Misogyny in Mental Health and the Law
A conversation about misogyny between authors Dr. Karyne Messina and attorney John Moot
John: To kick things off, I could use help with terminology. When I think of misogyny and the law, my first thought is that the legal system should be designed to combat misogyny in its purest form (the hatred of women), such as by protecting victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. But I feel the bigger problem is “structural” sexism and gender stereotypes — such as institutional barriers in the legal realm that inhibit the equal treatment of women. How should I be thinking about this?
Karyne: From my perspective, misogyny is not simply about men hating women, I think the definition has been expanded. It now includes distrust of women, dislike of women, lack of respect for women, belittling women and all other forms of disparagement that put women in a ‘one down’ or ‘less than’ position. It is also and probably more importantly about power.
Adding power to the conversation makes it hard to talk about misogyny without talking about patriarchy since we still live in a patriarchal world. Certain expectations are embedded in our culture. Feeling they are the superior gender is something that boys often learn as young children from both parents since being a male child is still the preferred gender in many families. Fathers and mothers can give their sons the message that they value boys more than girls; something boys often come to know from a very early age.
John: Leave it to a man to get the definitions wrong. I agree a key focus should be on power. Calling the legal system our “justice system” is somewhat of a misnomer. Judges do not have the flexibility to apply an independent normative ethic of justice to their decisions. They are bound to follow the law and the law is made by those in power and those with power (e.g., economic, access to the best lawyers, influence with government officials) have inherent advantages when appearing before the courts.
Which brings me back to institutional forms of sexism. Rather than protecting sexual assault victims, the legal system can “revictimize” them through the ways in which investigations and trials are performed. And law practice itself, similar to other big businesses, can hold professional women back because of gender stereotypes — namely, the traditional qualities attached to the “rainmaker” partner (outsized personality, decisive, commanding presence, etc.) have a clear gender component.
Karyne: Yes, I can see that. In my field, working with psychological repression in individual patients has helped me understand large-scale repression which often includes some type of workplace discrimination, oppression, abuse or exploitation that occurs in a myriad of different settings. It is through the lens of individual experiences that I have become intimately familiar with the struggles that occur in many mid-size to large institutional settings where repression of the self is commonplace.
John: I enjoyed your recent book and noticed that “projective identification” is prominent. As I understand the concept, it appears in my work representing domestic violence victims who sometimes will tell me, “It was my fault,” or “I’m getting what I deserve.” That is very sad when I hear it. Could you discuss the concept a little?
Karyne: Projective identification goes something like this: A person who is acutely uncomfortable with a feeling or thought in some circumstances feels the need to “get rid of it.” When this occurs, he or she may project it onto someone else and that person, over time, incorporates that projection into her own sense of identity. As an example, let’s say a man had a negative evaluation at the office for failing to turn in projects on time and generally not working up to par. Rather than facing this unpleasant development and thinking about how to improve his performance, he may go home and take out his frustration on his wife. If he yelled at her and punched her in stomach for not having cleaned the house well enough, he may be projecting unwanted feelings associated with his poor performance onto her. Initially his wife may feel stunned or disoriented because of her husband’s behavior. She may ask herself something like, “What was that about? What is he talking about? What is going on with him?” After a time, however, if she has a low self-concept and something about his accusations resonate with messages she got as a child such as, “Go clean your room, now! You are the sloppiest person I know,” she may begin to feel that she deserved his violent behavior. In this case she has started to identify with what her husband projected onto her.
John: What about the future? Is it promising? From your perspective, do you believe we are making progress on misogyny?
Karyne: In the world of mental health, if we were having this conversation about the directional aspects of misogynistic behavior three and a half years ago, I would say that the trend was positive. However, I think there have been major setbacks during the Trump administration since the tone a leader sets affects the climate of the country. An opinion piece in the New York Times says it pretty well:
When our children are young, we work doggedly to foster in them a deep and abiding sense of morality, ethics and character. We try to teach them to always tell the truth, to be kind and generous, to be brave enough to do the right thing even if others aren’t as brave….We teach them to be gracious and thankful and not to brag or bully. Also, don’t lie, cheat or steal…. The president of the United States is one of those teachers. I don’t think many children follow a president or the politics around that presidency on a routine basis, but the sense of the president sinks in….Trump is exploding all of that. He is everything we teach our children not to be. In Trump’s world of immorality, the lessons being taught undo all the principles parents struggle to instill…. He is teaching little boys that women’s bodies exist as playgrounds for privileged men, and that there is no price to be paid if you are popular enough or rich enough….He is teaching little girls that if they are ever victims of sexual assault by a popular, wealthy boy and deign to reveal it, they will likely to come under withering verbal assault.
John: That’s depressing. Let’s end on a more personal note, like how our jobs have impacted our writing lives and vice versa? I’ve turned to writing fiction now that I have more time and it is liberating. Legal writing is, by nature, linear and constraining, whereas fiction offers freedom and depth — kind of like a football field with no sidelines or end zone. You can create your own rules.
You recently published a book on misogyny and are working on another one. Tell me about your recent writing experiences.
Karyne: My job provides real live examples of hypothetical constructs; it helps me see theory in action. I think a ‘dance’ between thinking and feeling helps me create stories about people’s struggles that I think need to be told. In my recent book that has meant writing about women who have made important contributions to society yet have been lost in the annals of history. This has been frequently caused by projective identification. In my upcoming book, I talk about how President Trump employs this mechanism as a way to rid himself of unpleasant or unwanted feelings, thoughts or actions while projecting them onto others. This particular maneuver is widening the divide between people in this country making our differences more derisive.