Women as Property: An Existential Challenge in Psychotherapy, Part 4
Women, regardless of whatever immediate difficulties bring them into treatment, struggle with inequality in a culture that consigns them to objectified, subordinate and servile roles. Their property status problems may appear distant from their presenting troubles, the way ultimate causes are often unrecognized “background” forces. No matter how successful the therapy might be in dealing with the immediate concerns, failure to identify and remediate these property issues will result in less than optimal benefits from the treatment.
Complicating any effort to address the prejudicial effects of property status is that female patients might reject or deny the proposition. Whatever the objective reality, as suggested in earlier examples, women may not subjectively experience themselves as property nor might they accept that premise as a foundation of their behavior. For example, current fashion continues to expose the woman’s chest to scrutiny through the use of support foundations that elevate the breasts and through necklines that expose them. Nevertheless, women may resent the stares and distraction that result. From a fashion standpoint, they might argue that they are simply trying to look “attractive.” That concept raises the question: attract what? Appreciation of accomplishments or physical assessment? Respect or sexual interest? In their professional, business or career-oriented roles women who want to be taken seriously and to be judged on their achievements (and not to attract a sexual partner or the protection of a wealthy, powerful male) are nevertheless encouraged by social convention to dress in ways that contradict those roles.
Female patients are unlikely to identify property status as a reason to seek psychotherapy. Instead, the problem will appear under other names, in marital, social, occupational and legal arenas where women continue to strive for recognition and for equal treatment. Female patients will not easily accept the concept that they are subject to property status judgments. The idea might seem insulting (as I suspect it will to some readers of this article) and would undermine the maintenance of an acceptable level of self-esteem. The narcissistic injury inflicted would create a new and unnecessary problem for the therapy. A woman might reject the concept of herself as chattel despite the destructive influence its reality has on her life. For that reason, it could be counterproductive to advance the subject directly. The therapist who is aware of these influences, however, can raise them in indirect ways that will still be helpful and allow the patient to acknowledge their effects and to deal with them.
Property status therapy problems may appear as a direct consequence of prior events. Victims of sexual harassment or abuse, for example, may seek therapy for the residual damage. Indirect consequences, however, are more usual and more difficult to identify. The day-to-day, often mundane, malign influence of property status on overall function, as the previous examples seek to show, is common and is often embedded within other, more overt concerns. The therapist should recognize these property issues even if the patient does not. They may be dealt with even if never labeled as such. Because they are existential issues, they will typically appear distant from the presenting problems, as ultimate causes usually do, but they nevertheless require attention if the more immediate therapy goals are to be fully realized.
In the therapy, these problems may show up as tendencies, not absolutes. A few examples may give a better sense of this indirect influence.
- The history may show the woman as less likely to volunteer at work; to put her energies into “male fields,” such as science, technology, engineering or mathematics; to strive toward business success or to assert her own needs and priorities in her marriage.
- She may be more likely to sacrifice her interests to those of a male colleague or marriage partner; to give up her time for other’s needs; to spend money and to shop and to acquire things needed only to bolster her sense of worth; and, as a consequence, to have more difficulty managing her finances.
- She may be more likely to defer to a male peer. An assertive woman may be criticized as “pushy” and “strident,” while a man in the same circumstances would be regarded as forceful and commanding. Because enhancement of a healthy appearance and presentation of an augmented physical facade make her feel more valuable, she may be more vulnerable to claims made by purveyors of health and beauty products. She may feel, for example, that she can never appear in public without “putting my face on.”
- She may be less likely to have confidence in her judgment, and more likely to choose passive safety over active pursuit of risks that could lead to rewards. Questions of marriage and child-bearing become more complex when property value considerations are diminished by social progress.
All of these tendencies reflect the existential concern: how valuable am I? The question lies deeper than merely one of self-esteem; it raises questions about cultural identity.
Property status problems can be easily ignored and require a high level of attention to appreciate their ubiquitous influence. If a therapist begins to listen for them, they will become increasingly apparent, as when, say, you buy a blue Honda Civic and then suddenly notice blue Honda Civics everywhere you look.