Thank you, Lady Gaga, Vice-president Joe Biden and the survivors of sexual assault who graced the stage at the 2016 Academy Awards Ceremony. Lady Gaga’s impassioned rendition of the song “Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground was the highlight of the evening in my opinion. The artist conveyed the anguish and anger experienced by victims of sexual assault through her voice and her body language. Vice-president Biden addressed the need to change a culture that either shuts its eyes to rape or makes it a badge of honor among young men.
How do we as individuals, as parents of young women who face a one in five chance of being raped on a college campus; as parents of young men who might witness or even, God forbid, participate in such an assault, address this compelling issue? First we must continue as we saw last evening to bring the matter into public awareness. Whatever our politics it’s tough to ignore a statement made by the vice-president. And nobody can ignore Lady Gaga. So it’s out there. We see it. We hear about it. It is talked about by celebrities who carry a measure of respect. We acknowledge the courage of survivors—those we saw last night—women and men alike who are willing to share their pain in a public forum.
We need to acknowledge the reality of a “rape culture” and find ways to change it. Sexual assault has existed in a society that doesn’t openly endorse it but has–even in the recent past–looked the other way. Somehow that has made it okay. So it is the culture that has to change—a culture that sees women—still—as second class or views them as objects to satisfy a need. Remember Charlie? He was a good and decent man but he was able to compartmentalize. In one part of his mind he saw women as objects—there to satisfy his needs. That mentality is all too frequent.
It is difficult for us as individuals or even as parents as families to change the culture. But we have to start somewhere. Vice-president Biden challenged us to intervene if we were witness to an assault. Sounds doable, right? Well, not so much. Research has shown that witnesses to a rape or assault are very able to empathize with the victim or condemn the perpetrator but intervene…??? No way. Heads start turning away and eyes focus downward. You can’t stop your frat buddies or your drunken cronies in the bar. So what do you do?
A promising model called the bystander model is being used with some success on college campuses. (Gentile, Katie. When the Cat Guards the Canary: Using Bystander Intervention to Create a Community-Based Response to Sexual Boundary Transgressions. 2016 in A Womb of Her Own. Routledge. In Press.). The students actually undergo training in which they are asked to recall situations where they saw violence occurring. They are asked to identify the violence. Then they are asked to describe how they felt as witnesses to it. Most recall intense and shameful feelings of vulnerability, helplessness and powerlessness and they are able to identify and describe these most often because they were not the direct victim or perpetrator. Some recall considering or indeed enacting violent physical or verbal responses. The training enables the students to clarify their roles as bystanders—neither victim nor perpetrator. It also recognizes that rape and its tragic consequences are cultural events and that all of us as witnesses are participants unless and until we recognize our ability to speak up and to intervene.
In the end it means that we need to think of sexuality in different ways—as parents, as individuals and as a society.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.