In the previous post, we discussed what Sexual Abuse, Assault and Harassment is, now I will talk about what we need to do. As a clinician and an educator addressing Interpersonal and Family Violence, I know that intervention and prevention are crucial. I have been trained in many intervention models, from the Duluth Model to the Safe and Together, Perpetrator Pattern Model (David Mandell Assoc.) These models emphasize accountability, education and a recognition that not all perpetrators are alike. (a Differentiation Model) and that though not all perpetrators are amenable to behavioral change, many are. So, when it come to sexual abusers, and sexual harassers, we need to look at who can change and who cannot.
To start with, and to be clear, the research tells us that, pedophiles, those who are sexually attracted to prepubescent children, are unlikely to change. There is no cure.
Not all sex offenders are pedophiles, however. What about the current list of men being accused. What needs to be done? Many will be punished. They will lose their reputations, their jobs, their positions. They may lose their marriages and their families. And many victims will be satisfied with that sense of justice. But, will that change anything? Will that make women and children safer? These men may still be parents and husbands and uncles and coworkers and neighbors, somewhere. So in truth, retribution, while satisfying, is not the end.
What about change and rehabilitation? It is difficult because the stock, public relations inspired response of famous people to these accusations is to go to some expensive desert rehabilitation center for “sex addiction.” Does it work? And what factors need to be considered to answer that question? We start with accountability. Does the person admit their behavior? Are they able to acknowledge the impact their behavior has on others? Will they say that the behavior is wrong? Admission is complicated these days. Had Weinstein, or Spacy for that matter, denied everything, I am not sure this current tipping point would have happened. They did admit some things however but I fear that the strong reaction nevertheless will lead others to choose denial over admission. So although admission is important (although not necessary) for the rehabilitation of the abuser, it should not be an absolute requirement for believing the victims.
What about empathy? Can the offender express empathy for how their behavior caused their victim to feel fear, humiliation, shame, powerlessness? Will they say that their behavior is wrong? This can get tricky. The truth is we have evolved over the past three or more decades and certain behaviors were more tolerated or accepted in the past. Watch the old movies or TV shows and see what the social norms were then, right or wrong. Thirty years ago, if someone lit up a cigarette on an airplane, it was no big deal. Today, you would be arrested. Thirty or more years ago, men devalued and sexually objectified women. It wasn’t right but it was socially normed. Those who do it today do not have that norm to fall back on. Then there are those who truly believe “I was kidding” “It was a joke.” “I thought I was being funny.” The offender needs to understand that just because you didn’t mean it, doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt. These are situations where reparative justice interventions may be appropriate.
So change needs to start here with those who have offended. We also need to teach the same lessons to young men and boys (and some women) before they hurt someone. Educate, confront, challenge.
Finally, we also need to help women to set their boundaries with sexual behavior. Let me be clear. Victims are not responsible for the perpetrator’s behavior. They didn’t cause it; they cannot be expected to the one to control it. However, we need to support and empower them to say “No” “I do not want this” or “I do not like this” etc. If a victim says no and they are abused anyway they need support to report it. Equally necessary is that anyone who punishes a victim for being a whistle blower, in any way, should also be subject to consequences.
Finally, many will say, “What about false reports?” No one can say that all allegations are always true. Statistically, the numbers of intentionally false reports appear to be very small. Sometimes, perceptions of an event are a mistake or a misunderstanding. Other times, something more is going on. The reasons for intentionally false allegations can be anything from mental health concerns, to attention seeking, advantage seeking, to revenge. We need to be aware of any and all assumptions and biases that we bring to these situations. We need to listen and evaluate before jumping to any conclusion, in either direction. I must say though that anyone who does make an intentionally false allegation are risking serious consequences, and more importantly are making things so much more difficult for victims.