Inspired by International Women's Day 2021
Written by Natalie Fraser
In February 2020, a 60 something year old moderately well known figure in the field of existential psychology sexually assaulted a 27 year old student in broad daylight.
It was not the first time that this man had sexually exploited his students, yet despite having been dismissed from workplaces for that very reason in the past, he did so again with unphased confidence.
In a world where women walk cautiously in a world of risk, why do perverts remain feeling so empowered?
On International Woman’s Day 2021, this article will consider why women are so easily exploited in so many different contexts, and make some simple but effective suggestions about how we can make the world a safer place for people of all genders.
The ancient Greek tyrant Pittacus (c. 640–568 B.C.E.) famously stated, “The measure of a man is what he does with power”, a sentence now bound and shared through time in the writing of German sociologist Max Weber.
With a multitude of slogans like this being propagated by leaders throughout time, it is little wonder that the patriarch continues to exist with such force and entitlement.
Often this knowledge leaves me with a sense of such helplessness. Their strength is seemingly so intrinsically inherited, how can it possibly change?
The world of existential thinking is yet one of innumerable examples where the patriarch is strong, with male voices being the most widely spoken and shared. That is absolutely not to say that their voices aren’t incredibly valuable, that I don’t admire and reference them, and that their influence on how people find and create meaning in life isn’t magnificent.
Nor does it mean that we should publish women ‘for the sake of balancing the gender divide’. A thought provoking idea is a thought provoking idea, no matter the identity of it’s thinker. Yet as a compliment to Women’s Day, let’s now draw on the work of one of the first well known female existential writers, Simone de Beauvoir.
In her famous masterpiece The Second Sex, a key message that de Beauvoir makes is that women are regarded as the ‘other’ within society. If men are the sun, women are the moon. If men are masters women are mistresses. While not denying the differences which exist between and within genders, de Beauvoir notes that gender roles are too often unbalanced. That women occupy a subordinate position in society.
If we are not responsible for the gendered role we are born in to, does this therefore mean that when we are born a woman we must just accept this subordinate role?
Reflecting on the women in my own social world, I notice that some are definitely more accepting of the subordinate role. They are gentle, timid, living a life that feels in a continuous state of asking for permission. What would it be like for these women to question this role? What would it be like for them to say “thanks but no thanks” to the expectation that life is dangerous and when the danger happens they will be silenced before they can stop it happening to others?
If we return to the case mentioned at the start of this article, any reader can view from multiple angles that this lecturer perverted their power. Shrouded in the guise of lecturer, supervisor, registered professional, his power roles were worn with confidence, and as he brazenly belittled and dismissed the work and characters of other ‘big names’ in the field, his power was effectively inflated.
He had met the young student twice before the assault, each time for a matter of minutes, and on their third encounter successfully achieved an exploitative and humiliating conquest all with a smug smile on his face.
He walks off jauntily and continues with his life, while the young student is frozen in fear and without any preparation or consent is now forced to set off on a new path of having to fit this disgusting experience into their life story.
And so… the student is confronted with the decision: to share or not to share?
In cases of exploitation, time-after-time the victim immediately carries the shame and blame on their shoulders. In so many cases, this prevents them from sharing their story. This may be from fear of making it real by speaking it out loud, from fear of how people will respond, from fear of worse things happening by the perpetrator if they find out. The list goes on. And so does the trauma.
It strikes me how completely ludicrous this is! The shame is on the abuser. On the perverts skipping happily through life, trampling on the safety of their victims as they go.
Yet somehow the responsibility is put onto the victim to justify that they are not to blame. Most challenging of all is when this is a completely solo experience, because no matter how strong their inner voice of compassion is, there is the inevitability of social voices internalized over time that suggests they are in some way subordinate; in some way to blame.
Therefore, suggestion one as promised at the start of this article is this:
If you are in an uncomfortable situation, or have been in an uncomfortable position, it is normal to feel powerless. This isn’t you being weak, it is you living in a world where not only does power exist, it is used for nasty and unethical purposes.
No matter how scared you are, how much judgement or fallout you predict may come from it, when you are ready let yourself speak up. Share your story. Honour yourself with the relief of not carrying the burden alone.
More often than not, you may be surprised by the warmth and non-judgement, and support and compassion that you receive from others. At times, possibly also, you will be surprised at the lack of warmth, at the judgement, the lack of support, and lack of compassion from others too.
We cannot choose how others will respond to our truth, but we can choose which responses we absorb into our heart, and which responses we respectfully choose to ignore. How people respond says a lot more about them than it does about you.
Following the case of this particular student, she did choose to share her story tentatively. The fire which she lacked – as a women, as a victim, as a student under the pressures of academic training – was found within the individuals that she shared with.
Afraid to deform the perpetrator’s reputation, she shared it with only those whom this story would personally or professionally impact. And it was their responses to her story which lead to the main message this article hopes to share:
You do not need to be a women to advocate for women’s rights.
You do not need to be an abuse victim to advocate for victim’s rights.
Simple as this might seem, it was the response of colleagues which really illuminated this to the student.
Her male clinical supervisor had recently co-authored a book with the perpetrator and yet encouraged and ‘thanked her in advance’ for reporting his colleague to the police and governing bodies. He appologised on behalf of the male population, promised they’re not all bad, and all the while reassured her that she was not to blame and was doing the right thing by speaking out.
Her male boss was due to host a conference where her perpetrator was booked to speak on Nietzche, and after calmly hearing her story elected to retract the invitation, all the while reassuring her that this was his professional decision and that she was not to blame and was doing the right thing by speaking out.
The male police officer she spoke with having found inspiration from the strength and ethics of others to report the incident also responded with a calm and collected compassion, reassuring her that she had done the right thing, that the experience was a sexual assault in the eyes of the law, validated her experience, and all the while reassured her that she was not to blame and was doing the right thing by speaking out.
Perhaps the strongest support came from the compassion of a non-binary colleague at her training facility, who immediately affirmed that this was not an isolated incident, and that perpetrator had in fact been fired from the faculty for that very reason. They reassured her that she had done the right thing in sharing her story, that the support would be there from the academy if and when needed, and all the while reassuring her that she was not to blame and was doing the right thing by speaking out.
These little lived experiences are anecdotes of how powerlessness can transform to empowerment. Smattered within these were also less lovely examples of the outcome of sharing, some from expected sources such as the perpetrator’s inevitable furious reaction to being called out for his wrongdoing, some from unexpected sources which perhaps hurt the most.
This led to more realisations, which may help to explore the question we asked previously considering how power can be abused so casually and shamelessly by some.
You do not need to be a pervert to make the world a pervert-friendly place.
You do not have to be abusive to prevent the world from being safe.
We do not have choices about everything that happens to us. We do not have choices
about everything that goes on around us. We do not have choices about what we are told by others.
However, we do have choices about how we use our power. Whether that power is professional, gendered, spiritual, intellectual, legal, compassion… we must be aware and active with how we use it.
Therefore, as promised another suggestion for how we can make the world a safer place for people of all genders:
We need more advocates for the good in the world. We need more people willing to stand up for what they inherently know to be good, not what will make their reputation flourish. Be active in your courage to be the good in the world.
In a world that is full of unsafety, use whatever power you have to make the world a safer place.
In a world that is set up to silence people in danger, use whatever power you have to give them the space and support to speak out.
In a world of abuse and exploitation, have the courage not to be a pervert with your power.
We cannot stop perverts being perverts, but we can stop it being so comfortable from them to be so.