There are many ways in which society views women’s lives differently from those of men. It is interesting to examine how such views have changed over the years, and how they affect everyday life. Some aspects of society continue to contribute to the unequal status of men and women, to the detriment of both genders. The following examples are offered to show how theories, traditional and popular culture can make the world safer, or not for women.
The Age of Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution engendered many new scientific discoveries. New theories about the world emerged that did not rely on religious texts, such as the discovery that the earth orbited the sun. The Catholic Church rather famously responded badly to the discovery, seeing it as a challenge to their authority.
Darwin’s theory of evolution is another example of a theory that challenged dominant religious thinking.
Human rights began to be recognised, and this led to the changes such as the abolition of slavery in America, the widening of educational opportunities, the introduction of child labour laws and changes to voting rights.
Along with these changes, some people were trying to find out what makes people tick, why humans think and behave as they do. While interest in what makes people tick is as old as humanity, the professions of psychology and psychiatry (the study and treatment of mental illness) emerged as professions during the 20th century.
This growth was assisted, and some would say had its genesis, in the work and theories of Sigmund Freud, sometimes referred to as the father of psychiatry. Freud came up with some interesting concepts; such as the ‘unconscious’, and ‘repression’. He is still regarded by many in the ‘talking professions’ as an important seminal thinker.
However he did a grave disservice to those women who revealed to him that they had been molested, and in a real sense he betrayed the very women who came to him for help.
At first, when women confided to Freud that men in their network of family and friends had sexually assaulted them, he did something both understandable and commendable, he believed them! He was shocked, appalled and spoke out about this issue, because he worked out that they had difficulties and issues connected to the events they described, what we would today call childhood trauma. He started speaking publicly about this in 1896. Not surprisingly, other men (doctors were almost all men at that time) took serious exception to this. He was in danger of being ostracised by the very men he was trying to impress. So, he changed his mind and his theory.
He decided to say that his clients were not talking about real events; they were deluded, they were repressed, and they were really victims of their own sexual urges. He suggested that sometimes women feel guilty about their forbidden sexual urges, and even that they sometimes feel better if they are mistreated.
He theorised that there were mechanisms he called ‘repression’ and ‘masochism’ to explain reports of childhood abuse that he did not believe had occurred.
He saw femininity as ‘thwarted masculinity’ and believed in a condition called ‘hysteria’ that only women experienced.
Unfortunately for women, these theories were much more palatable to the men around Freud than the truth had been, and they opened up a whole new fertile field of victim blaming as well as a valuing of reason over emotion. Freud’s ideas about sex and gender are thankfully now outdated and mostly discarded, so why is this all relevant?
He was, above all, a man of his times pursuing the chauvinist views held by most of society at that time.
The relevance is an example of a prominent and influential theorist getting it wrong in relation to women, whose influential theories still can be argued to affect how women in distress are regarded. While the belief that emotional distress can lead to both psychological and physical symptoms still has validity, the dismissal of women’s experiences or reports because of a distrust of emotionality has hampered progress in eradicating violence from women’s lives.
Views that reflect this misrepresentation and are still prevalent include women not being believed or being blamed for ‘taking’ abuse, or for not leaving when they are being hurt.
Sometimes the dangerousness of the behaviour they are reporting is minimised, especially if they show ambivalence or hesitate about continuing the relationship.
If women are not believed then the abuser can continue to be abusive without suffering any consequences, especially if women or children are not believed in court. If a woman speaks about being abused at home she may be regarded as mad or at least psychologically compromised.
While women may no longer be responding to repressed urges, their reports of abuse are sometimes still seen as delusions that they have foisted upon their small child in a malicious attempt to prevent a father and child having contact. This is another way to refuse to believe victims, and can perpetuate the danger to the woman and child.
Source: Blame Changer – understanding domestic violence by Carmel O’Brien – counselling psychologist, domestic violence specialist for more than 20 years.