Why do People Sexually Harass?

It’s almost a daily headline the last couple months: Prominent Man Investigated for Sexual Harassment.

Outside the context of each specific accusation, many people are asking: Why do People Sexually Harass? I will attempt to answer that question. It’s NOT a commentary about specific cases, but a broader analysis. I’m not sure whether other researchers & theorists have arrived at the same hypotheses. Mine are a result of my broad professional experience and critical thinking. I have not done a lit review on the matter (although it’s on my to do list). Without further delay, here are my theories:

  • Narcissism: the hallmark of narcissism is a lack of empathy or regard for others’ safety, feelings, and/or independence. Sometimes this deficit comes from unprocessed shame (i.e. the person is not dealing with their own issues so they distract themselves by gaining influence over others). A narcissist also copes by pursuing pleasure, in this case, sexual gratification or interpersonal dominance.
  • Unclear sense of self: Similarly, some people confuse what they want by projecting it on to others. Rather than own and disclose their desire in a straightforward manner, a sexual assaulter may justify their actions by claiming that the other person wanted the behavior. Lots of unhealthy mind reading. Victims are often criticized & burdened for not speaking up. Unfortunately, less discussed is the lack of openness and honesty from the sexual harasser. Sexual harassers are frequently dishonest with their own intentions.
    • Blurred boundaries at workplaces: People who struggle to separate their personal life from their professional life are not skilled at understanding themselves separate from their immediate context. They are at risk for blurring other boundaries, between themselves and other people.
    • Compartmentalization: The flip side of the coin is compartmentalization. Sexual harassers may locate the harassment experience into a corner of their awareness, sealed off from the rest of reality. Effectively, compartmentalization is a type of denial, or delusional boundary formation.
  • Lack of Comprehensive Sexual Education: An absence of healthy sexual discussions produces ignorance and assumptions. Many people associate ALL sexuality with secrecy and shame. Secrecy and shame are the building blocks of sexual abuse. Or, a person can be so sexually permissive that they do not acknowledge the difference between harmful sexualization (imposing on others) vs mutual sexual pleasure. Comprehensive sexual education facilitates self-awareness & dialogue about the healthy diversity of sexual desire and healthy approaches to it. In consensual exchanges, each person is empowered to identify their sexual and non-sexual desires. If there is a conflict, safety is prioritized. For people who missed the boat, I will make another blog post about specific resources for healthy sexual dialogue.
  • Objectification: “noun. The action of degrading someone to the status of a mere object.” People may reduce other people to sexual targets rather than incorporating their other qualities, e.g. creativity, sensitivity, vulnerability, intelligence, etc.
  • Body Privilege: This phenomenon comes in at least two forms.
    • Male privilege: As a general category, men are granted more social license to impose their sexuality as part of their inherited gender script. Dominant social dynamics teach women to be passive receivers. It doesn’t have to be this way–yet this tradition is enforced by many formal and informal social mechanisms.
    • Attractive People: People who are socially-evaluated as attractive may internalize the message that their body is their main source of worth and connection. They may over-rely on physicality in order to deal with loneliness. This dynamic can be described as self-objectification (see objectification, above).

If you would like to discuss these ideas in more detail or conduct an internal exploration, feel free to contact me.

Science of Trust

I took a webinar with John Gottman of the Gottman Institute called “The Science of Trust.” Perhaps Gottman is most famous for his “four horsemen of the apocalypse” theory–that contempt, stonewalling, criticism, and defensiveness poison intimate relationships–and that the long-term success of a partnership can be calculated according to the frequency of these problematic dynamics. This particular webinar about trust explored active, healthy alternatives to repair interpersonal wounds.

Essentially, cognitively-based repairs (appeals to reason, logic, and problem-solving) aren’t as effective within intimate relationships as emotionally-based repairs. For example, empathy, self-disclosure, and investing extra attention/participation into the partnership all work at the emotional level. Emotional interventions help relax someone in distress, thereby encouraging them to make any decisions outside of duress. Within an intimate relationship, logic and “fixing” other’s problems can be experienced as dismissive, shallow, or intrusive.

Many people are not taught intimacy skills–it’s not a formal study in primary school. Some of us learn from family and community role models–other people don’t have this access or experience.

After an interpersonal or developmental trauma, a person is likely to experience hypervigilance–fight/flight responses–and/or avoidance–flight/freeze responses, even within more moderate conflicts. Effective conflict resolution within a healthy relationship requires active participation, deliberation, and transparency from all involved parties. Often, a partner can facilitate a step down the scale of hypervigilance. Gottman and others use the acronym ATTUNE to describe this stance in more detail: awareness, turning towards, tolerance, understanding, non-defensive responding, and empathy. For a great video on empathy, click here: Brene Brown on Empathy.

Does this mean everything has to be hearts, puppies, and sunshine? NO! If people interrupt their conflict or trauma processing, something like the Zeigarnik Effect is likely to happen–people will remember (often at¬†inopportune times) experiences they haven’t ATTUNED to in a healthy relationship. If we haven’t ATTUNED to a partner’s distress, we are most likely telling a negative fictional story about our partner’s abilities.

People who avoid relational conflict have a tendency toward infidelity and and other betrayals, which likely create more (internal) conflict and avoidance.  People who address conflict also practice relaxation and co-construct viable creative solutions, over time, with additional input & information.

Internal Family Systems

I enjoyed a webinar with Richard Schwartz, developer of the Internal Family Systems therapy model. The IFS model grew out of other family therapy models that examined “roles” each family member inherits in reaction to each other & the family’s overall needs. The IFS model examines various “parts”, or roles, within a person, often developed within confusing family dynamics. For example, an individual is likely to develop various “protector” parts and other parts that are “exiles”–parts that express impulsive or other unwelcome behavior. In the IFS model, healing occurs as each part is attended to with curiosity and awareness. When the parts are understood, they relax and trust a well-informed leader–the “self.”

Schwartz’s IFS website: Center for Self Leadership

Six Principles of Sexual Health

At a time when people are gaining awareness about the dynamics & negative effects of sexual abuse AND deconstructing puritanical sexual beliefs & misinformation, Doug Braun-Harvey offers us six principles of sexual health. These principles are important guideposts in a frequently neglected and obscured corner of mental health treatment–as well as human lifespan development more generally.

  • pleasure: healthy sexuality leads to joy and/or empowerment (rather than detachment, and/or shame)
  • consent: participants should be in full, active agreement to the particular sexual acts, time, place, people, etc.
  • non-exploitation: secrecy and betrayal prevent partners from engaging in a psychologically-safe intimacy
  • protection: healthy partners collaborate in preventing transmission of STI’s and unwanted pregnancies
  • honesty: healthy partners voice their desires, limits, and ambivalence
  • shared values: connections are built on common meanings

If you would like to examine how your life interfaces with these principles, please contact me. BTW, imagine how much psychological pain would be eliminated and how much pleasure would increase if adolescent sexual education raised conscientiousness about these intra-personal and interpersonal factors.

Innovative Research

If you have a history of suicidal thoughts or know someone who died by suicide, you may want to look into a new research project called Our Data Helps by Qntfy. You can donate social media data (from online activity) and/or fitness & sensory data (from wearable devices) to help researchers learn more about why suicides happen and how they can be prevented. The project will analyse the language, physical data, and media patterns of people who sign up to help the project.

Lies and Infidelity Training

I took a webinar training last week on everyone’s favorite topic: “Lies, Deception, Infidelity, and Jealousy.” Ellyn Bader of The Couples Institute facilitated the discussion. One of the most interesting parts of the training was her model for determining whether a relationship is likely to recover from deception:

  1. How high are the partners’ desires for honesty?
  2. What are the partners’ beliefs in the likelihood of success?
  3. What amount of unwanted effort is it going to take?
  4. How willing are the partners to take emotional risks (self-exposure rather than avoidance, denial, minimizing)?

The answers to these questions can help evaluate the relationship’s potential and pinpoint particular areas for development.

Trauma and Restoration

When you experience a negative memory, do you experience an inability to move or take action? These “stuck” or “frozen” states are indicative of trauma. The trauma may be related to a single overwhelming event and/or it may be from a developmental disturbance, like childhood abuse or neglect. Trauma is about powerlessness, not being able to DO something helpful within the original situation. A traumatized person’s challenge is to re-train their mind AND body to take calm action when they are triggered into these states. Sometimes, traumatized people over-react to situations, understandably not wanting to be revictimized. Some interventions that help relieve (rather than re-live) trauma are: meditation (noticing disturbing mind/body cues while regulating breathing and heart rate); identifying and using self-soothing stimuli (perhaps a comforting smell, texture, visualization); and articulating the trauma experience within a safe and responsive context.

I recently completed a continuing education training with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score.

Low-Cost Mental Health Resources

Here’s a list of 81 Mental Health Resources, including apps and community support groups.

Each program has it’s potential benefits. Taken as a whole, this list points out that MANY people are working individually and collectively to make this world a more accessible, responsible, and peaceful place. If you try one of these programs, I’d like to hear about your experience.

Trauma Stewardship

In addition to other healthy life practices, I find great resiliency in a self-book: Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. This book provides a framework for managing vicarious trauma. The text outlines 16 possible imbalances within a caregiver or service provider–such as cynicism, deliberate avoidance, hypervigilance, and an inability to embrace complexity. Readers can self-assess their experience and make adjustments. This collection of research and anecdotes relates to various human services, including social work, law enforcement, education, and medical fields.