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Being Aware Of Abuse May Make People Uncomfortable — And That's OK

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In the midst of #MeToo and #TimesUp, our new cultural consciousness about sexual harassment and abuse, I was recently required to attend a mandatory sexual harassment training session at my workplace.

I’m a college professor at a music school, a setting where it is sometimes appropriate for students to be touched: a faculty member instructing a singer on how to properly use the diaphragm, for example, or teaching a string instrumentalist how to effectively move the arm and shoulder and fingers. But in our current environment of awareness, creating and enforcing sexual policy is now paramount.

A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I’ve dealt with harassment throughout my life, from sexual assault as a girl, to high school bullying and unwanted teacher advances, to reporting job-related sexual harassment as a young female professor and losing my job in the process. Although what I wanted from my colleagues in our training session was a sense of proactive understanding, I anticipated indifference: people zoning out at the series of slides detailing appropriate and inappropriate behavior; people checking their phones for texts and emails; people shrugging off sexual harassment, power plays and abuse as somebody else’s problem.

To know about abuse isn’t ruinous—it’s empowering.

Instead, the meeting was met with concern and, from some, urgent questioning: If we hear of a student whose boyfriend is behaving abusively do we have to break confidentiality and report it? (Many students confide in teachers about their problems—it’s part of the artistic process of working through performance obstacles.) Some of my colleagues didn’t like the idea that we'd have to tell our students at the start of the term that we couldn’t promise confidentiality. What about students who graduate and disclose abusive experiences that happened while they were students? What about hearing secondhand of rumored abusive behavior? What about the practice of faculty inviting class over to their home for a gathering? Was that no longer allowed and/or wrong?

All of these questions were valid, of course, but for some, the tone was angry and defensive: “Abuse of power is wrong,” one colleague said. But hugs and pats on the back were "valuable" to the teacher-student relationship: “We don’t want to cut out the humanity, throw it out with the bathwater.” We don't want to "ruin" the profession.

Years ago, I taught a trauma literature seminar in which we discussed the concept of “the assumptive world.” Jeffrey Kauffman, editor of "Loss of the Assumptive World" — a series on trauma and loss — defines the assumptive world as "the assumptions or beliefs that ground, secure, or orient people, that give a sense of reality, meaning, or purpose in life.” He continues:

“The assumption may be that I am a good person … that others may be trusted, that things are or will be a certain way ... Or it may be that an assumption is such a familiar aspect of one's sense of reality that its disruption is hard to conceive, the loss of confidence in its truth putting one's very sense of identity at risk."

When trauma occurs, the victim experiences a loss of his or her assumptive world.

I believe my colleagues, though not victims, were confronting a shattering of their assumptive world, a cultural shift in the way society views interpersonal exchanges, boundaries and safety. No one was advocating untoward behavior. Rather, some felt aggrieved: That the innocent, caring gestures that are part of our vocation—what have been seen as an integral aspect of cultivating the lives of young artists, to which teachers devoted their hearts and souls—were now tainted by the awareness that those same gestures could also be abusive.

Sometimes shattering people's assumptions is necessary in order to protect everyone's fundamental well being.

I was both astonished by and envious of such a sheltered outlook, of life in a realm that had never existed for me.

As a girl, I was manipulated into acts that entailed the same body parts and motions as sex. That was not the same thing, a therapist informed me, as having sex. What happened to me was rape. And yet for a long time, sex and rape seemed the same act to me.

Ronan Farrow, writing in The New Yorkerdescribes a similar sentiment for Asia Argento, whose assault by Harvey Weinstein continued to affect her decades later. "Oral sex is still ruined for her,” he writes. “'I've been damaged,' she told me..." Research shows the effects of sexual abuse last for years.

How do we go back to innocence after such experience?

To know about abuse isn’t ruinous—it’s empowering. In naming and reporting abuse, we protect and prevent the ruining of innocent lives—not just of victims, but of witnesses, bystanders. This is our responsibility. Sometimes shattering people's assumptions is necessary in order to protect everyone's fundamental well-being.

The truth is, until we’re all able to put aside our fear of looking directly at all forms of abuse, of knowing and naming it, we won’t transcend it.

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Tracy Strauss Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Tracy Strauss is a trauma literature scholar, writing professor and former nonfiction fellow at the Writer's Room of Boston. She is the author of the Ploughshares blog series "Writing Trauma: Notes of Transcendence."

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