theorists, such as Erik Neumann, speak of a “fear of the feminine.” This can refer to the fear to the “feeling function” within oneself such that senseless acts are perpetrated on others, harming them profoundly, and ultimately this wounds the self as well.

Another Jungian theorist, John Beebe, proposes that if there ever were to be a true definition of “evil” it would be understood as the undermining of others, which may snuff the voice, the soul, right out of a person. This loss of voice is why a survivor of sexual abuse may remain silent for many years. These transgressions always occur within a sociopolitical context. How could they not? Wise feminists have given us an important message: “The personal is political.” We may ask, in our political consideration of those moving from childhood into young adulthood on our college campuses, how we may aspire to compassion for all beings in our political policies and reflect this in what is put forth to honor and support each other. Where is our collective “child” at this time in history, not the childishness that we see so often in impulsive and harmful action, but the childlike nature of beginners mind that can gaze at another with curiosity and genuine relational care and bring that quality back to oneself and even to strangers?

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