Briana, a 21-year-old college student, reported difficulty concentrating on courses, conflicts with her boyfriend and parents, depressed feelings, anxiety, and nightmares. Other issues included difficulties trusting others, feelings of inadequacy, dysfunctional eating, and alcohol use. During initial sessions, Briana's therapist also asked questions about family and relationship interaction patterns, paying special attention to "shoulds" and beliefs that appeared related to gender dynamics in her family, friendships, and school experiences. When the therapist (Jean) inquired about the presence of past trauma or victimization, which is one aspect of gender-role analysis, Briana reluctantly revealed being the target of sexualized comments during her high school and college years and an unwanted sexual experience during her second year in college. After inquiring further about these experiences, Jean hypothesized that Briana coped with these unresolved events by minimizing the significance of these events. Her use of alcohol, eating issues, and her anxieties represented survival skills related to Briana's efforts to cope with events that might be too overwhelming to acknowledge. Although Bri-ana's descriptions of unwanted sexual encounters were consistent with legal definitions of sexual harassment and rape, she did not label these experiences with these terms. She merely noted that she had been stupid and gullible, and that in accordance with her family's subtle "shoulds," she had learned to avoid thinking about these issues in order to "get over it and move on." After focusing briefly on the costs and benefits of this belief, Briana stated that she did not want to think about these experiences while she was trying to cope with pressing everyday demands.
Respecting Briana's ability to assess her most immediate needs, subsequent sessions focused on helping her deal more effectively and assertively with interpersonal and academic tasks. Jean and Briana identified and practiced concrete strategies for negotiating conflicts with her boyfriend and parents, dealing with anxiety and concentration problems, and decreasing her use of alcohol. Briana developed new communication skills, cognitive behavioral tools, coping imagery, and relaxation to deal with the immediate problems. Although Briana became more confident about everyday coping, she admitted that she continued to have nightmares, did not enjoy physically intimate contact with her boyfriend, and still used alcohol or food to submerge depressed feelings.
In response to the therapist's tentative hypothesis that her negative sexual experiences might be related to these issues, Briana expressed willingness to explore this material. The therapist briefly disclosed that her own sexual assault as a college student had drained her energy and productivity for some time, but that working through her reactions had freed her to deal more effectively with life tasks and direct her anger in productive directions. While acknowledging that Briana's experience was unique, she noted that the research literature reveals that many women have long-term reactions to unwanted sexual behavior, and proposed that exploring this material might be a constructive experience.
Before talking specifically about her unwanted sexual experiences, Jean and Briana identified how she might use the new skills she had learned to deal with uncomfortable emotions that could emerge during their next phase of exploration. Briana described her memories about the painful sexual experience of the past year, which had involved a friend forcing her to have sex following an evening at a party and a bar. She had coped by defining it as a bad experience, and had stifled painful emotions because she believed that family and friends would not believe her or would blame her for being "seductive." As Briana described the assault, she cried and expressed feelings of sadness and anger. Jean supported her expression, framing it as a new type of response-ability and a chance to refocus her intense feelings from depression to more direct expression of her feelings.
Building on earlier gender-role analysis activities, Jean encouraged Briana to draw potential connections between her thoughts about the sexual violation and messages and myths she had learned from family, media, and friends. These included (1) "It was my fault because I was dressed in a sexy outfit"; (2) "It was my fault because I had two beers and could not resist like I should have"; (3) "He was a good friend and wouldn't do anything to hurt me, so I must have sent the wrong signals"; and (4) "It's a sign of weakness to be overwhelmed by this." An exploration of the myths that supported these beliefs (feminist analysis) helped Bri-ana understand how the cultural "smog" she had been exposed to had affected her self-statements. Further examination also focused on how her status as an African-American woman contributed to her realistic fears about how others would react to potential disclosure about harassment and sexual violation. They discussed how myths associated with confining images of African-American women's sexuality as Sapphires and Jezebels contribute to beliefs that Black women are promiscuous, sexually voracious, dominant, and incapable of being raped. Thus, Briana may have been affected by these beliefs, perhaps nonconsciously, and did not believe she could expect empathy from others. Paying attention to personal trauma is not unique to feminist therapy; however, efforts to place victimization within a larger social context by exploring myths and social attitudes, as well as efforts to redirect self-
blame associated with these myths are important features of feminist therapy.
Jean also recommended several books that (1) identify the dynamics of acquaintance rape and gender harassment on college campuses (I Never Called It Rape, by Robin Warshaw), (2) discuss the acquaintance rape of women of color as well as cultural beliefs that support acquaintance rape in American culture (A Woman Scorned, by Peggy Sanday), and (3) describe healing after rape (After Silence, an autobiographical account by Nancy Venable Raine). After writing about her experience for a homework assignment and reading these materials, Briana developed a new framework for conceptualizing the personal violations, and began to use the terms rape and sexual harassment to describe her victimization. The books affirmed and validated her experience, and provided additional permission to deal more specifically with the consequences of harassment and rape.
Counseling sessions also focused on (1) finding effective ways of expressing feelings related to personal violation and anger, and translating this anger into positive directions; (2) talking with intimate others about her experiences of violation; and (3) learning to initiate intimate contact on her own terms. Briana's therapist referred her to a support group for sexual assault survivors, and in this setting she was able to work through additional feelings in a supportive environment, overcome feelings of isolation, and experience empowerment through connections with others. She also became more aware of the many ways in which media promote rape and how fears about rape often constrict women's lives. Briana enrolled in a psychology of women course in order to gain more understanding of gender dynamics, and as an extension of her emerging interest in activism and supporting others, she enrolled in crisis training at a rape crisis hotline. She also joined several student activist groups on campus, including Sisters for Sisters, a group designed to provide support for women of color on campus.
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