Last week we looked at the ways in which the women and men who are speaking up on social media and in the news about the sexual abuse they have experienced are uncovering a culture-wide phenomenon of sexual betrayal. This week I want to talk about the potential dangers and opportunities this cultural moment presents.
When a problem as serious and endemic as this begins to rise to the surface, to be named, examined, and paid attention to, there is a huge opportunity for significant social change. What I fear, as I listen to the news and see what is being focused on, is that we will miss this opportunity.
As a society, we are waking up to the enormous scale and depth of the problem that we face around sexual betrayal and sexual abuse of power. If you are like me, the facts and statistics can be overwhelming and almost too fantastical to believe. But now those numbers are connected to faces and stories. Instead of statistics, we have real people who are courageously coming forward and saying this is what happened and this is what it has meant for me and my life.
As we hear the stories, one after another, our awareness is rising in a different way than when we just hear numbers. I would liken this to the process of discovery that betrayed partners go through when they find out what has really been going on in their relationship and are overwhelmed with feelings of betrayal. As a society, we are having the same type of discovery experience, suddenly realizing how systematic, endemic, and extensive the level of sexual betrayal and abuse of power really is. And just like a betrayed partner, we are intensely pissed off about it.
Do you remember when you first discovered your significant other’s cheating? The anger? The engulfing rage? Of course you do. The experience of such sheer betrayal makes us want to tip back our heads and howl with fury. And in that anger, our natural impulse is to rage at the offender, shame him, rub his face in what a piece of crap he is for what he has done, and then leave him.
That is the very human and normal response that most of us have when we experience betrayal trauma. And I think we are having the same experience on a cultural level right now. We are finally giving voice to the wellspring of pain and betrayal that has bubbled beneath the surface for decades. We are finally telling the truth about what has happened to us. We are finally naming names and giving details and holding those who have abused their power accountable. As our pain pours forth, so does our rage and anger. And this is right and necessary.
Anger can be a powerful purifying force. It can clarify, helping to delineate justice from injustice, right from wrong. Anger is a potent motivating energy that can deconstruct old paradigms and usher in opportunities for growth. It can unify and sharpen purpose. But anger can also divide, degrade, disempower, and destroy.
As any betrayed partner can tell you, anger must eventually be harnessed and directed or it will simply lay waste to everything in its path.
And this is where the danger lies. If, as a society, we stay in the anger and shaming of those who admittedly deserve to experience our anger and to be shamed, we will miss our opportunity to move forward to a place of sexual equality and freedom. If we are going to create a new dynamic, we must first create a pathway to healing for both the injured and the injurers. If we simply denounce and throw away those who abuse their power, it’s a dead end. Healing and restoration must be possible for both parties, or we will remain truly and irrevocably stuck in a power-over, power-under mindset.
As those of you who read this blog on a regular basis know, healing from betrayal trauma comes from taking the wounds seriously – from validating the pain, from unflinchingly acknowledging the harm that has been done, from holding the betrayer accountable, from re-establishing a foundation of trust and respect, and from rebuilding relationship safety.
This same formula needs to be applied on a wider level in our culture. We need to empower victims by letting them be angry. We need to honor this anger as an expression of dignity that has been violated. We need to ask for justice to be finally done. And then we must look at the problems we are facing with clear eyes and an open heart, and offer a pathway toward healing for both the abused and the abuser. Not the same path, and the path for those who have offended must be grounded in accountability and responsibility taking, but healing must be possible for both parties.
In this culture-wide moment of truth telling, we need to hold the possibility for healing and growth as the deepest and truest truth. Because the only way out of the pain – the only way to achieve individual, relational, and cultural freedom – lies in coming together, learning, healing, and rebuilding in the aftermath of betrayal.