In Greek mythology, Cassandra is the beautiful young mortal pursued by the god Apollo. To convince her to give into his advances, Apollo promises to bestow upon her the gift of prophecy. Although Cassandra is obviously flattered that an Olympian god would seek her favors, she isn’t sure she wants to take him as a lover. Still, unable to resist the gift he’s offered, she accepts his tutelage. Hence, Apollo takes her under his wing and teaches her how to use her prophecies. Once the mentorship is finished, however, Cassandra refuses to give her body to Apollo. Furious at being rejected by a mere mortal, Apollo first rapes her and then levels a terrible curse upon her head. While Cassandra can still foresee the future, the curse ensures that not only will no one believe her, they’ll think she’s purposely telling lies. Ashamed of his daughter’s supposed madness, Cassandra’s father King Priam pronounces her insane and locks her inside her own chambers. Denying his daughter altogether, he tells people that she has died. Those who already know of her predicament simply don’t care since they too think she’s either deranged or a pathological liar.
The myth of Cassandra dramatizes how critical truths, allegations, and warnings can be ignored, silenced, and even chalked up to madness. In real-world situations, if these declarations emanate from a person of inferior stature, those who possess greater power and prestige can easily call into question their lessor’s reputation, motives, and even their sanity. When these power differentials are supported by an ethos that espouses rigid gender roles and sexism, and perpetuates a power-submission paradigm that fuels cultural wounding, this further strengthens the campaign to silence a problematic female instigator. Indeed, in the domain of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault this scenario is common.
Our patriarchal society communicates a male ethos through its norms and conventions: aggression and power are the index to masculinity, and passivity and submission are the index to femininity. Women are to defer to masculine strength and men will ostensibly protect women who defer. The insidious impact of the male ethos is reflected in the pandemic threat to women of domestic violence and rape. In fact, according to World Bank data, women aged fifteen to forty-four are more likely to be victims of rape or domestic violence than to suffer from cancer, car accidents, war, or malaria. Regardless of cultural or religious backgrounds, socio-economic status, or appearance, women are susceptible to abuse, oppression, and victimization. Violence towards females is universal.
My work with women from diverse walks of life has taught me that the most heinous behavior can lurk behind the most reputable looking door. For example, the upper-middle-class white American girl whose father is a pillar of the community lives in terror of the concealed violence and rape she encounters in her home. Unlike the young girls or women in Afghanistan or Somalia who are subjected to the most barbaric human rights violations in a climate of impunity, she is ostensibly privileged. Yet the resultant scars and psychological traumas predispose her to depression, suicidal ideation, addictions, and myriad psychiatric disorders. Her attachment template is mired in exploitation and betrayal, and hence she re-enacts these dynamics in her adult life by selecting partners who replicate her unresolved traumas. The unhealed wounds of her past tragically perpetuate the cycle of violence and abuse in her life.
Although there is sweeping historical and global evidence of sexual violence towards women, it’s only within the past fifty years that fundamental shifts have occurred in the United States. Prior to the advent of the women’s movement in the 1960s, police departments and hospitals lacked trained trauma counselors and procedures for collecting evidence of rape or testing for sexually transmitted disease. The publication of Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 book Against Our Will coincided with the emergence of sundry forms of grassroots support for rape survivors. Brownmiller expounded on the male ethos, implicating rape as fundamental to the patriarchal domination of women. Framing it in this way was instrumental in shifting social attitudes and legislation pertaining to reproductive rights and rape laws. Today, spousal rape is illegal throughout the United States and filing criminal charges no longer requires verification of the assault from witnesses.
While there have certainly been milestones that have afforded female victims of sexual assault and harassment credibility, the institutionalization of sexism runs deep. Over a decade ago I treated a young divorced woman who was the sole parent for a small child. She did secretarial work for a very prominent company that it turns out had an extensive history of reaching financial settlements in lawsuits rooted in psychological and sexual harassment. During her employment there she was subject to threats, stalking, sexual and racial slurs, and physical assault perpetrated with impunity by her male boss and other male supervisors. The assaultive behavior escalated on the heels of a personal crisis that rendered her particularly vulnerable. She evidenced blatant signs of posttraumatic stress that required medical management and medical leave. Initially she enlisted the aid of an attorney and was emphatic about pursuing criminal charges, but eventually she agreed to a monetary settlement, which allowed her to support her child and return to school to pursue a career in a different industry. Even so, the re-traumatization and humiliation she experienced on the receiving end of derisive, victim-blaming Ivy League attorneys was debilitating.
To further comprehend the intractable nature of victim blaming specific to female survivors of sexual abuse and misconduct, it’s relevant to consider the historical impact of psychology. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, supported the myth of male supremacy by suggesting that women are naturally masochistic, prone to victimization, and morally undeveloped. Early in his career, many of Freud’s female patients frequently reported sexual abuse, most often naming their fathers as the abusers. Initially Freud attributed his female patients’ symptoms to repressed memories of sexual abuse trauma. That these symptoms were so prevalent throughout Viennese society meant that child abuse was rampant. According to Freudian scholar Dr. Jeffrey Masson, Freud dodged the prospect of scandal and political suicide by discrediting his findings of sexual abuse. Rather, he rationalized that these traumatic memories were in fact unconscious fantasies. Hence, Freud abandoned his female patients by supporting the male ethos and the prevailing Victorian mores of his time. An example of the tragic repercussions of this decision is documented in Louise DeSalvo’s book, Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work (1989). DeSalvo postulates that Woolf’s acceptance of Freud’s Oedipal theory, which states that children fantasize their sexual abuse, contributed to her suicide.
Although German psychoanalyst Karen Horney introduced feminist psychology and challenged Freud’s theory of penis envy and the premise that male behavior defined the psychological model for healthy development, the extrapolation of male behavior continues to be the guideline and foundation for how we study human behavior. Accordingly, what falls short of the standard is subject to stigmatization.
Sociologist Erving Goffman defined stigma as, “a phenomenon whereby an individual with an attribute that is deeply discredited by his/her society is rejected as a result of the attribute.” Goffman emphasized the role stigma plays in psychiatric diagnosis and treatment by expounding on its insidious barrier to recovery, and the dehumanization and depersonalization that stimulates further damage and marginalizes victims. Essentially, stigma breeds contempt and contempt breeds blame. Following this line of reasoning, the stigmatized victim is ultimately blamed for the harm inflicted by the offender. This socially Darwinistic paradigm illustrates how the offender’s advantage over the victim supports a survival of the fittest template. The fittest are elevated, irrespective of their character. Signs of weakness and fragility are subject to condemnation. Power, status, and even gender are the relevant markers for what is valued and esteemed.
Along with what we collectively view as aberrant or hierarchically correct, and thereby conducive to stigmatization, there are other elemental collective biases we adhere to in spite of contrary evidence. A classic example of this was the US government’s invention of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, along with the proclamation that Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda. Initiating a war of aggression that violated the UN Charter became a glorified fight against terrorism. This narrative assuaged feelings of outrage and helplessness ignited by 9/11 and afforded a deceptive sense of virtue and justice. These unsubstantiated claims sold the war to the American people because the need to believe that the world is fundamentally just contributes to the rationalization that egregious maltreatment must be somehow deserved by the victim.
The need to assure ourselves that we are invulnerable to danger affords us a false locus of control that, again, shifts the focus onto the victim’s culpability. What deviates from the norm creates conflict with our social reality. This generates uncertainty and threatens our worldview. To return to a state of perceived equilibrium we may limit the intrusion of new information or thinking about things in ways that contradict our pre-existing beliefs. We simply deny that which causes us distress. Given that sexual violence calls into question our basic trust in the order and structure of our world, we are compelled by our instinct for self-preservation to minimize its existence and construct a reality that offers an illusory sense of safety and predictability.
A prime example of the ego’s ability to censor and reconstruct distressing information so as to maintain consonance was the response to allegations of clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups perpetrated by the Catholic Church. In spite of the church’s heinous history of sex abuse—as well as aligning with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini; implementing the Inquisition and Crusades, the Magdalene laundries, and witch-hunts; and supporting democide and slavery in the Americas, Africa, and Australia—upholding naïve, illusory ideas of spiritual infallibility and idealized notions of virtue trumps accountability and objective reality.
Psychiatrist Andrzej Łobaczewski studied what he termed pathocracy, institutional and government systems comprised of high-ranking officials presenting with psychopathic traits. Attributing human ignorance and weakness to the propagation of macrosocial immorality, Lobaczewski contended that malevolent motivations are masked by a humane ideology. When followers succumb to pathological influence they lose sight of their critical faculties and they lose the ability to distinguish normal human behavior from pathological. This makes it possible for perpetrators to skillfully carry out unethical motives unencumbered.
We also see how reliance on primitive ego defenses (such as confirmation bias) collectively bolsters the deification of celebrities. Confirmation bias only considers that which supports what people want to believe. This fixation on “truth” that rejects concrete evidence expresses itself in the mythologizing of eminent personalities; the collective longing to escape the challenges of the human condition fuels the aggrandizing of high-ranking people. This delusional mindset might insidiously express itself by demonizing those who threaten to demythologize men of stature. For decades, aided by those who chose to look the other way, along with agents who provided actresses and lawyers who crafted settlement agreements, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein systematically assaulted women. Likewise, iconic comedian Bill Cosby has been accused of drug-facilitated rape and sexual misconduct by over sixty women who were consequentially subjected to tabloid smear campaigns. The power of celebrity also enabled the heinous actions of BBC star and philanthropist Jimmy Savile. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth and Pope John Paul II, friends with the British royal family and Margaret Thatcher, Savile was a prolific pedophile, sexual predator, and necrophiliac. Yet in the public eye he conformed to an image of benevolence and virtue.
Supported by the male ethos, power and prestige often shield sexual abusers from prosecution or result in greatly reduced punishment. For example, the elitist and political ties of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein (accused by at least forty girls of paying them for sex when they were under the age of eighteen) ensure that his victims are silenced and that he and his co-conspirators retain non-prosecution agreements. (In a plea deal, Epstein served thirteen months in prison for soliciting prostitution from girls as young as fourteen.)
The premise that spiteful, greedy women make sexual assault, harassment, or misconduct allegations to procure media attention or financial settlements is a common defense amongst the famous. This argument rationalizes misbehavior as misunderstanding; the prominent figure attracts adoring fans—is it really his job to know exactly how far that attraction goes? As follows, excuses for sexual transgressions have run the gamut from Russian conspiracy (George Takei) to one’s behavior not being “reflective of who I am” (Dustin Hoffman) to thinking that masturbating in front of others in a meeting was okay because “I never showed a woman my dick without asking first” (Louis C.K.). Evidently the casting couch mentality is so normalized and ubiquitous in the entertainment industry that lecherous misconduct is considered standard procedure. The “Celebrity Perv Apology Generator” (apologygenerator.com) satirically reveals the lack of true penance in these public apologies, and insinuates that the Hollywood microcosm of sexual amorality and misogyny feigns remorse, but in truth remains indifferent.
Misogyny in women is evidenced in what researchers refer to as intrasexual competition. Aggression is indirectly channeled in denigrating other women who are perceived as rivals. Mothers and homemakers are deemed inferior, while career women are condemned as selfish bitches. Women are often vying for male attention and resorting to slut shaming and the emulation of Madonna-whore double standards. Women’s sexual posturing is entwined with their perceived position of power. One’s physical attractiveness and sexuality gets wrapped up in one’s position of power, inciting eating disorders and the pursuit of cosmetic procedures. Sadly, a woman’s quest for power may result in turning her aggression on herself, or targeting women deemed a threat. On the contrary, some women may stagnate in a state of regressive inertia, trapped in a rigid gender construct of femininity, fearful that their libidinal impulses would relegate them to the ruin of so-called fallen women. They conform to a conventional idea of who they should be, often over-identifying with the feminine ideal. Paradoxically, many women vehemently reject their inherent feminine nature and over-identify with what are customarily recognized as masculine traits. We see evidence of this in the competitive marketplace where alpha women in leadership positions emulate a masculine leadership style so as to be deemed effective. A linear pragmatic mode eclipses an intuitive, interdependent approach, often resulting in imbalance that devolves into ruthless, sabotaging tactics.
Our innate aggressive and relational proclivities seek cathartic expression through our sexuality. Yet modulating our biological programming often goes awry, largely due to cultural influences. The power ascribed to men in labor and political spheres establishes a hierarchical foundation of dominance. This construct promulgates an ideology in which success is measured by power over others. In the realm of sexuality this takes the form of prey-predator dynamics. When natural libidinal behavior morphs into an abuse of power, the fine lines between traditional mating practices and coercion become obscured. Tragically, subjugation is complete when the oppressed fail to recognize their own enslavement. While the reality of sexism is no secret, most men and women are simply too confused to distinguish between what is consensual and what is a violation. Our cultural conditioning and societal mandates, along with collective biases, have contributed to a climate of desensitization.
When women participate in a misogynistic ideology (whether consciously or not), gender empowerment for both men and women suffers. Equivalently when women’s repressed rage is expressed through demonizing all men or making rash judgments, gender empowerment suffers. Rage, when effectively managed, can potentially lead to creativity, integration, and dialogue. Blindly detonated rage is destructive. We are all privy to how power can alter a person’s behavior for the worse. It is our hubris that mitigates introspection and humility, creating deep divides such as we’re seeing in the #MeToo movement.
The most prominent feminist factions in the #MeToo divide are represented by those who ascribe to cultural feminism and those who are aligned with liberal feminism. While cultural feminism asserts that our biological inheritance is intrinsic to our socialization and acculturation, liberal feminists believe that environmental conditioning is solely responsible for gender identity and behavior. Self-righteous posturing on both sides has created a rift, thus derailing the opportunity for meaningful exploration and dialogue as to how the convergence of biological predispositions and cultural prescriptions can offer a more comprehensive understanding of the complex conditions (societal, economic, institutional, and psychological) fueling sexual violence towards women.
Making people aware of the insidious traps of masculine superiority and female inferiority is a critical prerequisite to constructive, inclusive dialogue. Embracing one’s feminine nature means supporting female diversity and championing what distinguishes women from men. At the same time it also means respecting and giving due accolades to men’s inherent capacities. Clearly, men and women need to critically and abstractly examine how the ideology of the male ethos globally supports and perpetuates violence towards women and sustains institutionalized sexism. As humanists, we must also paradoxically recognize the magnitude of inhumanity in the world. This can be particularly shattering when cruelty is evidenced in those we hold in high esteem and who we believe add to the greater good. Yet it is only by accepting the darker dimensions of the human condition that we can align with the truth.