Award-winning author discusses institutional betrayal, contributions to sexual violence initiatives

Rebecca Savransky, Campus Editor

The author of the award-winning book “Betrayal Trauma” spoke at Northwestern on Friday about her contributions to White House initiatives regarding sexual violence on college campuses and ways in which universities can combat sexual misconduct.

About 30 individuals attended the talk by University of Oregon Prof. Jennifer Freyd, “Betrayal Trauma and Campus Sexual Violence,” held in Harris Hall.

Freyd has done extensive research on different kinds of trauma for several years, most recently focusing on the idea of institutional trauma.

Freyd focused her talk on three main topics: betrayal trauma, betrayal blindness and institutional betrayal.

She noted her research began while studying the idea that individuals often suppress memories of their experiences of sexual abuse. She said betrayal trauma theory attempts to answer the question of why this occurs.

“There are lots of ways memory can break down,” Freyd said. “There are lots of ways memory can repair and the nature of forgetting is such that the basis of forgetting has implications for the basis of remembering.”

Freyd went on to discuss institutional trauma and cases of sexual misconduct on college campuses. She called on institutions to engage in self studies to most effectively target these problems. Institutions must remain accountable and engage in education about specific studies surrounding these ideas and the proper steps to take in response to sexual misconduct, she said.

She added, for example, most campus sexual assaults occur at the hands of a relatively small number of perpetrators who have serial victims, something several institutions may not know about.

“This is really important because if the institution has the wrong understanding of what the problem is, an awful lot of the interventions are going to be miscorrected,” she said.

However, she noted significantly more funding will be necessary for these practices to be successful.

Freyd also discussed her experiences at the White House, specifically mentioning her contribution to Obama’s new initiative about sexual violence on college campuses. She said she was invited to the White House to share her research, and while there she spoke with Lynn Rosenthal, White House advisor on violence against women, about her studies and they shared ideas for how to educate employees in an effort to combat institutional betrayal. She noted she had a sense of optimism after discussing her research.

“The fact that they did the task force at all, the fact that students are gong there and talking and the nature of the questions she asked me,” Freyd said. “It seemed to me she got it, she was knowledgeable and she cared. I had 45 minutes with her and she didn’t waste a second.”

At the end of the speech, a short question-and-answer session was held. Attendees asked questions regarding the best practices to combat sexual misconduct and requested greater detail about her experiences at the White House.

Attendees said Freyd’s ideas to combat sexual misconduct were important in addressing these problems on college campuses.

“Discussing the impact of how the institutions support or allow sexual violence to flourish — there’s a difference between supporting the victim and supporting a culture that is more victim blaming,” said Judith Ierulli, a senior associate therapist at the Womencare Counseling Center.

Ierulli also emphasized that with cases of sexual misconduct, members of the LGBTQ community are much less discussed and supported, alluding to a fact Freyd mentioned during her talk. She noted this is something that must change if institutions attempt to remedy issues regarding institutional betrayal.

Psychology Prof. Alice Eagly said the most relevant part of the talk for her included discussing the idea of institutional trauma, emphasizing NU must take necessary steps to begin targeting and combating this behavior.

“Even well meaning institutions such as Northwestern are to a great extent not dealing with the problem well enough,” Eagly said. “We need to probe what we actually do and get data and look at remedies that may not be effective.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @beccasavransky