Sharing eases the shame
Ruth A. Barron, MD, consulting psychiatrist at Falmouth Hospital, recalled an incident when she was in medical school in the 1970s during which a lecturer in a histology class projected nude photos of Playboy bunnies on a screen in between slides of tissue and cells.
“The explanation was that it was a way of keeping students awake,” she said.
She and some fellow female students in the largely male class spoke up.
“It was highly inappropriate,” Dr. Barron said. “We were able to complain and get it stopped.”
She described that incident while discussing the recent #MeToo campaign on social media, which asks women to post the words “me, too” if they had experienced sexual harassment or violence and wanted to demonstrate the scope of the problem in American society.
[RELATED: Treating the trauma of childhood sexual abuse]
The campaign’s roots began a decade ago through the work of Brooklyn activist Tarana Burke to help women of color, according to CNN. It became a phenomenon on Facebook and Twitter this month after accusations of sexual exploitation surfaced against movie giant Harvey Weinstein and actor Alyssa Milano tweeted a request for women affected by sexual abuse to post “me, too.”
According to 2012 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [pdf], approximately one in five women and one in 71 men reported being raped, with 42.2 percent of female victims reporting they were raped before age 18, and 12.3 percent of female victims and 27.8 percent of male victims reporting they were raped at age 10 or younger.
The CDC also said male and female victims of nonconsensual sex were linked to incidence of high cholesterol, stroke and heart disease.
Speaking Up Is Healthy
Dr. Barron said speaking out, whether as part of the campaign or not, can be helpful to people who have been targets of sexual abuse.
“It can be a very healthy thing to do,” she said, and “sharing makes things better. Some people can move forward toward resilience after being validated by friends or by a therapist.”
The key is to discuss these issues with people who understand and are supportive, she added. Not everyone has the strength or desire to share their experiences on social media or in the courts or other forums where they may be confronted, opposed and possibly further harassed or humiliated, she said.
“People need to be careful,” Dr. Barron said. “They need to know themselves.”
The psychological trauma of sexual abuse can cause intrusive memories, depression, sleep problems and hyper-vigilance, or it can lead sufferers to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, she said.
“If you’re really blocked in your feelings, you should get professional help; group therapy can be useful.”
The #MeToo campaign not only alerts society to the prevalence of the sexual harassment and violence, but encourages women through strength in numbers, Dr. Barron said. They stop being individuals hiding a shameful secret or fighting alone.
“Shaming an individual is under a veil. It’s hard to shame a herd,” she said.
Sexual harassment and violence is a part of American life that many don’t choose to recognize. It occurs within a background of white male privilege. Subcultures exist that promote unequal or poor treatment of women, such as some clubs, corporations and career fields.
“There are ways in which the culture can put people down,” whether for their gender, color or sexual orientation, she said.
Dr. Barron mentioned the Dec. 16, 2012 gang rape and gruesome murder of a female medical student on a bus in India that garnered international condemnation.
“We can see the problem in other countries,” she said. “It’s harder to see within one’s own culture.”
Sexual abuse is part of a continuum of bullying that involves power and humiliation more than sex, Dr. Barron said. She said she has treated victims of rape, both male and female, and individuals who have committed sexual abuse. Several reasons might spur someone to commit such acts, she said. Some people were not raised to respect others or a specific group, or grew up in a setting where violence was accepted and may have targeted them. When these people victimize others, “they’re sort of giving back the harshness and rudeness of what happened to them,” Dr. Barron said.
In other cases, it’s a matter of one group or person feeling superior to another.
“I think there’s a dehumanization that happens with ‘The Other,’” she said. “Some of which may be hard-wired in humans.”
But people can fight these primitive inclinations and promote justice, respect and dignity for all, Dr. Barron said. Personal actions can accumulate to change societal attitudes.
“There’s a lot of hidden injustice. The good news is that we are exposing some of these things.”