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Q&A: How institutions can help victims

Psychology professor Jennifer Freyd will be at UNM Monday at the invitation of Faculty for a Sexual Assault Free Environment and the Feminist Research Institute. Freyd specializes in betrayal trauma — when someone is traumatized after an incident involving someone they depend upon or trust — and will be talking specifically about institutional betrayal, when the perpetrator involves an institution.

Title IX Coordinator Heather Cowan said she’s excited for OEO to have more of a research-based understanding of the work they do, while Amy Levi of Faculty SAFE said the group hopes the event will convince the University to change its mandatory reporting policy.

The Daily Lobo was able to talk with Freyd before her visit.

DL: Can you tell me a little about your research?

JF: What we have found in many years of research about this (is that) it’s particularly likely to be damaging to people. If you compare betrayal trauma to trauma that doesn’t have so much betrayal, betrayal traumas are on average more harmful.

DL: Can UNM implement some of the strategies to eliminate institutional betrayal?

JF: I don’t know enough about the details of what’s going on in your campus, but I would think that most of what I’m suggesting would be quite doable.

The cool thing about preventing institutional betrayal is that if you think about sexual assault and how do you end sexual assault, that’s a hard problem, because we don’t understand exactly why sexual assault happens. It’s not a well-researched topic, considering what a big problem it is. There’s more we don’t know than we do know about sexual assault.

We do know the place where it really grows is in families. It’s how kids are raised, both whether they themselves are abused or they’re taught abusive behavior. And it’s really hard to fix American families.

So that’s a hard problem, an important problem. But in contrast, institutional betrayal is much more preventable right now, because institutions are manageable entities. We have access to them, and especially universities.

DL: How has your research topic evolved?

JF: At the time I first started to look at trauma I was actually a psychologist, which means I studied perception and memory and I didn’t study trauma at all. I got very interested in one puzzle, which was how and why people would forget traumatic experiences. It was coming to a lot of public attention in the early ‘90s that people would say they’d forgotten some trauma for maybe decades, then remembered.

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That struck me as a potent intellectual puzzle, because memory generally is there to remember the most important things we need to remember and it seems like you’d really need to remember trauma. So I started with a very, very specific puzzle. That led me to discover that betrayal is this really potent factor.

If you think about literature or art, or go to the movies, you’re going to see a betrayal story very often. The big dramas in life have betrayal. But psychology didn’t have much research on it. The data led me in a direction that I didn’t really expect to go, which was to understand more and more about betrayal itself.

I think people actually find the topic of institutional betrayal almost easier to deal with than interpersonal betrayal. It’s a little bit less threatening. If you do research on a topic that has such emotional charge you realize that people’s willingness to grapple with the topic is almost an emotional decision rather than an intellectual decision.

DL: Have you done a lot of talks similar to this one?

JF: There’s been a lot of interest. I feel like it’s a topic that right now has relevance and interest to people, especially because of college sexual assault. For years and years I was doing work on betrayal trauma and speaking to mental health professionals who were very interested, but most of the rest of the world wasn’t paying attention. That really changed, I think, in the last couple of years.

DL: Do you foresee this research topic changing the way campuses look in 10 or 20 years?

JF: I really hope so, because I think that if campuses understand that what they do can help or harm people so profoundly, that will motivate them to do a better job and figure out how to not harm. I really hope it gets applied in that way.

As a researcher, part of what motivates me is it’s really fascinating. It’s like a discovery thing. It’s hard to explain, but I think it’d be like if you were exploring a new land, you might feel the thrill of discovery. For me the fascination is motivation, but then there’s this extra motivation to try to help stop people from getting hurt. I think when you’re in a topic like trauma that’s a pretty common motivation to have.

The good news is we really could reduce human suffering a lot by reducing betrayal trauma.

That gives me a lot of hope and motivation that I could make the world better, which sounds a little corny. But there you go.

DL: Is there anything you’d like to add?

JF: What I’m gonna say is pretty provocative — that universities have to change, and that they can harm the students. So I think it takes a certain courage to invite me in and hear what I have to say. I think that means that good things can happen at (UNM).

Cathy Cook is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at or on Twitter @Cathy_Daily.


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