Every once in a while a moment of raw communication happens in such a way that it becomes clear there is a choice to be made – either we will rise to the occasion and speak the truth of where we stand, even at the risk that it might offend or have unforeseen consequences, or we will miss that moment and live with regret. Last week, teaching my Abnormal Psychology class, I had such a moment.
It was a class about anxiety and related disorders, including trauma. In the course of that class I show a video interview of a woman experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after having been sexually assaulted. The woman is an actress, but a very good one. It’s a powerful portrayal that rings terribly true. Usually I warn students that it’s potentially disturbing. I forgot.
On the way out of class one young woman handed me a note. In it, she admonished me for not warning that the video could trigger someone who had been traumatized by sexual assault. She said in part; “When you asked what we saw in the video I couldn’t answer, because all I could see was myself.”
Every part of me recoiled. I wanted to resist, to defend, to hide, maybe even pretend I’d lost the note. Because I was embarrassed, yes, but mostly because I want the world to be a different place than it is some days. Instead, I wrote her an apology; I usually do warn students about the video, and the truth is that I’d forgotten, and I was wrong.
Her response, if anything, even more disheartening. She was actually surprised that I responded as I did. She was surprised that I hadn’t done it on purpose, having had the experience of professors who played “devil’s advocate” and stimulated “debate” by “blaming the victim.” I could not, can not, imagine how anyone can be so heartless; I simply want it not to be true.
I couldn’t let that stand. Making sure she agreed with what I was about to do, I sent this letter to the class:
After last week’s class it was brought to my attention that, not only was the PTSD video intense, but it could be a trigger for those who have been victims of sexual assault. I was faulted for not warning about the possibility of triggering for someone who had been traumatized by an assault. What pains me most about this is that I know that the video can be triggering, and usually do provide such a warning. This time I didn’t, and I sincerely apologize.
The best I can do at this point is to use my mistake to a hopefully good end. I use that video to illustrate PTSD, rather than one about war or a natural disaster, because I think it’s important to understand the extent of damage done by our culture of sexual violence. I use it because, as common as war injuries are these days, trauma due to sexual violence is far and away more prevalent.
For those of you who haven’t experienced sexual violence, you might be inclined to dismiss it, so let me put it in perspective. Every 2 minutes, another American is sexually assaulted; that’s almost ¼ million people a year. 9 out of 10 of those people will be women; 1 out of every 6 women in the US has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape over the course of her lifetime (almost 18%). For men the number is 3%, or 1 in 33; though smaller, still not an insignificant number. 44% of victims are under age 18, and 80% are under age 30. An estimated 60% of sexual assaults will never be reported, and a staggering 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail. By the way, this is just in the US; the world statistics are so mind-boggling as to be numbing.
If I don’t yet have your attention, let me put it another way: if 1 of 6 women has been sexually assaulted, plus 1 in 33 men, by statistics alone that means that 6 of your classmates in just our Monday night class have been, or will be, sexually assaulted in your lifetimes. 5, or perhaps all 6, will be women. In just our class.
How did that come to be? It came to be because we live in a culture in which we have become nearly immune to violence, in particular violence against women. We blame victims; after all, “boys will be boys” and we make all sorts of excuses for why “no” really means “yes” – women shouldn’t dress provocatively, they shouldn’t be out alone at night, they shouldn’t be in a place where they are in danger.
Why am I saying all this in an email to students in an abnormal psychology class? Because I believe that it’s important to understand that what is commonplace isn’t always “normal,” and what is “normal” isn’t always right. I believe that the world can be a better place than it is, and that understanding the way that we interact with one another is one way, perhaps the best way, to get there. Abnormal psychology isn’t the study of mental diseases that are “out there” somewhere; it is an investigation into the way that human beings think and feel and behave toward one another.
For those of you who might have been re-traumatized by the video, I am deeply sorry. I could perhaps have lessened that impact by giving fair warning. I wish I had. But let me be clear: I am sorry for not having warned you, not for using a video that is disturbing. About certain things, we need to be disturbed, so that we are motivated to work to make the world a better place for ourselves, and for each other.
I will close by saying that over the rest of this course we will take on a few more potentially disturbing subjects. We can’t have a class to talk about depression without talking about suicide, which has touched more of us than should be the case. We can’t have a class about eating disorders and sexual disorders without talking about the cultural factors that contribute to a view of body image, particularly female body image, that feeds pathology and a culture of violence. Finally, we can’t talk about substance abuse disorders without looking at the cultural role of public policy, which lately seems quite broken. I tell you all this because I hope that our discussions are frank, candid, and move you, at the same time that you learn something about psychology.
With best regards and hope for a better future,
Les Kertay, Ph.D., ABPP
Was I right to send that letter? You tell me. What I know for myself is that I couldn’t not send it. Some things just need to be said.
Dr Les Kertay, Awakened Moments