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Beneath Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse of women—from unwanted advances to rape—has been in the news of late. Social media have made assault more public and made it possible to report in numbers. The numbers have had surprising weight when, in the past, our culture has made it all too easy to dismiss the complaint of a single woman or to punish her for the complaint. (For an ancient example, see The Book of Daniel, chapter 13, the story of "Susanna and the Elders.") Thus, there is reason to hope that as our culture unwinds and becomes more barbaric it is also winding back up into a new set of standards—that will include appropriately respectful behavior toward women as well as toward men. We may become more civilized.

It remains to be seen, however, if frightening powerful men with public exposure will do more than make them hesitate in their bad behavior rather than change their attitudes. It remains to be seen, as well, if the women who have accused these men of abuse feel satisfied that justice has actually been done. If neither of these occur, it will be because the meaning of the “Me Too” movement has yet to be found. Questions of “meaning” go beneath the personal, the social, the more obvious reasons for what is happening.

A Jungian point of view is one way to approach meaning. Here are some suggestions with regard to sexual abuse:

1. The abusers are split off from their shadows, the “dark” side of the psyche that is just on the other side of the “bright” and caring and socially responsible ego. The split helps to explain why a perpetrator can say, “I did nothing wrong”—and say that not just for legal reasons but actually believe it (when it is not true). I wrote of “denial” in the “Projection” post and repeat: it is a very powerful capacity of the human mind! We can almost marvel at it if not too sickened. I have also written that nothing really changes if we do not ask and answer the question: “What am I denying, refusing to face?” This is important, because what we deny . . . we will eventually do, if we haven’t already.

2. The women who were abused have shadows, as well. While it is their moral duty to expose their attackers, it is also their moral duty to explore what happened. Without that, they are open to the secondary attack of “asking for it”—exonerating the abusers of blame. No one wants to shoulder blame! But the new standards that are slowly forming in our culture must include the ability to ask such questions as: “Did I fail to listen to the unconscious warning me to stay away?” Taking even a small bite out of blame is very nourishing. It helps one to listen better next time.

3. Part of the problem is that the unconscious does not really “exist” in our culture—not yet. Few people I know take its existence seriously, and one never hears of it in public discourse. In a man, the unconscious is not just his misbehaving shadow but a deeper reality called the “anima.” This is a Latin word often rendered in English as “soul”—and that Jung borrowed to refer to the personification of a man’s archetypal or collective unconscious.

This is not the place to define these terms, but one can consult Edinger in An American Jungian (Toronto, 2009). Suffice it to say that if a man denies his anima, he is denying the deeper reaches of his Soul. He is denying the “Woman within,” and will do the same in his relations with outer women. He will hurt them both and think nothing of it.

In the current episodes of sexual abuse, this means a failure of "feeling.” For most men, the capacity for feeling, for empathy and relationship, is not very conscious. It is carried unconsciously by their anima, and so they relate out of it. But if one is not listening to Her, the following inner feeling conversation does not occur: “What am I doing? This isn’t right. I’m manipulating these women to satisfy my own primitive urges when I’m supposed to be a civilized contributor to society. And what about my wife? Have I forgotten that I love her? Do I actually love her? What is love?” Psychological honesty can be very difficult.

4. Archetypes influence us constantly. In traditional Hindu language, the gods are “Playing” with us. In psychological language, we are being pushed this way and that by forces deep within the psyche that are much more powerful than consciousness with its feeble will power. Professors are forced to be what they are by the archetype of Wisdom, politicians by the archetype of Power, artists by the archetype of Creativity, etc. None of us escapes nor should we since Energy and Meaning ultimately come from the “gods” or contents of the collective unconscious.

The Jungian analyst Erich Neumann wrote an important essay, “The Meaning of the Earth Archetype for Modern Times” (in Fear of the Feminine, Princeton, 1994) in which he explains that the archetypes of the “Sky” have had their way with us for the last several millennia. That means distance from instinct and increasing clarity of thought have enjoyed highest value. That development was necessary and genuinely beneficial. But the archetypes of the “Earth” have been thereby denigrated—denying us a proper balance between what is “up” and what is “down.” Neumann writes: “Heaven is connected archetypally with the symbolism of what is above, light, bright, masculine, and active, and Earth, with what is below, heavy, dark, feminine, and passive.”

This means that abusing women is profoundly a symptom of the centuries-long “abuse” of the Earth archetype. It is why all of us feel a little guilty, even if not in some concrete way. We are all guilty of abusing the archetypal Feminine—and not just women who carry it more naturally—by refusing to value sufficiently what is symbolically feminine: the inner life, the unconscious, the feeling or insight that lies within, the promptings that are our better judgement, the ability to wait, relationship to others and to ourselves. That psychological sin is the “hook” for a woman’s uncomfortable thought, “Was I at fault?" And her questioning is the hook for a man’s false accusation, “You wanted it.”

I believe what we are witnessing for the moment (Will the “Me Too” movement survive?) is a social manifestation of the archetypal necessity that we learn to look down and not just up. Much is at stake. Jung wrote: “Seeking revenge from the violence his reason has done her, outraged Nature only awaits the moment when the partition falls so as to overwhelm the conscious life with destruction” (Collected Works, vol. 11.531). Many men have just been destroyed professionally by “outraged Nature” who got even, using outraged women to achieve her ends. Lest the archetype of Nature or Earth “get even” with each of us, let us explore what it means to honor Her.

WANT MORE? Read Eleanor Bertine, Close Relationships: Family, Friendship, Marriage (Toronto, 1992). Read chapter 12, “Devī,” in my book, The Snake and the Rope.

Rubens, "Susanna and the Elders"

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