Oregon psychology professor talks psychology of sexual harassment

April 13, 2018, 1:00 a.m.

Frank Fitzpatrick was a happily married, successful businessman when he began experiencing debilitating depression in 1989. The source of Fitzpatrick’s suffering was a resurgence of repressed memories from his early childhood: Fitzpatrick suddenly recalled having been sexually molested by a priest, Reverend James R. Porter, at the age of 12. How and why would an individual forget such a traumatic experience?

This was one of the questions that prompted University of Oregon psychology professor Jennifer J. Freyd Ph.D. ’83  to conduct in-depth research on the complexities of sexual harassment and abuse. On Tuesday, Freyd presented her 25 years worth of psychology research on sexual harassment in a talk sponsored by the the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research and WISE Ventures, a joint initiative between the Offices of the Vice Provost for Faculty Development & Diversity and the Vice Provost for Graduate Education.

“One of the things I think we need to be doing in addressing sexual harassment is to actually get educated about concepts and research,” Freyd said. “We need to do a deeper analysis of what’s leading to societal problems before we try to just simply fix them.”

Freyd introduced the “betrayal trauma theory” she developed to examine the issue of institutional betrayal. According to Freyd’s lab website, the betrayal trauma theory is used to “[predict] the degree to which a negative event represents a betrayal by a trusted, needed other [and whether it] will influence the way in which that events is processed and remembered.

Freyd explained that humans’ sensitivity to betrayal and lifelong social dependence factor into betrayal trauma.

When an individual experiences betrayal trauma, a common response is the unawareness, not-knowing or forgetting of the instance of betrayal, Freyd said. This was the case with Fitzpatrick’s childhood trauma. According to Freyd, “betrayal blindness” functions as a survival mechanism to preserve important relationships that would otherwise be threatened by one’s awareness of the traumatic experience.

Like individuals, institutions may also be trusted and depended upon. Thus, Freyd said institutions are also capable of betrayal, for instance, when they fail to prevent or respond to a sexual assault. Institutional betrayal can be extremely harmful for the institution, resulting in absenteeism, disengagement and potentially a reputational cost, she said.

Freyd has conducted extensive research on institutional betrayal, particularly on college campuses. She said that sexual harassment is usually perpetrated by someone who is in an advantageous position of power in their relationship with the victim. According to Freyd, any harassment perpetrated from such a position therefore leads necessarily to betrayal trauma.

In a 2013 study at the University of Oregon, Freyd found that 40 percent of those reporting sexual assault also indicated institutional betrayal, which contributed to high levels of anxiety among victims.

In further studies, Freyd has examined the risks of victimization associated with gender and social inequality. This work has led Freyd to the conclusion that interpersonal and institutional betrayal are not distributed equally. Minority women, for instance, experience a double jeopardy for sexual assault.

“The nature of trauma is [that] historically we don’t talk about it. The paradox is that without talking about it, it’s really hard to fix it,” Freyd said. “It’s the silence problem.”

Freyd explained that personal disclosure of traumatic experiences is risky, as it can lead to positive or negative outcomes depending on the social response. One possible response is what Freyd calls “DARVO,” which stands for deny, attack and reverse victim and offender. This response can be quite harmful, she said, because it often results in victim self-blame through doubt about the victim’s credibility.  

Freyd, however, said she is optimistic that humans have the potential to become better listeners. By becoming educated about DARVO, she believes people will be more likely to see the victim as credible and the perpetrator as abusive. According to Freyd, this will improve the way people fare after traumatic instances and increase their likelihood of reporting.

While there is still research to be done, Freyd said, she proposed that efforts be focused on encouraging institutional courage and ending institutional betrayal. Beyond merely enforcing compliance with laws and regulations, resources must also be committed to responding sensitively to victim disclosures, educating the community about sexual violence and trauma and advocating for transparency, she said.

“[Sexual violence and harassment] is a deep and difficult problem that’s going to take time,” Freyd said. “But we can begin to fix our institutions that either attenuate or amplify this problem.”


Contact Olivia Mitchel at omitchel ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Olivia Mitchel '21 is a staff writer for the academics news beat. Born and raised in San Francisco, she fell in love with classical piano and various styles of dance at an early age. A biology major on the pre-med track, Olivia plans to complete the Notation in Science Communication.

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