Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sexual Violence on College Campuses

In recent years, many if not most colleges and universities have seen a rise both in allegations of sexual assault and in allegations of inadequate response by college authorities to those charges.  There is a welcome determination on the part of students not to allow instances of sexual assault to be swept under the rug, as well as a gray zone of uncertainty as to what constitutes sexual assault and how to establish whether an assault has occurred.  How is one to negotiate the gray zone between the Scylla of neglect of violent assault, and the Charybdis of a rush to judgment of possibly innocent persons?  In the public mind, among students, faculty, and authorities, the rush to judgment can go either way: those who allege assault can be accused, in unwarranted fashion, of hysterical over-reaction; those who are alleged to have assaulted can be portrayed, prematurely and in unwarranted fashion, as having acted in a sexually predatory way.  In this context, it is important to be able to think as clearly as possible about what constitutes assault, as opposed to consensual sexual activity, even if legal and disciplinary responses to allegations cannot always await clarity on these issues.  If those who are accused of a crime are entitled to a presumption of innocence, are those who allege assault not entitled to a presumption of good faith in their allegations?  In the criminal justice system of the United States, the burden of proof is on the accuser.  The case must be made beyond a "reasonable doubt."  In civil cases, claims of damage done are established by a preponderance of evidence, not necessarily beyond a reasonable doubt.  College authorities must act, or not act, in the context of much less clear criteria for establishing whether disciplinary action is warranted in response to a particular allegation, especially when a case is not being prosecuted in the criminal justice system for whatever reason.  Colleges and universities are concerned not only with establishing the truth of what happened and protecting the rights and sanity of those who accuse and those who are accused, but also of managing their own liability to being sued for failure to discipline, or for unwarranted disciplinary actions.

Sexual sado-masochism is one source of confusion in the gray zone of uncertainty.  Sado-masochistic sexual play must be distinguished from coercion.  While sado-masochistic play may or may not look like coercion to an outsider, it feels radically different to the participants, at least to those who are able to tune in to the mental state of their partners.  Those who are not able to tune in to the mental states of others lack what is called "mentalization."  This is psychopathology.  Those who do not care about the mental state of their partners are sociopaths.  This is criminality.  In both cases, the criminal justice system is generally the way to go, ultimately leading to mandatory treatment or incarceration.  But for those who care about the welfare of others, and who can recognize their mental states, play fighting among children or adults or dogs is easily distinguishable from real fighting to injure.  Play requires two participants; if one of them is not playing, the entire sequence of events is coercive and violent.

A related distinction is made by Emmanuel Ghent (1989) in a journal article called "Masochism, Submission and Surrender."  In this article, Ghent distinguishes between surrender, which involves a universal longing to surrender control and structure, from submission which is demeaning and masochistic.  Submission, in Ghent's terms, might look like surrender, but it is a radically different phenomenon.  Surrender entails a giving up of inhibitions, barriers and rigidities within the self, making possible the discovery of previously walled off or avoided potential selves or parts of self.  Submission, by contrast, requires a splitting of dominance and submission, so that one person is assigned the function of control while the other person is enabled to suspend control.  Submission requires a partner who will hold a part of the self for the moment, either the controlling or the controlled part.  Contrary to what happens in surrender, new barriers are set up within the self.  Parts of the self, potential selves, are disavowed, and new rigidities are introduced.  Submission, according to Ghent, is a perversion of surrender, giving up one's will in favor of the will of another instead of the more risky business of trusting oneself and another enough to go with the flow.  Dominance and submission are mirror images of each other, arising when controlling and being controlled substitute for surrender.

Much sexual activity involves surrender---surrender above all to one's own impulses and feelings, a suspension of inhibition, a sense of union with the other.  Under conditions of surrender in the sexual domain, dominance and submission can be played with; when surrender is blocked, the "game" becomes deadly serious.  Fantasies of raping or being raped can arise when the longing for surrender gets transformed into a demeaning desire to dominate or submit.  If she wants to be dominated in a demeaning sense, it reflects a fear of surrender of transcending the dominant-submissive polarity.  If he wants to dominate her, to demean her, it shows a fear of giving up control corresponding to her fear.  When both parties are willing and able to risk surrender, sexual interaction becomes playful and mutually negotiated, whether verbally or non-verbally.

The use of alcohol and drugs is one common way people seek to give up control, simulating surrender. Surrender gives way to submission when intoxication goes beyond freeing oneself up from inhibitions to self-obliteration, to self-destructive self-toxification.  It is no accident that extremes of demeaning sexual activity commonly occur in states of intoxication.

Ghent linked Winnicott's idea of false self with the Hindu/Buddhist notion of "ego" in discussing masochism, submission, and surrender.  Winnicott saw true self as process, as ongoing being.  False self arises when one is made to feel compelled to comply with, or resist, the wishes of others, alienating oneself from one's own process of going on being.  The false self constructed for others becomes the ego of deluded attachment in the Eastern religions in Ghent's vision.  Surrender entails the giving up of the false self/ego in favor of the uncontrolled "flow" of experience.  When attachment to ego/false self does not allow for surrender, self-destructive submission takes its place.  The epidemic of allegations and incidents of sexual violence on college campuses and elsewhere speaks to a rampant and destructive distortion in the process of surrender.  Addressing the way surrender gets perverted into submission is a public health priority of the first order.

Ghent, E. (1989) Masochism, Submission, and Surrender. Contemporary Psychoanalysis 26: 108-136.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dylan and Ronan Farrow, and Woody Allen

So much is at stake in the recent events involving Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen. What could be worse than a sexually abused child, now grown-up, facing denial on the part of the perpetrator and others,  with accusations of falsifying reality?  Not only is she betrayed by someone on whom she has to rely, but her sense of reality is challenged, perhaps threatened and undermined, by people who tell her that she did not experience what she experienced.

Less horrifying, but still extremely disturbing, is the prospect of an adult being falsely accused of having perpetrated a monstrous act on a child. The adult's sense of reality, of what he did and did not do, is more stable and solid than a child's sense of the reality of her experience.  Nonetheless, as we know from Kafka, a persecutory atmosphere can drive a person crazy, undermining his sense of reality and of his own innocence.

With the stakes so high, there is a tremendous need to know what actually happened, but in some cases it is not possible to arrive at a final truth. The potential damage to a child of not being believed is greater than the potential damage to an adult, especially an acclaimed filmmaker, whose reputation is called into question or even destroyed. There is, therefore, a temptation to believe the child, to avoid the greater damage, and because children, even now grown-up children, may seem to have less reason to falsify reality, but the fact is in many cases we just can't sort out the facts, much less the reality of subjective experience which may not accord, exactly, with the facts.

In this posting, therefore, I will not attempt to sort out the facts, whether Woody Allen sexually abused Dylan Farrow, or whether Dylan Farrow falsified reality at her mother's instigation, or whether she simply imagined something that didn't actually happen for whatever reason. Instead, I want to focus on who the audience was for the statements of both Farrow and Allen, and why they chose to speak to that audience.

Both Farrow and Allen chose to speak to the general public. Why does it matter to each of them what the general public thinks, or believes?

Given the difficulty or impossibility of sorting out the facts, there is an understandable desire, on the part of both parties, to seek out witnesses who can validate one's sense of reality. In the case of Farrow and Allen, however, there are no direct witnesses.  So each seeks to persuade members of the general public of the validity of his or her allegation.  People who are persuaded to believe either Farrow or Allen substitute for people who had direct experience of what happened, leaving aside the fact that memory for events that were directly experienced is known to be quite malleable, prone to being influenced by a variety of subjective and emotional forces.

The opinion of the general public is important in part because it can be thought to represent the perspective of the outsider who is not caught up in the force field of the family.  Highly emotional situations in families or other small groups tend to generate micro-worlds, worlds of their own, in which each person gets lost in a general reactivity and emotionality that develops an ongoing and inexorable momentum. A person who is not caught up in these self-contained emotional worlds can seem to bring a relatively objective perspective. When the emotional force field is incestuous or otherwise abusive in one way or another, it is difficult for anyone, much less a child, to maintain an independent, objective perspective. Abused children identify with their abusers, sometimes alongside a sense that something is terribly wrong. People who are kidnapped and held hostage for long periods identify with their captors in what has come to be termed the "Stockholm Syndrome." Appealing to and adopting the perspective of the outside world, individuals, groups, or even the general public can be a way of preserving one's sanity and sense of self before one falls under the spell of the abuser or captor, or on the way out, in the recovery or healing process.

The perspective of an outsider, or the generalized outsider of public opinion can, however, be far from objective.  The opinions and attitudes of people in general are subject to influence from cultural forces that often operate silently, creating an appearance of objectivity by virtue of being widely shared. Widely shared opinions and attitudes can be a marker of virtue, or of membership in a community, or even of personal identity. Examples include widely shared condemnation of homosexuality, or premarital sex, or atheism. Nazi anti-semitism is just one recent example of widely shared public opinions that are far from dispassionate and objective. In such cases, the micro-environment of the family can, in fact, be the last refuge of sanity.

In many times and places, abused children seeking recognition of their situation encounter disbelief, or even accusation of having provoked their own victimization. Children commonly, and irrationally, blame themselves for many events for which they bear no responsibility.  Self-blaming is part of the egocentrism of childhood, and beyond. Children and abused women are commonly subject to community skepticism when they seek validation of their reality, especially when the perpetrator of abuse is a respected member of the community. Woody Allen's status as a respected filmmaker, recent recipient of a Golden Globe lifetime achievement award, seems to have been  a trigger for the recent allegations of abuse.  Respected female actresses who worked with Allen were called on to disavow the aura of respectability they might be thought to have conferred on him by association.

With the general public's opinion being seen as the arbiter of reality, one's sense of self, one's very sanity, can be thought to rest on public attitudes that can be objective, fickle, and/or biased. Thus, the battle for public opinion recently waged in the pages of Harper's, the New York Times, and elsewhere between Woody Allen, Dylan Farrow, and Ronan Farrow. Respected commentators like Nicholas Kristof enter the fray, putting their moral authority behind their opinions. In the age of mass media, public opinion can be influenced and manipulated with hitherto unknown speed and pervasiveness.  None of this gets us closer to the solid ground of truth, that which is beyond reasonable doubt,  about what happened in the Farrow-Allen family. Allegations of bad faith, of destructive and evil intent, seek completely to discredit the allegations and stated reality of the other side, to bypass the collision of realities.  If we resist demonization of one side or the other, we, especially we members of the general public, are left with only a collision of realities. And that feels very unsatisfactory given how much is at stake.