Warning: This article discusses topics of sexual violence, and may be triggering for some readers.
University of Oregon professor Dr. Jennifer Freyd is a nationally-renowned researcher studying the psychology of sexual violence; she has received many awards and fellowships for her work. Freyd has been outspoken about her findings and how they relate to current events, from sexual assault allegations against President Donald Trump to institutional betrayal within the Catholic church. This school year, she accepted a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Science (affiliated with Stanford University) to research these topics.
“It is mostly an opportunity to have perfected time to work,” Freyd said regarding her fellowship.
She’s thoroughly enjoyed the center’s interdisciplinary efforts, as her group is comprised of a psychologist (her), a sociologist, a historian and a political scientist.
“There are two things about it that I really love: one is the interdisciplinary effort because trauma psychology and sexual violence in general really need to be looked at from a lot of different angles,” Freyd said. “It’s also very focused on applying social science work to important problems in society and trying to use that research to change things.”
She hopes to bring the emphasis on social science work and real-life application back to UO. While she’s in California, she still Skypes regularly with her graduate students back in the Freyd Dynamics Lab.
Freyd’s lab has looked into how universities have handled — or failed to handle — sexual assaults on campus; she’s relatively disappointed with how universities have responded to claims. She refers to institutions who let those dependent on them down as “institutional betrayal.”
“Very few universities have put enough resources into the issue, and to some extent, there has been a problem with creating bureaucracy that doesn’t really get at the root problem,” Freyd said.
She has noticed a lot of superficial staff training programs. Instead, she thinks that the money given to them should be funneled into increased research on the issue and student resources that can help sexual assault victims.
“For years and years I have been studying this stuff and I’ve mostly had a reaction from people like I was studying something ‘exotic’ and maybe on the margins, as if it only affects a small number of people or it’s a little thing,” Freyd said.
Freyd remembers many of her colleagues being skeptical when she first began talking about her research in the 1990s. When she was in college in the ‘70s, she said no one talked about assault and betrayal. If it was brought up, it would be brushed off as a woman’s problem. Women couldn’t even play the same sports as men, so she’s happy the issue has gone a long way since then.
Freyd’s glad to notice the atmosphere shifting around this topic that was once deemed inappropriate for public conversation. Freyd argues that sexual violence and institutional betrayal impacts everyone either directly or indirectly; it shows up in every kind of power dynamic.
“There’s tons of journals and conferences on the topic now and I don’t get those weird looks anymore,” Freyd said.
Through her research, she has helped create terminology to explain different aspects of the psychology. One term that she introduced to the research niche is DARVO, which stands for "Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender." This is a common technique used by those accused of sexual assault to delegitimize the claims against them. Deny the victims claims, attack the victim’s credibility and claim that they are the real victims in the situation. This trend was especially clear in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.
In this way, it can be easier to predict how those accused of sexual assaulting might respond than those who have been sexually abused. Because every victim responds differently and might need different forms of help, institutional one-size-fits-all approaches don’t work very well, she claims.
“How the institution responds is really, really important and, if done wrong, can do damage to people,” Freyd said. “I don’t think that most people in the institution actually try to do damage. Most want students to thrive. But it’s still a failure to do what’s needed.”
In many cases, this leads dependent people who reach out, such as college students who rely on the protection of the university, to be let down. Freyd and her colleagues have found that victims that experience institutional betrayal go through a much more difficult recovery process than those supported by institutions. They usually experience more depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and a higher chance of suicide. Freyd has found that women and members of the LGBTQ community have a higher likelihood of experiencing institutional betrayal.
“Currently, when I talk to students who have tried to get help, it’s just so poignant because they are often just not getting their needs met,” Freyd said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Freyd suggests a more individualized approach of victim recovery, which means there would need to be a smaller ratio between students and trained staff members on campus. Universities need to move on from just using online modules to educate faculty to prioritizing making staff “trauma informed.” She compares this idea to a form of literacy.
“The idea is that you have enough of an idea on how trauma works that you can design your systems and interact with people in an educated way,” Freyd said.
The goal is for more people on campus to understand how to respond if someone discloses a traumatic experience. For example, avoid blaming or invalidating — allow the victim to stay in control of the decision-making, rather than making choices for them. Listen attentively. Freyd has written many tip sheets on how to be a good listener.