Blog: Why Don’t We Speak Up About Sexual Assault?

Why Don’t We Speak Up About Sexual Assault?
Denial has dangerous consequences
By Cecile R. Bassen, M.D.
My ears perked up when I heard a radio host tell an expert who described deceptive practices in the restaurant industry, “Thank you for lifting the veil from my eyes, though I might have been happier if I didn’t know the reality.” We can all identify with his reluctance to become aware of upsetting information. In fact, powerful factors interfere with awareness when something is truly disturbing. We tend to deny or resist being aware of things that makes us anxious.
Awareness is key in anticipating dangerous situations and enabling us to focus on preventing those situations; it enables us to protect ourselves and others. Yet, we often need to fight our reluctance to know in order to become aware of disturbing information. This is a common dilemma when it comes to sexual assault.  
Denial and resistance of awareness are brilliantly portrayed in the Academy Award-winning film Spotlight, which tells the story of a team of Boston Globe reporters who exposed the Catholic Church’s cover-up of childhood sexual abuse by local priests. This film did a superb job of conveying how pervasive and deep-seated resistance to awareness was: well-meaning individuals had to struggle to be aware of a situation they found profoundly upsetting, and with their impulse to protect an institution they valued.
Denial, pretending that something upsetting has not occurred, has dangerous consequences for victims, and has a toxic effect on witnesses, bystanders, and entire institutions. When the Catholic Church covered up the sexual abuse of children by local priests and reassigned those priests to other parishes, they went on to abuse more children.
Unfortunately, this made an awful problem significantly worse. In addition to the dreadful price paid by the abused children, there was a powerful negative impact on everyone who had placed their trust in the Church, and on the relationship between local communities and the Church. Awareness of danger would have helped Catholic families protect their children, but the denial of the Church hierarchy combined with parishioners’ reluctance to recognize the danger allowed this toxic situation to continue far too long.
In March, I participated in an interdisciplinary conference on “The Courage to Fight Violence Against Women” in Washington DC, which was organized by a several psychoanalytic institutes in conjunction with the Committee on Women and Psychoanalysis (COWAP) of the International Psychoanalytical Association and the American University. It was not an easy conference to be part of, since we focused on deeply disturbing issues. However, it became clear that silence is a huge barrier to addressing serious problems in the US and abroad including campus rape, sexual trafficking, and sexual victimization of asylum seekers and prisoners.
Several speakers focused on the constructive impact of interventions designed to let victims know that they are not alone and to give them a voice. Here in the United States, survivors of sexual assault founded an organization called End Rape on Campus, designed to support individual victims and confront institutional indifference.
In recent years, we have become increasingly aware of how powerful and problematic denial is when it comes to campus rape--for individual students and the community as a whole. When one person says “no” but the other person goes ahead anyhow, a sexual encounter that may have started consensually turns into a sexual assault. The individual who is unwilling to accept that the other person means “no” is engaging in a very problematic form of denial. The individual whose “no” is ignored may also engage in denial, going numb or blank instead of struggling, in order to get through a traumatic situation.
It is important to recognize the long-lasting psychological consequences that victims of sexual assault often experience. The traumatic impact of sexual assault is likely to be worse when victims feel alone and afraid to share their experience. Unfortunately many survivors are victimized a second time when others turn a deaf ear or even worse, shame or blame them.
However, academic institutions, witnesses, and bystanders, are prone to deny the existence and extent of the problem. There is a great deal of reluctance to believe that students are sexually assaulting fellow students, just as no one wanted to believe that priests would prey on children.
Awareness allows us to focus on decreasing the frequency of sexual assault, protecting potential victims, supporting those who have been assaulted and helping them heal. This includes promoting widespread awareness of the difference between consensual sexual activity and sexual assault, addressing barriers to recognizing this difference, and holding perpetrators accountable for their behavior.
April is National Sexual Assault Awareness & Prevention month. As President Obama stated in his proclamation:
“Too many women and men of all ages suffer the outrage that is sexual assault, and too often, this crime is not condemned as loudly as it should be. Together, we must stand up and speak out to change the culture that questions the actions of victims, rather than those of their attackers.”
Cecile R. Bassen, MD is the North American co-chair of The Committee on Women and Psychoanalysis (COWAP) of the International Psychoanalytical Assn. and a member of the Committee on the Status of Women and Girls of the American Psychoanalytic Association. She is a Training and Consulting Analyst at the Seattle Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and the Northwestern Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, and is also on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington. She sees adults and adolescents in her private practice in Seattle, WA.