Naming the poison
There was a bittersweet reassurance in reading the words of Jacy Young and Peter Hegarty writing on #PsychToo (Young & Hegarty, 2020): a naming, validation, and visibility, yet something so irrevocably rotten in psychology. We wrote a draft of a similar nature entitled “we need to talk about clinical psychology’s #MeToo” for a recent book we both worked on. However, there was still a rawness within our reflections at the time, that we weren’t quite ready to put onto paper, as we were still processing – and wondering whether anybody else could see what we see. However, this article has kicked us into action again.
We both write from the position of having personally experienced physical, psychological and/or sexual violence. We also have the lived experience of supporting and holding each other through, in our experience, the toxic and re-traumatising systems that follow. These have included legal systems and support services which aim to ‘help’ those who have been victims of such abuse; and it has been disheartening, to say the least, to see that such ‘help’ is not always helpful. In our experience, these services often lack an awareness of, or sensitivity to, relational dynamics. Furthermore, they are entrenched with harmful discourses that are often perpetuated by both the individual and the institutions within which they operate. Such experiences do not readily leave us and we have noticed so much that needs addressing within psychology – and from our specific contexts of clinical psychology. We simply cannot continue to be silent and silenced about the ways in which sexual harassment is present, or complicitly perpetuated, within our own profession.
It is almost incomprehensible, and most certainly painfully uncomfortable, to think that a profession which is rooted in a desire to understand and alleviate human distress, is also complicit in silencing and/or perpetuating issues relating to sexual trauma. Whether this complicity is intentional or not, it remains a tragic form of hypocrisy. As it is not only overt acts of sexual harassment which can perpetuate the prevalence of sexual violence, such as those highlighted by the #MeToo movement. It is also actions which silence, disregard and undermine these experiences, which allow issues of sexual harassment and violence to remain unrecognised, under-reported and ignored; and therefore, unchallenged and maintained. These complicit actions are diverse in nature; they include the explicit attempts to ignore instances of sexual harassment within the field, but also branch out into the implicit biases which we hold about the ‘expected identity’ of a psychologist. Within this letter, we hope to recognise the intricacies of these dynamics, to highlight how we need to recognise dynamics of silencing and acts of overt sexual harassment which have permitted these issues to remain unvoiced.
The following reflections demonstrate how the issue of sexual harassment and violence within our profession “is not a fly that lands on your dessert… it is a bit of poison served at every meal” (Young & Hegarty, 2020, p.44). It is through naming the poison which we have been fed, that we ask for clinical psychology to finally recognise its own part in the perpetuation of sexual violence and invite the profession to no longer be a bystander.
So, dear psychology:
- Firstly, acknowledge that we are all human: We’re all human and certainly not impervious to the experiences faced by those we seek to support – in fact, a lot of us are often motivated to seek our seats within clinical psychology because of such experiences. Within conversations with your colleagues and peers, think about the biases that you might hold in relation to the potential experiences that you would expect a fellow psychologist to have experienced. We have experienced comments such as “as a psychologist, we’re so unlikely to have experienced sexual violence” – these words can be silencing, confusing and re-traumatising. Take time to evaluate your own preconceptions and biases concerning our profession, before speaking.
- Practice what you preach: As psychologists, the application of our knowledge concerning human experience and distress should not be exclusive to the therapy room. In training contexts and supervision, provide a sense of what is to come and what may be experienced as difficult or retriggering as you embark on your teaching and training sessions. Exercises with colleagues and trainees ought to have the same degree of consent that you’d seek from those sat in your therapy chair. When you invite a room of trainees or therapists to engage in exercises we would use with clients, don’t treat them differently. Having that awareness and offering people the permission to manage these situations, in whatever way we find most helpful, is crucial. Whilst it might be important to immerse ourselves in experiencing the exercises we do with clients, let’s remember to set the scene sensitively and be courteous and kind with choice and consent still.
- Recognise the complicity in silence: If we chose to ignore the importance of the above requests, recognise that you are signalling that sexual harassment and violence does not happen to ‘us’; this is an erroneous assumption of course; it does. Therefore, we need to create spaces where it is safe to recognise this; otherwise, we are complicitly silencing.
- Don’t engage in ‘humour’ around engaging in abusive practices. Don’t make ‘jokes’ about sleeping with clients, just don’t.
- Don’t use your position of power as permission to sexually harass colleagues. Don’t make comments about how good looking you perceive your colleague to be. Don’t impose your own stuff on your supervisee (“you’re the only thing keeping me going”).
- Don’t stand for the re-enactment of abuses within team cultures. Victim blaming also occurs between colleagues and within organisations. In response to being subject to act of sexual harassment or violence within the workplace, comments such as “maybe you shouldn’t come onto the ward looking so pretty” is victim blaming.
This list isn’t exhaustive for our own experiences, let alone others - and this is all happening within psychology. We really ought to do much better – people pursuing this career need to be able to rely on those more experienced within the profession to stand up and create much safer contexts that are conscientiously characterised by the valuing of lived experience and embedded with a collective-care and solidarity.
To slightly tweak the words of Dr Sandra Bloom: “Trying to [teach and supervise] trauma-informed practices without first implementing trauma-informed organisational culture change is like throwing seeds on dry land” (as cited in Treisman, 2020).
Illustration: Michelle Kondrich
Treisman, K. (2020). Adversity, Culturally, Trauma-informed, Infused, & Responsive Organisations & Systems.
Young, J. & Hegarty, P. (2020, June). Psychology has a sexual harassment problem…and tackling it requires reckoning with the past that brought us here. The Psychologist, 40-44.
At first sight the front cover of the June edition of the Psychologist appeared to depict a covid sneeze (‘Psychtoo’). On further examination the image was revealed to represent the subject of sexual harassment in the world of psychology. The case of Henri Tajfel was discussed in two articles, including the fact that the EASP has removed Tajfel’s name from their lifetime achievement award following revelations of his behaviour towards young women colleagues, students and others, beginning in the 1960s.
My lockdown reading of the final part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy turned up this plea by the 15th century French ‘poet, thief and general vagabond’, Francois Villon; ‘Brother men, You who live after us, Do not harden your hearts against us.’ In other words, applying the standards and values of the current age to a previous one is a dubious enterprise. We are all inescapably the products of the periods and circumstances into which we are unavoidably born and obliged to live our lives. Part of my lockdown catchup viewing is the excellent 2007-2015 TV series Mad Men. Depicting the world of advertising on Madison Avenue in the 1960’s, it reminds us that it was indeed a man’s world, as James Brown famously sang in 1967, to the extent that behaviour now classed as sexual harassment if not actual assault was not only tolerated as normal but was practically a defining characteristic of masculinity in certain contexts. To be thought weak, effeminate or homosexual could carry a disastrously high social, economic and sometimes legal cost.
The values, attitudes and behaviours of the 1930s and 40s began to be regarded as repressive and damaging in the post war period and the 1960s saw a revolution against them. The characteristic ‘stiff upper lip’, self restraint, respect for authority and pursuit of modest respectability were routinely ridiculed, railed against and cast aside by a significant and influential portion of the population, not just the young. When I was an undergraduate in a social psychology department in the late 60s, many staff routinely socialised and had sexual relationships with students. We thought little of it and indeed members of the nascent women’s liberation movement, of which I was an early supporter, tended to view such relationships as part of that very liberation. However misguided all this may now seem, I do wonder if those condemning Tajfel from today’s perspective understand how different was the time in which he lived.
Kingston on Thames
The Young and Hegarty article ‘Psychology has a sexual harassment problem’ (The Psychologist, June 2020) was a bold and necessary contribution, drawing attention to the power dynamics of a discipline in which men still occupy most of the dominant positions. It was beyond their brief in the article, but it is worth bearing in mind that these particular questions are part of a broader problem in academic institutions, and a deeper analysis also needs to emphasise that this problem is pervasive inside psychology around the world.
In 2018 three academics – Karuna Chandrashekar, Kimberly Lacroix and Sabah Siddiqui – edited an astonishing collection of articles called ‘Sex and Power in the University’ which was published as a special issue of Annual Review of Critical Psychology. These editors were young women early in their careers who had experienced, or had close friends who had experienced, sexual harassment by senior male colleagues, and it was a brave decision to go public. They make it clear that women are still mostly in junior positions, which makes them more vulnerable, and also less likely to speak out.
The problem considered in a global scale is not down to one or two badly-behaved men, but is endemic; psychology certainly does have a sexual harassment problem. There are undoubtedly cases where young vulnerable men are also abused, and we would do well to remember Kate Millett’s specification of patriarchy in her 1997 text Sexual Politics as entailing the dominant of women by men and of younger men by old men.
Emeritus Professor of Management, University of Leicester, UK
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