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.

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