OUR COLLECTIVE COGNITIVE DISSIDENCE ON SEXUAL ASSAULT
In the beginning of her book, Trauma and Recovery, Dr. Judith Herman recounts the study of hysteria, which was once defined as “a dramatic metaphor for everything that men found mysterious or unmanageable in the opposite sex.” It included symptoms ranging from delusions, hallucinations, catatonia, dissociation, amnesia, convulsions and nearly every other psychological and somatic symptom imaginable. In the last two decades of the 1800’s, the forefathers of psychology gathered in Paris to study under Jean-Martin Charcot, who had refurbished an old asylum specifically to treat and study the mysterious hysterics. It just so happened that Sigmund Freud was one of Charcot’s visiting colleagues, and, along with Breuer and Janet, Freud discovered that many of the hysterical patients’ symptoms abated once their traumatic memories and feelings were put into words. From this discovery began Freud’s famous psychoanalytic process, a process that would transform the nascent field of psychology but medicine, law, and our basic understandings of ourselves. While most people remember Freud for his later work on innate sexual desires, the id, ego, and superego—Herman points out that this early work, the work inspired by direct contact with the asylum patients, “still rivals contemporary clinical descriptions of the effects of childhood sexual abuse.” Unlike their mentor, Charcot, who was focused on the medical explanation for hysteria, Freud and colleagues began to listen—and it was this act of listening to the women themselves that was so radical. But, as history tells us, Freud stopped listening to women and later is quoted saying “I was at last obliged to recognize that these scenes of seduction had never taken place, and that they were only fantasies which my patients had made up.” Herman suggests that this pivotal change in philosophy occurred because of the public outcry to his publication The Aetiology of Hysteria; Freud wrote in a letter “I am as isolated as you could wish me to be; the world has been given out to abandon me, and a void is forming around me.”
This paradigm shift has been lingering in my mind the past few weeks, especially as sexual assault survivors are thrown into the political arena against the American Health Care Act. While our federal government threatens to eliminate healthcare protections for victims, state and local governments fail to process rape kits, limit abortion access, limit asylum opportunities, and fail to provide basic rights for victims of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, sexual trafficking, military sexual assault, and LGBTQ (specifically trans) individuals. Yet, you would not know that our society behaves this way if you watched our TV shows and movies. Graphic rape scenes in Game of Thrones, intimate partner violence in Big Little Lies, sexual assault history in 13 Reasons Why, prostitution in Precious, sex work in Hot Girls Wanted, rape in Scandal, college rape in Private Practice, abusive relationships in Gray’s Anatomy, rape in The Fosters, rape in Reign …the list goes on. Literally every network, and every type of gender-based violence.
So how does this work? Is there really this big of a divide between Hollywood and the rest of America? How is rape so prevalent, so vivid, so horrible on TV but so stigmatized in real life?
I’m not a media studies major, but I am a psychology major and I can’t help but wonder what kind of cognitive dissonance is at play in our minds that we can watch rape on TV and fight for our characters but not for our peers? Are we repeating the same mistakes as Freud— upon realizing that the truth is just too terrible, that it leads to isolation and pain, do we turn the other way? Do we listen to women as much as it’s safe—when they’re reading a script or acting a scene, but claim falsehood when they dare go off book? We live in the era of “just another sex scandal” at the same time as “just another rape scene” and I can’t help but wonder what that leads to. For Freud, considered one of the brightest minds of the last century, it was too difficult to hear the truth and believe it. Will it be too difficult for us?