Grappling with the Sexual-Harassment Pandemic in Everyday Life
By Molly Simms
...and other lies we should never fall for again.
Remember when inappropriate was reserved for things like wearing flip-flops to the White House? Words such as misconduct and improper are a mixed blessing now that the news is teeming with salacious stories: They skirt the need to explain to small children what it means to "whip it out," but using euphemisms, which make the awful sound innocuous, also allows human beings to rationalize bad behavior. "It's part of what psychologists call moral disengagement— cognitive strategies that let us bypass guilt or shame," says Tom Page, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Kent in England who's studied sexual harassment. And euphemism isn’t the only moral-disengagement strategy that’s come in handy lately. A few other popular mental acrobatics...
"News is a flirty business."
—Geraldo Rivera, commenting on the way-beyond-flirty allegations against Matt Lauer
"I have broached a topic that, unbeknownst to me until very recently, made certain individuals uncomfortable."
—Former congressman Trent Franks, who asked two staffers if he could borrow their wombs for nine months
"I came of age in the '60s and '70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then."
—Toxic fabulist and predatory ogre Harvey Weinstein
"I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman my d*ck without asking first."
—Performance masturbator Louis C.K.
"Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became the parents of Jesus."
—Alabama state auditor Jim Zeigler, on why the claims against the allegedly teen-loving ex-judge Roy Moore are no biggie
Photo: catscandotcom / iStock
Yes, Sex Addiction Is a Thing
By Puja Hall, a therapist at the New York Center for Sexuality and Sex Addiction Treatment
And no, it's not an excuse. A sex therapist explains.
A sex addict engages in sex for the same reason an alcoholic drinks: to escape unpleasant feelings. Whether those stem from childhood trauma, anxiety, depression, or some other source, often the addict isn't even aware of them. All he's aware of is an overwhelming urge. In the moment, sex addicts are in an almost-trancelike state. They feel as if their behavior is beyond their control, and often it escalates over time—they need to increase the activity to get the same high.
Harassment is more deliberate: It's about one person exerting power over another. A powerful man may sexually aggress simply because he feels entitled to. But he may also be fulfilling a deep subconscious need, one that might have been established very early in life. For instance, a man who masturbates in front of women may be expressing a regressed part of himself. It's terrible for his victims, but you can imagine that little boy inside saying, "Look at me! Am I the greatest?"
Even someone who doesn't fit the definition of sex addict but uses sex compulsively can benefit from rehab if they're motivated to change. Just wanting the problem to go away isn't enough. A man has to break down the walls of denial and compartmentalization and see his actions the way the world does, to look at the pain he's caused and the ways he's disconnected from himself.
One hopeful thing: More people are seeking help now. And many patients want to work even harder. They're shaken. They see the situation from the outside and feel horrible for the victims. They say, "I don't want to be one of those guys."
Tarana Burke (right). Photo: Sarah Morris / Contributor / iStock
Living Out Loud
By Molly Simms
The woman who started a movement, and how #YouToo can keep it going.
Tarana Burke has never been one to run from a fight. "I got into trouble a lot as a kid, usually for standing up for other kids," she says. "Once, I was suspended from high school for leaving the building to get food for a pregnant girl. My mother would say, 'Mind your business—that has nothing to do with you.' But my line of thinking was when there's a problem, you do what it takes to fix it."
Years later, while working in an Alabama youth program, Burke met girls who'd been sexually assaulted but didn't have the language to discuss what they'd experienced. "They weren't saying, 'I've been raped,'" she says. "It was more like, 'I don't want to go home because my mom's boyfriend is always touching on me.' I'd had my own experiences with sexual abuse and was trying to figure out what healing looked like." Realizing that clarity and a sense of community were what she and these girls needed most, Burke eventually founded a nonprofit and referred to her movement as Me Too. In 2017, when #MeToo caught on as a rallying cry, the hashtag was tweeted nearly a million times in just 48 hours and catapulted us to where we are today.
Inspired? Burke says you can spark change, too:
You know that 50-page employee handbook you've never read? Get together with some coworkers and review your company's sexual-harassment policy. Knowledge is the beginning of power.
Do you let your friends tell rape jokes? Don't. Good men and women are complicit in allowing this culture to thrive. We all should interrogate our roles.
If you have cash to spare, donate to any of these organizations, which aim to empower and support women and girls: National Women's Law Center, Girls for Gender Equity, the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, End Rape on Campus, or, of course, the Me Too movement.
By Alon Gratch, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of If Men Could Talk
An expert exposes the complex psychology of men who harass.
Every man who acts out sexually has his own unique psychological history and challenges, but there are common patterns. Some men didn't get the love and security they needed when they were growing up, so they're expressing their depression and anger physically, as males are more likely to do. They're sexualizing unmet emotional needs.
Others are afraid of being dominated by women. As boys come of age, they get the message that they can't be sissies, that a boy's defining powers lie in sports or aggression or sex. They have to distance themselves from their mothers, whom they associate with vulnerability. When they objectify a woman, they're saying, "I don't need you to take care of me. I can make you meet my needs on my terms."
I've also seen many men who behave this way, in part, because they feel powerless at home. They say their wives control their day-to-day lives or constantly criticize them—yet these otherwise-powerful guys are unable to confront their spouses.
When men act out, women often think their job is to cope. They're socialized to understand, work around, and find solutions. But not every situation can be analyzed and rationalized away. The answer is not for women to be more fearful of men but to be more trusting of themselves.
Sleeping with the Enemy
By Daphne de Marneffe, PhD, author of The Rough Patch: Marriage and the Art of Living Together
We're not all bad, men say. But what about the one who shares your bed? A psychologist weighs in.
For a woman in an intimate relationship with a man, all these harassment stories can open up a Pandora’s box: What’s really going on between us, or in his private world? Who are men? Should I even have sex with a man? We’re triggered in deep, body-based ways, and, as people tend to do in highly emotional situations, we may break down into a black-and-white mindset. We start to think of our partner as a capital-M Man rather than a human being with his own history and struggles.
Yes, male sexuality can be highly objectifying, but most of the men I see in my practice want to have loving relationships just like women do. I have empathy for men because integrating this importunate, intense sexuality with the need for love can be a very demanding developmental and psychological task. We’re all intricate, paradoxical people, not cardboard cutouts, and our ongoing challenge—in our relationships and the culture—is to fight the urge to seek absolutes.
The question we should always come back to is: Can I see this person’s humanity?
Illustration: Brett Ryder
May Cause Side Effects
As told to Molly Simms
Employment lawyer Allison West examines the flip side of progress.
The backlash was inevitable. Managers and employees are now questioning their every workplace interaction: "What exactly is unlawful harassment? Can I touch someone on the shoulder to show compassion? What if I compliment a colleague’s new haircut?" One male law firm partner told me, "I travel for business; now I can’t travel with a female associate. What if she sues me for something I said innocently?" While some think that separating men and women will help them escape harassment claims, it could actually lead to a discrimination claim. Avoiding women isn’t the solution. Having collaborative workforces, where people have equal opportunity, is.
See Something? Say Something!
By Debbie Dougherty, PhD, a professor of communication at the University of Missouri who studies sexual harassment
Men primarily created this problem, and they need to take responsibility for it. When they see harassment, they can't dismiss it as "dude stuff" or look the other way because they like the guy or he has a family to support. The reality is, many harassers are not one-time offenders, and by not reporting, you set the stage for them to repeat the behavior with new targets and cause even more damage. There is no such thing as an uninvolved bystander. Bystander intervention, for both men and women, should be part of workplace sexual-harassment policies. As they say in the University of Missouri's athletics programs, "You see it, you hear it, you own it."
Take Back Your Might!
By Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women
Women are prone to impostor syndrome: self-doubt, the fear of being exposed as a "fraud." Instead of attributing their success to hard work and talent, they tend to credit luck or timing. A woman who's been harassed may be adding perverse favoritism to this list as well. I would tell her that just as she needs to reclaim her power, she needs to reclaim her accomplishments. Even if a harasser helped you get your foot in the door, you stayed because you proved you deserved to be there. Both impostor syndrome and sexual harassment involve shame. Shift the shame back to where it belongs: on the harasser.
By Mary Beard, whose book Women & Power: A Manifesto traces the roots of misogyny to the Greek and Roman empires
In England, some women have taken it upon themselves, when, say, groped on a crowded train, to grab the offending appendage, lift it, and loudly ask, "Whose hand is this?" In general, we might use the power of humor or ridicule more effectively. Meantime, so long as no criminal line has been crossed, I would give perpetrators an amnesty...on condition of never again. And I would shift our gaze from celebrity harassment to the cases of "ordinary" women. We are going to make progress only if we all pull together—from the casting couch to the factory floor.
Can You Hear Us Now?
By Alexis Jones, founder of the organizations I Am That Girl and ProtectHer
We need hard accountability mixed with radical grace and actionable solutions—we can’t just exile some guys to an island and say, "Those ones are duds." For starters, men should listen to the women in their lives. I tell college-age boys to call their girlfriend, sister or mom and say, "I love you, and I want to know what your experience as a woman has been like." Guys text me afterward and say, "Whoa, my girlfriend thinks I’m the best." Well, yeah, welcome to communication.