Too many lives are devastated by the betrayal machines that chew up and spit out victims when they come forward in the search for healing. Ending sexual violence means ending the culture of institutional betrayal that allows powerful organizations to silence victims by punishing them for speaking out.
Arizona Senator Martha McSally recently disclosed that she had been sexually assaulted as a young Air Force pilot. Even more unsettling than that admission, however, was the bombshell she dropped when she said that after she reported it, she felt like the system was raping her all over again.
Having to deal with the emotional and physical trauma of sexual assault, or other forms of sexual violence and sexual harassment, is among the most devastating episodes in any woman’s life. Generally, these experiences occur at the hands of an individual — typically a powerful man — acting alone and very often in a spontaneous and unplanned fashion.
By contrast, the second assault — the kind McSally was referring to — occurs at the hands of a powerful and otherwise respected organization. It is the result of deliberate and frequently premeditated decision-making, often involving multiple levels of authority, including boards of directors working with legal counsel. It is because this second wave of harm is so typically the result of deliberate efforts by the collective mind of a trusted organization that it takes on a level of perversity all its own.
Some years ago, Jennifer Freyd, Ph.D, one of the world’s most renowned scholars on sexual violence, coined the term institutional betrayal to describe what happens when organizations, instead of supporting and protecting victims, act out against them. As Dr. Freyd put it,
Institutional betrayal is harm an institution does to those who depend upon it. This betrayal can take the form of overt policies or behaviors….
Harm can also mean failing to do that what is reasonably expected of the institution, such as not providing relief to disaster victims or failing to respond effectively to sexual violence. For instance, some victims of assault are punished or even demoted or fired for reporting the assault to their institution.
In a foreshadowing of McSally’s experience, and so many others, Dr. Freyd told the online publication of the Wharton School:
“You may have heard people say, and military personnel say, ‘The rape was bad, but what was even worse was how I was treated after the rape occurred.”
Significantly, institutional betrayal has the capacity to magnify the impact of the emotional and physical harms created by the originating incident. Alarmingly, some research has shown it to be a predictor for heightened risk of suicide and self-injury.
Of course, institutional betrayal is not associated with sexual violence alone. My advocacy work with victims of medical errors in the healthcare setting often involves combating the adverse effects when providers reflexively react to allegations of wrongdoing with a deny and defend response. This can cause untold harm to family members seeking basic answers about what happened to a loved one.
Another area of my research involves sexual abuse of patients by physicians. Here, the fingerprints of institutional betrayal can also be found on the systemic failures of professional disciplinary bodies to effectively, and transparently, address this long-standing concern.
But the epidemic of sexual violence in our workplaces, in our communities and on our campuses makes institutional betrayal in these settings especially worthy of more urgent attention.
It is commonly recognized that sexual violence produces a broad range of adverse emotional and physical sequelae, including depression, anxiety, PTSD and cardiovascular issues. Less understood is the toxic impact of institutional betrayal itself, which has the capacity to add a further, and even more damaging, layer of harm to what has already been a life-shattering incident.
Writing about her work on institutional betrayal, Yale University psychologist Dr. Joan Cook says “(w)hen institutions react to reports of abuse with disbelief, blame, harassment, refusals to help or insensitive fact-finding practices, it adds additional personal harm to the survivor.”
Based on my first-hand experience working every day with victims struggling to deal with sexual violence in an organizational setting, (I am one myself), I have to say that when it comes to sexual violence and related abuses, institutional betrayal is far more common than is generally understood. Its potential to inflict irreversible damage is woefully under-heeded by policy makers and authorities.
My own encounter with institutional betrayal involving the Ontario Securities Commission, one of North America’s leading capital markets regulators, has been documented in my columns in NOW Magazine in March and April. It has been a nightmare. The experience has been life-altering and sent my health into a steep downturn.
Even reaching out again to my former employer in a time of #MeToo awakening was like stepping in front of an avalanche. I was hit by a wall of re-traumatizing memories thanks to the heavy-handed actions of accusatory lawyers who painted me as the wrongdoer.
Earlier in my career at the OSC, I suffered a violent sexual assault at a workplace conference. It occurred at the hands of a powerful and well-connected head of the Alberta Securities Commission, a major Canadian securities regulator. When I reported it to my boss, a senior official at the OSC, he bullied me into staying silent. He gave me a choice: keep quiet or lose my job. I saw that as a terrible betrayal and one that, to this day, has left a deep imprint of life-altering consequences and frequently re-traumatizing memories. It was only the beginning of my encounter with a toxic culture that eventually saw my job torpedoed and my chosen career of more than 20 years totally demolished by the retaliation that followed.
But even reaching out again to my former employer in a time of #MeToo awakening was like stepping in front of an avalanche. I was hit by a wall of re-traumatizing memories thanks to the heavy-handed actions of accusatory lawyers who painted me as the wrongdoer, while hurling volleys of blame at me typically beginning with phrases like “you have repeatedly failed to…” and “you have repeatedly refused to….” Even though I came forward seeking to have this issue addressed, they claimed that I was preventing them from understanding what actually happened. I was portrayed as the offender, while they were the haplessly innocent victims. Talk about a triumph of perversity over reality.
For good measure, my former employer’s lawyers reached back to Harvey Weinstein’s playbook and tried to silence me — again.
For good measure, my former employer’s lawyers reached back to Harvey Weinstein’s playbook and tried to silence me — again — with the stern warning to “refrain from sending communications to the Premier’s Office asserting wrongdoing on the OSC’s part, as well as making public disclosure of such assertions on your website.” It was a chilling reminder of what had been done by my boss earlier to keep me silent about being sexually assaulted.
They even managed to enlist the support of Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who was more than happy to turn a blind eye to further attempts to muzzle me.
It’s a hard enough road for survivors of sexual assault to find healing. It’s almost impossible when you have to go up against a well-protected organization like the OSC, let alone the most powerful man in Ontario.
For some, the poster organization for how not to respond to victims of sexual violence and sexual harassment is Uber, whose misconduct was famously brought to light by Susan Fowler. For others, it is CBS, where former CEO Les Moonves and 60 Minutes chief Jeff Fager regularly intimidated women who spoke out. Then there is the master of complicity, the Weinstein Company. But in Canada, the hands-down winner is the Ontario Securities Commission, a serial offender when it comes to mistreating a victim who blew the whistle on sexual misconduct inside that organization.
If we are going to break the cycle of fear and silence that prevents too many victims from coming forward, and leaves the workplace, the community and the campuses that much more dangerous, we need to tackle the bad organizational actors that enable institutional betrayal and shatter the lives of victims even more.