Quick contact
Sexual Abuse
 Application and Adaptation of Basic Group Relations Concepts, Technique and Culture to a Specific Social Issue

Ilana Litvin and Gabi Bonwitt

Sexual abuse, the unholiest of unholies, exists everywhere, even in the Holy Land; let not stereotypical associations blind us to hidden universal undercurrents. In the land of the Holy Scripture, among the people of the Book, as anywhere else in the human world, the unconscious obeys no moral laws, disregards taboos, and threatens to undermine the foundations of social order. No society escapes the ubiquitous tyranny of unconscious processes; no society can afford to ignore or deny them. 

Making sexual abuse, an arch taboo-breaking social behavior, the subject of OFEK's first purely socially-oriented, self-conceived working conference, may be regarded as a powerful organizational developmental statement.

Our aim in writing this paper is twofold:

(1) We try to follow the conception and slow evolution of the conference on Sexual Abuse, examining it as an attempt to apply group relations' concepts, technique and culture, traditionally used in dealing with the issues of Authority and Leadership, to a specific social issue; we also point out areas in which we choose to break with tradition, introduce variations or changes and innovate. As we do so, we also demonstrate how the dynamics that develop while dealing with the subject matter of the conference affect our decisions, and how the process of introspection and reflection helps change some decisions, while confirming others.

(2) We attempt to explore the process of creating this specific conference as an expression (both real and metaphoric) of a developmental phase in the life of our organization, a phase which also redefines its relationship to its parent organization, the Tavistock Institute's Group Relations Programme.  

We start with history, briefly tracing its course, in an attempt to understand the conference's evolution. About three years ago, Esti Neeman was invited by the OFEK Committee for Internal Learning and Enrichment to lecture on the subject of sexual violence. The first lecture, which was followed by heated and emotionally laden discussions, led to two more evenings during which the subject was studied further. These three evenings were exceptionally well attended, an indication, we hypothesized, not only of the great interest in the subject of sexual violence, but also of its acute relevance to Israeli society in general, and its as yet unclear significance to our organization in particular. It is worth mentioning that though the number of participants wavered very little over the three evenings, the ratio of men to women changed dramatically; from eleven men and nine women in the first meeting, it shifted to three men and seventeen women in the third. The men, we assumed, felt uncomfortable, possibly attacked, possibly guilty, and tip-toed out of the added sessions, whereas the women felt a growing need to broach the subject, and were greatly relieved to be able to tackle the numerous issues it raised.  

Several months later, Avi Nutkevich suggested to Esti Neeman and myself (IL) that we design a working conference on the subject of sexual abuse. It was the first official venturing of OFEK into the realm of relevant social issues. Avi offered to provide ongoing supervision. 

The creation of the one and a half day conference turned out to be exceptionally arduous. Our anxiety focused around the brevity of time. We were worried that one and a half days, a time frame consciously imposed upon us by economic constraints, were not enough to allow for the exploration of inner processes. We were concerned that the discourse would remain defensively rational and informative, and would not facilitate the emergence of the repressed. 

Our anxiety was best exemplified by our decision to start the conference with a film, documentary or feature, that would, we hoped, reduce resistance, and help members immerse more easily in the subject of sexual abuse. We watched numerous movies, were progressively more overwhelmed by the subject, and felt less and less competent in helping others study it. Our attention was on the content, not on methods of exploring it. 

Avi, whose supervision was especially gentle and ‘light handed', suggested we design an inter-group event, but that we rejected, arguing that the time at our disposal was too short, and that it was too grandiose an enterprise for a first conference in which there were numerous unknown factors, the number and composition of the membership not the least of them. Our reasoning had little to do with the rationale for an inter-group event in a conference on sexual abuse; we were definitely led by our insecurity, but Avi humored us. We resorted to the seemingly less complex, more familiar units; after the aforementioned film we would have two kinds of small study/discussion groups, intermediate plenaries, review and application groups (RAGs) and a closing plenary.

When the design was ready, Esti and I asked Rina Bar-Lev Elieli, to direct the conference. We did so without consulting Avi and without for a moment wondering about our authorization to choose a director, or to independently move from the planning stage to implementation. We took the mandate to stretch from inception to the actual carrying out of the complete product. We were clear about wanting a woman in the director's position. Rina, we thought, was ‘maternally benevolent' and thus fit for the job. Somewhat reluctantly, she acceded our request. We had inadvertently pushed the man out. We started acting like free agents rather than as emissaries of our organization. The solidarity among women tightened and soon took priority over our organizational loyalty. Avi, whose supervision had been an accompaniment rather than a diktat, who had left us wide room for independent thought, who had suggested rather than decreed various formats, had suddenly been ‘forgotten', excluded, and become a representative of the coercive male. It can be posited that Avi himself had also been caught in the developing split, had been overly cautious rather than naturally gentle, and had unconsciously shrunk himself lest his power be interpreted as coercion. The rift (split) between men and women, which had been demonstrated in the three OFEK evenings, now gained further evidence. Avi, Esti, and myself colluded in it. Before we asked for, and were granted authorization from the board of OFEK, Rina and ourselves were busy choosing the men for the staff, expressly looking for "non-perverse" male partners. We were clearly already steeped in the dynamics of sexual abuse, acting under the basic assumption of fight-flight, casting women as safe, men as suspect, huddling in a same sex group, and minimizing risk by looking for docile, tamable male partners. Our identification with victimized woman was unconsciously leading us to exclude virile masculinity. We were castrating our potential partners, inadvertently flipping from feeling victimized to becoming perpetrators. But at that point none of this dynamic was consciously present. We were blissfully ignorant of latent meaning; we were rather non-reflective; we were doers; we intently focused on carrying out the project we had been authorized to prepare. 

It is important to mention that concomitant with that work on the conference, OFEK was going through the procedure of changing from a non-profit association, (a rather more modest contractual format), to a society for the benefit of the public. In this context, the selection of the specific social issue, (out of numerous highly relevant social issues our society at large had been struggling with), an issue that dealt with the breakdown of the family and of society was not accidental; it understandably took root, and in turn triggered the surfacing of repressed fears and conflicts. Changing OFEK's legal status, which seemed at first a benign development launched for bureaucratical financial reasons, turned out to have far-reaching ramifications. The organization was now overtly facing issues such as (1) the relationship between generations - parental figures struggling to retain, or mourning the loss of what the ‘young' or newly arrived were ready to relinquish; (2) changing hierarchies - redefining relationships and working through relatedness with patrons and founders; (3) opening to the 'world' - negotiating or renegotiating relations with sibling-organizations in other countries; (4) moving from more autocratic modes of functioning to increasingly more democratic methods - having elections rather than nominating candidates for the board; allowing more independent initiatives to develop as offshoots or satellites, rather than board-initiated and controlled projects. It was, no doubt, a major organizational developmental milestone. 

Design of the conference and the work of the staff.

The conference in planning/in the mind underwent a dramatic change when after receiving the board's authorization, the full staff, three women and three men, started working.

It was clear from the start that we were working within the Group Relations tradition.  Boundaries of time and territory, role, primary task and of course Basic Assumptions, Bion's and later additions, were very much the binding principles of our work. These concepts guided both the work of the staff, and the staff's reworking of the design of the conference. It was clear that adhering to those principles would allow for regression in the service of the ego, and would form the foundation for the contained examination of conscious and unconscious individual and group processes.

Still, though the theoretical and practical traditions were very much our guidelines, it was from within their clearly defined context that we could deviate, improvise, introduce changes, and create content-appropriate derivatives. Some of the major variations were:

(1) The conference has not been perceived as a temporary organization, but as an ongoing learning forum that peaks with every additional working conference.

The staff, which has so far remained unchanged, has met for seven times, pre-conference and post-conference, each meeting lasting three to four hours. The meetings formed a continuum, and contributed to staff cohesion. Each meeting had a pre-planned agenda, the issues on it depending to some extent on the proximity of the meeting to the actual conference; staff dynamics were always dealt with, and usually rendered material valuable for the understanding of the issues at hand, and therefore crucial for decision-making.

The ‘on-going' organization as we identify it now, comprises seven members of staff, and a substantial body of accrued experience, concerning structural and conceptual material that forms the infrastructure for actual manifestations of specific conferences on the subject of Sexual Abuse in the Family and in Society.  

So far we have had only one conference (the second one), and are now getting ready for the third, which will hopefully take place in December. It is of special interest that the first, carefully designed and planned, dated and heavily advertised conference did not materialize. Something was missing. We hypothesized that our first conference was a dress rehearsal. We were enthusiastic, but too wary and insecure to be fully committed. Somewhere we stalled for more time. There was more work to be done.  This leads us directly to a crucial incident in the life of our ‘on-going' organization that signified progress, and probably gave us the extra push we needed.

(2) The election of the director started off as a nomination based on personal predilections, and moved, through various vicissitudes, to a democratic process that allowed for leadership to emerge, and be unanimously voted for.

We nominated Rina Barlev Elieli as our director, feeling fully authorized, consulting nobody, and presenting our choice as a fait accompli to the men we invited to join the staff. Under Rina's directorship staff coalesced and became a group strongly identified with the project. But, we hypothesize, that the imbalance between women and men was not sufficiently dealt with. The history of the initial pacts and loyalties continued brewing underneath, and had to be exposed and further resolved in order for the process to move on and mature. It was Rina's resignation, in the staff meeting after the first conference did not take off, and Larry Gould's participation in, and contribution to that very meeting that paved the road for a shift in balance, and allowed freer maneuvering within the staff. It was the organizational senior, experienced, ‘parental' figures, (‘mother' and ‘father' who in a different context, in the same organization, had created and directed a successful program/ run a functional ‘family'), who by stepping aside and supporting the entire ‘junior' staff, men and women alike, facilitated the beginning of a democratic and more gender-balanced process. The stage was now open for any member of staff to present his/her candidacy for director of the conference.  All three women had declined taking on that role, thus opening the way for a man to assume it. This was indeed a shift in balance!

Gabi Bonwitt stepped forward, and was unanimously elected. The conference designed by women, and somewhat self righteously possessed by them, was now being more democratically shared with men. The balance between the sexes was beginning to be restored, and thus probably started removing the last obstacle that prevented the conference from materializing; this was indeed a vital step towards an honest exploration of the subject of Sexual Abuse in the Family and in Society.

 (3) The third variation, or deviation from traditional conference lore was the staff's attitude to the design as it was initially presented. 

Major changes in design resulted from circumstances, and from the staff's work as a group, and occurred at various junctions in the group work process. Here are two examples. (a) In the original design, the first two small study groups were presented as three containers defined by gender. ‘Men', ‘Women', ‘Mixed' were the labels given to these groups, and members of both sexes were free to choose which group to join and work in. As the closing date for registration approached, it became clear that we would have a majority of women (19), and a very small minority of men (2). It was then suggested and agreed that the division would shift from the membership to the consultancy, namely, that pairs of consultants, two men, two women, and a man and a woman, would each offer consultation in one of the three designated territories.  It is here important to mention yet another variation. Except for the RAG groups, all small groups were consulted in tandem. We varied our consulting pairs, working in mixed pairs in the second set of small groups, but the principle remained the same.  (b) The issue of the film accompanied our work throughout, and left us continuously uneasy. We just could not find the ‘right' film. Whichever film we watched seemed biased in one way or another. Documentaries were too personal or too graphic; feature films were too remote or too horrid. We all watched all of them; we were either deep under their spell, or removed and assuming a movie critic's position. We were all uncomfortable. It was in the last staff meeting before the conference that it was suggested, and immediately enthusiastically accepted, that the film be replaced by a session of social dreaming. The members' and the staff's ‘personal films', the pre-conference unconscious scenarios that were allowed to surface into consciousness, would be the material that formed the basis of our work. We were ready to take the leap; our anxiety subsided enough to relinquish our quasi-transitional object (which had served us extremely well), and trust our psyches. But we did not relinquish film-watching altogether; we made it optional. We arranged two territories with videos and an assortment of documentary and feature movies, and suggested it as an after-hours activity. Not surprisingly, a large number of members watched a film, and it was in the second session of social dreaming, at the opening of the second day, that emotional rather than intellectual reactions to the movies were intertwined with dream material and their associations.

(4) Redefining the primary task, or adjusting traditional technique guidelines to the conference at hand, is clearly a major challenge of ‘applied' group relations practice.

Soon after our first very small RAG group, which was the closing unit of the first day, it became clear that under the circumstances, (the intense emotions aroused by the issue of sexual abuse, the small size of the group, the single consultant, the brevity of the conference as a whole, there being only two such group meetings), the RAG groups became the opportunity for a more intimate encounter, and were indeed generally used to further process some of the more urgent unfinished business of the work done during the day. Members were able to review their experience, to ponder the roles they had assumed during the first day of the conference, but they had a much harder time applying what they had learned to their life outside. Even the more experienced among them were still struggling with the learning methods and with the intensity of the experience to be able to deal with application. 

(5) Discussing behavior in role, the staff agreed that since the conference tapped highly anxiety provoking issues, and since it lasted for only a day and a half, consultation would be more ‘user friendly', namely staff would be more accessible to members.

Here we were dealing with questions of transference, its development, its intensity, and the opportunity for its productive, even if only very partial working through, and very partial resolution.  The subject matter of the conference, we hypothesized, might, in some cases, induce a powerful, positive or negative, parental, erotic transference.  That in itself, one could argue, would not be exceptional. Similar phenomena occurred in conferences on Authority and Leadership. Still those conferences offered more time and a greater variety of group experiences in which to rework the issues.  In the conference on Sexual Abuse time was short, the range of activities limited, and acquaintances brief and superficial. We felt we were dealing with explosive material that had to be handled carefully. What proportion of our caution was the staff's wariness, its anxiety over doing pioneering work in an area riddled with pain and secrecy and which part was indeed reality based, was hard to determine. To be on the safe side we assumed the harsher scenario, and dealt with the issue focusing on its basis in reality. Our assumption required drawing a fine line between accessibility and seduction, and unfailingly guarding it. Staff was not concerned with being nice or friendly to members, but rather with allaying their anxiety when it reached non-productive proportions.

The Conference that was, the Conference to be

Our dynamic observations refer to three issues: (1) location, (2) boundary between staff and membership, (3) pivotal issues.

The convergence of the significance given to territory and its clear boundaries in group relations theory and practice, the dense meaning territory (‘the territories') has assumed in the Israeli mind and existence, and the specific perversion of one's supposedly safest ‘territory', home (‘my home is my castle'), in the trauma of incest, has made the choice of a location for the conference a particularly fascinating and complex matter. Alongside considerations of cost, members' convenience and necessary work conditions which were obvious and conscious, there were the less or the non-conscious qualms. We wandered north and south; considered single-building hotels versus more spread out guesthouses; checked the location for its political orientation, distance from the "green line", composition of staff, and security measures, all in an effort to feel safe. We were looking for a place that would shelter us from the dangers outside, but were of course dealing with the violence inside, and unable to feel protected from both the violent society we were part of, and the violence lodged within our individual minds.

Sexual abuse, one of the more excruciating manifestations of social violence, is on the rise in Israel. Some claim it has always been there and has, in recent years been given license to be reported, discussed and more effectively dealt with. Without assuming to tackle this question we take the liberty to say that sexual violence is a very pronounced and visible facet of the constantly escalating violence that our society suffers from. There is violence within us, and there is violence directed at us; there is a crumbling of boundaries, physical and others, and there is the erection of walls that block the horizon, isolate us and lock us in, rather than make us feel safe or sheltered.  Our home is more our prison or our bunker than our castle, and that is so for citizens of all political orientations. This was the context in which we were seeking a good enough conference location. We finally decided upon the Holy Land Hotel, a once very elegant and very popular hotel in West Jerusalem, whose attraction, aside from its pool, gardens and magnificent view, had been a miniature model of the Second Temple, a symbol of Israel's magnificent past, and of its present right to the Holy Land. The hotel turned out to be more sadly run down than we had expected; still, conditions were good enough, especially thanks to the excellent service, generous and prompt, given to us by its mostly Israeli Arab staff. The staff provided us with the physical container that held the emotional one, and ‘handled' us with the care and consideration that were the necessary correlate to our ‘holding'. The ‘location', in its physical sense, very much reflected the complexity, paradoxes, sadness and dangers our society faces on a daily basis. It was an apt place for our conference on the subject of sexual violence. Maybe our society did have better, more civil, more tolerant, more idealistic, more naïve, better kept and less violent times!?  Maybe... 

The boundary between the staff and the membership
As was said earlier, there were 21 members, nineteen women and two men.  Registration was fickle. First it was slow, then there were more than the usual number of inquiries, enrolments, cancellations, requests for full stipends etc. Some of this, we thought, reflected the dire economic situation in Israel, some the enormous interest, curiosity, ambivalence and fear associated with the subject of the conference, and with the method of studying it. 

Our marketing targeted professionals rather than victims, (some professionals are, of course, also victims), but not specifically mental health professionals; our wish was to reach members of all the professions in Israeli society that deal, in one capacity or another, with the issue of sexual abuse. We hoped the membership would include police officers, lawyers, journalists, educators, physicians, nurses, etc. They, we thought, were less familiar with our professional tools and methods, and we feared we would fail to reach them. Consequently, we decided to assume a more ‘user friendly approach. Our handling the boundary between participant members and staff members, was determined not only by the brevity of the conference, and the highly anxiety provoking issues it tapped, but also by the wide range of the audience we hoped to reach, the culture within and around us, and the specific point in our society's social and political situation at which we introduced our work.  

There was more direct contact pre-, post- and during conference between the staff and the members. Pre-conference, the entire staff was available and involved in giving information, beyond the usual involvement in marketing of conferences. Staff were individually called, sometimes several of us by the same potential member, and asked various questions; possibly we were being ‘tested' to see whether we could be trusted.  

Handling of staff / membership boundaries during the conference
Our ambitions about membership composition turned out to be excessive. The membership was less diverse than we had hoped; there were educators, health professionals and people in management. There was also a woman whose occupation was revolutionary within her segment of society: she was an orthodox Jewess who practiced as an advocate for women appearing before the rabbinical courts.  Professionally she was a minority of one; she was the only member who came from the judicial field, and dealt with ethical issues; or so we thought, such were our projections. In the social dreaming matrix she seemed to delve straight in; she seemed to be versed in the language of emotional experience. But within four hours she voiced her decision to leave; she felt "it was not for her"; "this kind of learning would not benefit her", and she "had left her children at home, and there were more important things for her to be doing". The issue was initially raised and discussed within the first round of small groups, of which she chose the one with two women consultants. Without explicitly hypothesizing about her personal motivations, about her valency, and finding it difficult to specify how the work done with her was nuanced and different, let us only say that she was not left alone; a staff member was either close by or closely involved. When she was pressured by the members to stay, the consultants' intervention referred to the significance of respecting the voice of refusal in a conference where abuse denies exactly that. She was explicitly and actively protected from being ‘abused' by the conference. A staff member had a lengthy supportive conversation with her, and both helped her leave, and left the boundary temporarily open for her return. In this case, as in others, boundaries were handled with greater flexibility, but with no less firmness than is usual in ‘traditional' Group Relations conferences.

The last point relevant here is the staff's post-conference contact with the members.  After the conference a letter was sent out to all participants, explicitly requesting their feedback, their reactions, comments, recommendations concerning their conference experience and future conferences. Seven out of twenty-one members responded.  (There are always many informal and personal reactions after conferences; Israel is tiny, and everyone knows everyone else; still here the responses were rather elaborate, and in writing.) The letters were focused, raised issue of design (length of conference, type of units), of content, of composition of the membership, and offered critique.  They were mostly complimentary, but they were definitely not effusive. Their voice was one of empowerment rather than of admiration.

In sum, we hypothesize that our way of handling the relationship between the staff and the membership enhanced rather than mitigated the learning process in a conference on a subject as sensitive as ours, and with the contextual conditions specified above.

Pivotal issues
It was no surprise to any of us that there was a large majority of women. There were moments during the registration period when we feared there would be no male participants. We were greatly relieved that our serious efforts to invite men rendered two male participants. Men and women and the relationship between them were very much the core issue of the staff's preoccupation during preparations for the conference, and not surprisingly of course, a central issue throughout the conference itself.  

The subject of sexual abuse is everywhere extremely polarized. Anywhere you touch upon it the rift between men and women, the split between the masculine and the feminine is immediately evident; it manifests as a polarization between perpetrator and victim, punishment and compensation, sexual abuse or violence and sexuality, perversity and normalcy, the excluded/the pariah and the enveloped/the identified with. Morally and consciously, and in the social conscience the poles remain wide apart, one right one wrong, one unconditionally supported, the other fully and virulently condemned.

We, as the staff of the conference, never tried to oppose or reject the ethical point of view, the morally and socially essential distinction between wrong-doer and victim.  Our intention was to offer an additional perspective, the psychological one, which would eventually complement rather than replace the socially accepted one. Our aim, by no means a modest one, was to begin integrating the split. We wanted to find the boundary, ‘spread' it into a transitional space, form an expanse where exploration could take place, where talking about sexuality in all its complexity (‘perversity' included), would be permitted. We wanted to explore the hidden nooks where perpetrator and protector of victims cohabited, where one's projections were one's owned wishes. 

Throughout our work there were numerous examples of learning in this deepest sense, instances where via associations the "polymorphous perverse" was tapped, and courageously dealt with rather than repressed or otherwise defended against. In one of the small groups a participant member described her excitation, when as a child she would repeatedly be accosted with the penis of an exhibitionist, which reminded her of a fireman's water pipe. She giggled as she retrieved the memory, realizing that it was a confusing experience, part offensive part attractive, part frightening part titillating or even soothing, (he would put out the fire).

On another occasion, during the second session of social dreaming, a member who had on the previous evening seen "War Zone", Tim Roth's excellent feature film on incest, was able to talk about her sexual arousal while watching the father subject his daughter to anal sex. She felt ashamed at finding herself excited by what she knew she socially clearly condemned, yet she was able to share it with the entire membership and staff, and was responded to with further associations rather than with moral condemnation.

Hers was the voice of integration; she owned perversity, acknowledged its presence in inner life, and from within this newly "thought known" could proceed working towards fuller integration of split off parts, towards reparation. She seemed to be able to do it within herself, but her voice, and the way it reverberated throughout the membership also suggested that it was being done in the conference as a whole.

We regard our experience as further evidence that the Group Relations model, its theory and technique, is applicable to working with social issues that surface from the depth of society's unconscious, and seem to suddenly become the focus of public attention for reasons not immediately apparent.