Patriarchy and Privilege

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A guest post by Louise Atkin, an anti-psychiatry psychiatrist, interested in attachment, relationships and life…

This most marvellous guest post was recently published by my friend & colleague Louise Atkin. Its a new venture for her and I’m delighted to support her in the journey, especially as she’s writing on such a brilliant topic…

“Having watched the TV serialisation of My Brilliant Friend (the Neapolitan series of novels written by Elena Ferante ) with my husband, I found myself in a bitter argument with him about it! For those who don’t know it tells the story of 2 friends through their life; starting with their childhood in 1950s Naples. They are both clever, studious and poor. Casual violence is everyday in the neighbourhood; money is power and sexism is routine. During this particular episode one of the girls, while away from home for the summer is sexually assaulted in her bed (in the communal kitchen) by an older man she admires and trusts. It’s a harrowing scene and we watched silently — I knew it was coming but didn’t say. Eventually my husband commented ‘Why did she let him do that?’, and was totally surprised when I exploded in rage at him. Later on in the argument he explained that he meant ‘Why had she not called out? There was a house full of people etc’. I think only a white man of privilege could say that. Patriarchy is about power and sex is a weapon in that context. To see the man’s behaviour as something a 15 year old girl could call out and get justice for without redress means not understanding patriarchy or it’s pervasive influence. Our sense of justice tells us such behaviour should be punished in any decent community. Anyone female, non-white, LGBTQ or just plain poor knows it doesn’t work like that. Money and privilege all too often equate to abuses of power; the belief you can have what you want, when you want and get away with it. He found her attractive and knew he could have her without consequence. As a middle class, relatively wealthy, professional family man he would be believed before a poor teenage girl. Of course she didn’t shout out. She understood this as well as he did. Never mind that she was in ‘freeze’, one of the physiological states our bodies go into when we experience threat or attack (fight and flight being the others). In the morning she flees; fight was never an option here. Fleeing will no doubt lead to questions and she has most to lose should anything be told; but it was the best she could do to protect herself in this particular context.

One of the reasons I got so angry is because we’ve talked about the #MeToo movement quite a lot in the last year or so; and I thought he got it; and understood the spectrum of sexual harassment through to sexual violence, the normality, every day reality of it; and how much our media is shaped by it. He’s a therapist, an extremely empathic man well in touch with his femininity, not afraid to be vulnerable himself. He’s also older and from the rural Deep South. On one level he does get it; on another the prevailing ideas and culture he grew up with mean patriarchy is deeply rooted in his mind. I am younger than him, politicised by punk in my teens and a socialist; but definitely privileged. I too grew up in a rural area. What belief systems am I still influenced by? Patriarchy for sure and I’ve learnt to challenge some of its’ effects on me. I marched with the Anti-Nazi-League as a teenager but was surrounded by casual racism. Does this impact on me unconsciously? I have a job that is potentially powerful — a psychiatrist can detain people against their will, medicate them, declare their sanity or otherwise. Recent reports tell us that black people are 4 times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act in the U.K. than whites; with one service user stating ‘It seems professionals have to make a special effort to treat us like human beings’ ( 5 Dec 2018). I find that statement deeply disturbing. Yes, institutional racism will be influencing here, but this is describing widespread personal racism in a profession with a duty of care to do no harm. Can I be sure unconscious prejudices don’t influence me in my work?

I’ve made up with my husband of course. I love him for himself, not for being perfect. We can all hold contradictory beliefs and ideas in our minds; some from our own experiences and our conscious minds; others transmitted through our culture and social context. What this has made me think about is that however much those of us with any kind of privilege think of ourselves as supporters of all that is right and fair; whatever causes we support and march for; we need to scrutinise our deep unconscious and ask ourselves the uncomfortable questions. We need to call out casual sexism and racism in our daily lives. Not doing so means we remain part of the problem not the solution.”

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