On February 8, 2018, the New School for Social Research hosted a panel discussion, co-sponsored by The Sandor Ferenczi Center, the New School gender studies & sexuality program and Public Seminar, entitled “Sexual Harassment and Assault: Eros, Power, Violation and Consent.” The event, designed as the first part of a two-part series (the second, a full-day conference, will be scheduled for the fall 2018 semester) allowed speakers and audience members to engage in dialogue responsive to the rise of the #MeToo movement. The conversation, expansive in its scope, invoked the complex intertwining of power and consent, survival and victimhood, and the role of institutional compliance in perpetuating abuse. It provided space for reimagining a sexual politics better able to serve those individuals who, by virtue of systemic mechanisms of oppression, are most vulnerable to abuse.
Katie Gentile, professor of interdisciplinary studies and director of the gender studies program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, voiced the necessity of constructing sexual violence as a community issue. She described the limited available vocabulary that we, as a culture, bring to instances of sexual abuse. Perpetrators of assault, she noticed, are quickly labeled “monsters,” but there is an absent discourse, as she described it, available to unpack the responsibility held by those who are enablers to, or bystanders of, abuse (and who among us, she wonders, can claim universally to be neither?). She spoke to the importance of creating “circles of responsibility and care,” in which the occurrence of abuse instills feelings of collective shame distributed throughout all members of the community. This conceptualization of communal responsibility, Gentile argued, creates the foundation for social change. It disrupts a pattern of misguided thinking in which we imagine that excising perpetrators of abuse from our communities equates with an excising of the roots, effects and implications of the abuse itself.
Adrienne Harris, faculty and supervisor at New York University postdoctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, offered a deconstruction of the term “witch hunt.” Roughly tracing its etymological evolution throughout history to our current moment, she argued the traditional, gendered connotations of the term recently have been upended and transformed. In examining the new social construction of men as the objects of “witch hunts” she draws a parallel between anxieties surrounding the #MeToo movement and Freud’s castration complex, positing a “mad reversal” wherein, almost epidemically across our culture, male sexuality is conceived of as if under attack. Extending insights beyond a psychoanalytic framework, she further explored notions of restorative justice, inviting the audience to consider the possibility of a social practice wherein the naming of abuse functions as the beginning of social dialogue, rather than serving as the prelude to litigious action. “What if we had discourse about boundary violations?” she asked the audience members, allowing us to consider the complexity of this question in our current sociopolitical climate.
Ali Shames-Dawson, doctoral student in clinical psychology at the New School, spoke of the silences, invisibilities and exclusions that permeate the dialogue surrounding sexual assault and abuses of power. Where in the public conversation, she wondered, is there space to process the pain, hurt and grief that seems inevitably bound to the unearthing of narratives of abuse? Pointing usefully to the racially homogenous makeup of the panel itself — an example, as she described it, of how exclusions are reproduced even in well-meaning spaces — she encouraged the audience to carry a necessary question with us as we engage in these conversations: who are we forgetting? Elaborating on how focus upon the “glitterati and the public executions of powerful men” has restricted the scope of our cultural dialogue surrounding sexual misconduct and assault, she argued both in favor of creating space in which to consider how the #MeToo movement fails disenfranchised women globally and to turn our attention to our home communities, institutions, and intimate relationships, to examine the ways in which our cultural landscape seems designed to dissociate women from our desires, agency, and sense of self.
Lisa Rubin, professor of clinical psychology at the New School for Social Research, reflected upon the fact that for many of us over these past several months, our worlds have felt particularly, palpably and painfully saturated by patriarchy. Noting the extent to which our news cycle has of late seemed inundated with narratives delineating abuses of power perpetrated by white, cisgender men, Rubin wondered why it is that the rest of us (i.e., those of us who do not identify as white, cisgender men) are the ones who feel so burdened, and so profoundly tired. She described a pervasive social pattern wherein white women are consistently called upon to speak on matters of sexual assault (and here, as Shames-Dawson before her, Rubin nodded implicitly to the makeup of the panel present), a fact which, as she contended, serves to further silence marginalized voices, and which implicitly absolves men of the role they play in perpetuating systems of abuse. Echoing Gentile, she discussed the notion of complicity, and stated compellingly that for all of us, addressing the ways in which we are complicit is a crucial part of the work to be done.
Lewis Aron, director of the New York University postdoctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, spoke to the complexity of handling allegations of sexual misconduct in the context of institutional settings. He highlighted the extent to which allegations of abuse call upon those in power within institutions to hold onto and address what he described as the complexity of simultaneously 1) serving the needs of the survivor, 2) providing protection and privacy for the individual accused, and 3) responding to the needs of the community, which will of necessity not have full access to information.
What felt clear after hearing the speakers’ remarks — particularly when, as part of the event, audience members broke into small groups in which to discuss their thoughts and reactions to the topics discussed throughout the event — is how difficult it can be to locate or identify the thing itself in conversations surrounding power dynamics and sexual abuse. One could argue that a substantial portion of the work ahead of us involves finding ways in which to hold onto, and attend to, the myriad affects, elements, dynamics and implications that arise throughout conversations of this nature, while simultaneously working to create and implement concrete methods of encouraging social change.
The February 8th event allowed speakers and audience members alike to dip a toe into this complexity. It provided a space in which anger, grief, frustration at the status quo, cynicism, optimism and intellect collided. Having laid the foundation, we can hope that there will be a great deal to build upon in the upcoming fall 2018 event.