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.

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.

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.

Trauma and Avoidance

Trauma often disrupts or prevents otherwise healthy relationships. One way to conceptualize this effect is through Attachment Theory, specifically the avoidant attachment style. People with avoidant attachment may provide vague descriptions of past events, idealize a person in a previous context, dismiss many problems, devalue intimacy, and over-emphasize self-reliance. With such clients, the therapist’s first task is to develop a safe relationship where a client can tolerate connection, exposure, and vulnerability. When a person experiences this vulnerability within a secure connection, he or she has a corrective emotional experience and may enhance other safe relationships.

Signs of an Abusive Relationship

A graphic from the Duluth Model outlines many components of abusive relationships. This power and control wheel was developed in 1984 and became widely circulated as the Duluth Model became the most researched and utilized domestic violence intervention approach in the world. The Duluth Model website hosts a gallery of other wheels, including the Using Children Post-Separation Wheel and the Equality Wheel. It also includes a wheel designed by an American Native community and Spanish-language wheels.