Courtney Geter, LMFT, CST
Sex and Relationship Therapist

#Me,Too: The Impact of Systems

I want to continue sharing my thoughts, begun in a previous post, about why there is even a need for a #Me,Too campaign. As a systems therapist, I view families and relationships as a system with their own rules and expectations. Some systems are more dysfunctional and unhealthy than others. However, even a dysfunctional system finds some way to work.. Think about a malfunctioning traffic light. The light may not be showing the typical green, yellow, and red light, though the flashing yellow and red are still operating. Although the latter system may be dysfunctional, adding stress and confusion to travel, traffic continues to flow, though driver’s must adjust to the change (or not…).

As with traffic systems, in order to change a relationship system (e.g., a family or relationship dynamic or societal expectations), we must begin to break the current pattern of dysfunction in order to create a new pattern. Sounds easy right? Well, if it were, I wouldn’t have a job. Many systems are not open to change, and change can be especially difficult when initiated by members who are part of it. Change is the unknown. Change is scary. Change is something we don’t know intuitively how to enact, or our participation in a system may impact our perceptions of what is possible. Change could give us an outcome we don’t like or want, that we may fear even more than current dysfunction. The dysfunctional system may seem safer than working towards a new, more functional system.

Now, when you have only one part of the system attempting to change and the other parts are not in agreement, there is conflict. Often, the system will try to return to its original pattern or way of functioning. Go back to our traffic light example. When the lights malfunction, drivers become more stressed out and complain to the city for repair. It’s easier to return back to the “normal way.” Once the lights begin to operate in the original pattern, drivers are content.

Trying to change a system could feel like an uphill battle or a salmon swimming upstream. It may also feel like one person doing more work than other people in the system. In the end, there are at least three possible outcomes:

  1. The system returns to an original pattern and continues working in dysfunction—healthy systems don’t tend to need change.
  2. The system goes along with the change and a new pattern begins.
  3. The parts of the system become independent of each other and may begin their own patterns and (dys)functional systems.

The way I see sexual harassment and oppression as a system, or as operating within a system, is that right now, some parts (people/communities/countries) are attempting to create change in other parts (other people/communities/countries), and the other parts are, in various ways, not embracing this change. I wouldn’t say we have returned to the original way of operating, as new patterns and expectations have been created (i.e. women in certain countries have more rights than women in other countries, laws protecting children from sexual violence) even while old patterns keep returning (people violating the rights of others, or communities not accepting change).

However, it seems clear that there is conflict between members of a system who see misogynistic patterns as dysfunctional and those who view those patterns as either not dysfunctional or who see the costs of changing the patterns as outweighing the value of developing new ones. Altering the system is a process of negotiating between the relative interests of each group, with the aim of moving the system out of conflict and into a functional orientation. Some of the work of this change involves social scientists and political theorists. But as the Me,Too campaign has shown vividly, misogyny and sexual harassment has an effect, for perpetrators, victims, and bystanders, on the individual psychological level. This is the level at which systems perspective can make a difference—the level at which we look at our own behavior, the behavior of those in our personal ‘systems’, and try to begin to change.

As I’ll discuss in my next post, even sex therapists can learn a great deal by thinking through their own behaviors both that resist and that perpetuate a system they’d like to change.

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