Prof Uses Personal Story of Rape, Recovery to Address Gender Inequality

April 09, 2014 - News Release

University of Guelph philosophy professor Karyn Freedman’s new book, One Hour in Paris, is a call to action: It’s time for society to tackle head-on the issues underpinning sexual violence against women around the world.

One way to start is for rape survivors to speak out about their experiences, Freedman says. That can help people understand that sexual assault is not a random event or strictly an individual or personal matter “but a social problem of massive proportions.”

Speaking out is just what Freedman is doing in One Hour in Paris, to be published April 23 by the University of Chicago Press and Freehand Books in Canada. It’s her personal story of rape and perseverance.

But it’s also a book with a strong message. Using her background as a philosopher, Freedman combines autobiographical events with philosophical, neuroscientific, and psychological reflections around the themes of trauma, recovery and gender inequality.

“I wrote this book because I thought I had something to share, and I had reached a stage in my own recovery where I felt I could tell my story in a way that others might benefit from,” said Freedman, a U of G professor since 2002.

“It’s written for women who have gone through what I’ve gone through, as well as for anyone who has suffered through a traumatic experience or knows someone who has.”

The book takes the reader on a journey of pain and recovery, from an hour of brutal violence in Paris in 1990 to a court trial, to years of silent suffering, to scholarly pursuits and a faculty position, to volunteering in a rape crisis centre in Africa.

Freedman openly discusses the obstacles faced by rape survivors and the personal consequences on sex, intimacy, love and relationships.

“We hear that rape is about violence and power, and perhaps that is an accurate characterization of what rape is for the aggressor -- the rapist -- but for the survivors, rape affects their bodies and their sexuality, and it can have a life-long impact.”

It’s estimated that one in three women in the world experiences sexual assault. “We hear the statistics all of the time, yet it doesn’t seem to sink in.” One reason is that survivors often remain anonymous, so the faces behind the statistics are not seen, Freedman said.

“It’s a very difficult thing for women to come forward and identify themselves as victims of sexual violence, and for many complicated reasons. There are deeply ingrained taboos around talking about it, and many survivors struggle with feelings of embarrassment and shame, as I did.”

What’s more, often the first question survivors are asked is whether they were drinking at the time of the attack, or what they were wearing, Freedman said.

In some developing parts of the world, speaking out means risking your life and shaming your entire family, she added.

“As a result, women are not coming forward. Yet, despite the serious obstacles they face, by remaining silent we risk misidentifying sexual violence as a series of random, isolated events that happened to this person here, or that person there, whereas sexual violence against women is the result of structural inequalities that persist worldwide,” Freedman said.

“Gender inequality remains one of the most pressing social justice issues of our time, and sexual violence against women is a manifestation of this. As long as women are pressured to remain silent about their experiences, we will not get to see the problem on the scale that it is.”

Throughout the book, Freedman weaves her story and personal reflections with research on the history of psychological trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and neuroplasticity, showing how the brain is both affected by traumatic events and how it can recover.

She talks about recalcitrant emotions, or fear in the acknowledged absence of danger. One chapter describes her pending move to Guelph and how she insisted on finding an apartment with bars on the windows, even though her landlord pointed out the area’s low crime rate.

“Trauma and interpersonal violence affects your brain chemistry, your physical responses to situations, but it also affects your beliefs about the world,” Freedman said.

Another chapter discusses her time in Botswana in 2008 working in a rape crisis centre under the U of G Leave for Change program. That experience helped her to think through some of the main themes in her book, she said.

Cultural norms such as gender discrimination and oppression against women are undeniable in Botswana, Freedman said. “But I was careful, going into that experience, not to assume that everyone who experiences sexual trauma suffers in the same way.”

There is no doubt that cultural, religious and societal commitments influence how individuals and society respond to sexual violence, she said. But at the same time, there is also no denying that, wherever they are in the world, survivors have experiences and symptoms that are common and universal.

“One of my goals in writing this book was to draw out these themes of trauma, recovery and gender inequality, and open up the discussion,” Freedman said.

“Yes, this is my story, but I am using it for a purpose.”

Prof. Karyn Freedman
Department of Philosophy
519 824-4120, Ext.53232

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