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Sexual Assault and Protecting One’s Own

In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) author Katie Gentile writes as follows: Colleges do not have the same responsibility for holding a relational process, and they do not usually understand the multiplicities of self-experiences and conscious and unconscious motivations and intentionalities (Bromberg, 1998; Mitchell, 2000). Indeed, having sat on a cross-college multidisciplinary behavioral intervention team for years, I can safely say most college investigations proceed with a doer, done to mentality. Psychoanalysts, on the other hand, are supposed to understand multiplicities as well as the concept of mutuality (see Aron, 1996) and how these demonstrate that we never really know how our colleagues interact with patients. We really do not know what happens behind any closed door. Yet these generative theories of multiplicities seem to leave us when we are asked to comprehend transgression. We find ourselves caught like the neighbor of a perpetrator who can only repeat “but s/he was such a nice person, prolific writer, wonderful mentor, fantastic supervisor,…” or, more terrifyingly, “how could this happen to me?” (Foehl, 2005).
Despite these procedural and structural differences, just taken as cultural bodies, psychoanalysis and colleges have both chosen similar tactics to deal with violations, either disavowing and victim blaming, or policing, investigating, and disciplining one’s own. In most cases, the danger is contained to either the victim or the offender and whoever gets this projection is safely split off from or silenced within the particular social body. Even though both psychoanalysts and academics critiqued this tactic when taken by the Catholic Church and the U.S. military, (one of the lead military prosecutors was recently arrested for sexual assault himself), and many U.S. police departments –boundary violations within psychoanalysis have been dealt with (if they were dealt with) by peers and/or internal institutional and professional ethics committees. Perhaps a state ethics board is notified—perhaps. But the protection of the institute’s reputation and the identity of the accused take precedence. Similarly, the reputation of the college campus is protected. Having parents call the college president with fears for their child’s safety is a powerful and potentially costly event. In both settings, the traditional form of victim-blaming in cases of sexual violence is institutionalized, as the main protections often go to the accused. The accuser, by mentioning the accusation, can be sued for defamation and treated by both institutions as crazy, trouble-making or just hysterical. Despite these informal protections for the accused, both universities and analytic communities have recently been exposed to high profile lawsuits.
Discussion of sexual boundary violations cannot help but be shaped and limited by the familiar doer/done to, Judeo-Christian based, judicial structure (Butler, 1997; Benjamin, 2004; Cornell, 2010) for participants. There is limited capacity to imagine one side without the other. Psychoanalytic notions of enactment and trauma have helped us better understand how these positions may shift and how the abuser can become the abused and vice versa (Davies and Frawley, 1992). But in these theories, the binary oppositions remain firm even as participants themselves change roles. Using examples from these two settings, I hope to create some space outside this judicial binary, where accountability and shame can be held, fostered and reflected upon.

Sexual Assault and Protecting One’s Own

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2018). Sexual Assault and Protecting One’s Own. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Oct 2018
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