International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

President's Message

Posted 29 July 2013 in StressPoints by Karestan C. Koenen, PhD

A male faculty member at a prominent university received tenure despite being accused of sexual harassment – including attempted rape - of male students over a period of several years. The university equal opportunity and affirmative action office was informed of the allegations by students. However, because the students chose to retain anonymity in their complaints, the charges could not be considered in his tenure decision. The faculty member also had the right to face his accusers. But the students believed they needed identity protection due to fear of retribution by the faculty member and concerns about being stigmatized in their chosen profession.

This case is a composite of several that have been brought to my attention. Over a year ago, I published a blog about sexual harassment in the academy and my own shame at having ignored the sexual violence I have seen in my professional life. I have counseled female students, post-doctoral fellows and junior faculty on how to negotiate the academic ladder while dodging the unwanted advances of male colleagues. But I have never had such discussions with my male trainees. I honestly had never considered it.

I wonder if the university administrators contacted by students in these cases experienced the same blind spot? Although I have only heard the details second hand, the administration response seemed disingenuous. Anonymous reports of all kinds – including student teaching evaluations - are regularly considered in tenure decisions. Would they have taken different action if the victims had been female? Would I?

Cases ranging from the Penn State sexual abuse scandal to the sexual abuse of Yeshiva high school students demonstrate the cost of such blind spots. To the direct victims, certainly. But also much more broadly to the members of the academic communities whose leaders look the other way. Dr. Jennifer Freyd, at the University of Oregon, has coined the term institutional betrayal to describe the failure of an institution to response supportively to sexual abuse committed within the context of that institution. Her work has documented that institutional betrayal exacerbates the adverse mental health effects of sexual trauma.

These recent cases of sexual harassment and assault of male students made me realize that I – perhaps like society at large – tend toward gender-based stereotypes of traumatic stress. The most simpleminded is this: men have combat-related PTSD; women have rape-related PTSD. Like most stereotypes, these have some basis in reality. U.S. epidemiologic data shows that women are more likely to be victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence across their lifespan. Men are more likely to report having been exposed to the traumas of combat and war. My perceptions are shaped by personal experience. My grandfather, a World War II veteran, had combat-related PTSD, as did a (male) cousin who served in Iraq and the relatively few male clients I worked with over the years. In contrast, sexual violence has dominated discussions with my female relatives, friends and clients.

Sexual violence against boys and men is a prevalent public health problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that between 1 to 2 percent of men have been raped, many in childhood. One in seven U.S. men suffered severe partner violence. (the New York Times coverage of this study led with the headline: Nearly 1-in-5 women in US survey report sexual assault.) The Department of Defense report on military sexual assault, as covered by the New York Times, indicated over 50 percent of reports of unwanted sexual contact involved attacks on men. The victims of the Penn State Sexual Abuse Scandal were boys. As were the victims who came forward in a recent investigative report of sexual abuse of foreign exchange students.

Of course sexual violence against men and boys is not limited to the U.S. Male victims make up approximately 20 percent of the Women’s Media Center Women Under Siege Project reports of sexualized violence in the Syrian conflict. Although population-base data are scarce, the limited information available suggests men are as likely to develop PTSD and other adverse mental and physical health consequences from sexual assault and sexual abuse as women.

I wonder if ISTSS is doing enough to counter gender-based stereotypes of traumatic stress? Goal #2 of the ISTSS Strategic Plan states:

ISTSS is a diverse and inclusive organization that emphasizes collaboration in the exchange of knowledge and in the development, dissemination and implementation of evidence based and emerging best practices for all different types of trauma and populations.

As a society, we strive to be inclusive with regard to race, culture, sexual orientation etc. But do we do enough to in relation to “all different types of trauma and populations?” I am not sure. 

Certainly in reviewing abstracts for the 2013 Annual Meeting I can think of few, on male victims of sexual violence or female combat-related PTSD. And this is not surprising; conference abstracts reflect the populations the majority of our members serve and study. 

I have no ready proposals or easy solutions. I believe, to address the public health problem of sexual violence we need, as my friend Cara Hoffman has written, to “understand that we are in this together; to get over the idea that we are on some kind of sex-based teams. . . .” Settling for gender-based stereotypes of traumatic stress makes me uncomfortable. If for no other reason than I fear such stereotypes will allow us to overlook the suffering of victims who do not fit easily into our preconceptions. And therefore, denying them the compassionate response and justice they deserve.