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.

October 2017 Updates

My education, development, and contribution to the sex therapy and the broader mental health fields continue. Some recent forms of my expansion include:

  • listening to the Esther Perel podcast, “Where Shall we Begin?” Esther Perel is one of the most prominent modern sex therapists. Her podcast includes extended audio clips from her real sex therapy meetings. It’s incredibly relevant and inspiring.
  • a week-long Internal Family Systems training. Although I decided not to continue part II of this course, it gave me an opportunity to further discern my core assumptions and therapeutic skills. I am grateful for the understanding & commitments I developed from this exploration.
  • defining the concept of “Sexual Deviance” with other mental health professionals. We explored several case studies to identify best practices for therapeutic conceptualization and treatment.
  • reading Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. You can expect a future book report on this blog!

Summer 2017 Updates

What’s complete…

Summer semester is over. It’s always fun teaching Theories & Methods of Sexual Counseling–and a lot of work on top of a full client load. I work late hours during the summer–but getting to know the students is worth it! UMKC graduates plenty of competent, inspiring Counseling students. These interactions give me great hope and faith for the Counseling profession. Most of my work in private practice is one-on-one or with couples. It’s something special to see 20+ Counseling students apply themselves to clinical case examples.

Every year I squeeze additional information into the course. This year we fit in brief discussions of Intersex clients and Sex with Spinal Cord Injuries. We also expanded our conceptualization of “Sex Addiction” into Out-of-Control Sexual Behavior treatment.

What’s next…

I’ve organized extra time in my schedule each week for proactive research & development! Stay tuned!

Continuing Education

I attended the AASECT (American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists) Annual Conference. Of course it was a good time! Here’s what I studied:

  • Combating Sexual Misconduct in our Schools
  • Bringing Perimenopause into the Light
  • Sexual Education & Ethical Decision-Making
  • Coping with Jealousy
  • Strategies of Human Mating
  • Envisioning Sexual Health
  • The Art of Brief Sexual Assessment
  • Black & Sexual with a Disability
  • Transgender Hormone Referral Letters
  • Interdisciplinary Approach to Sexual Pain

Spring Updates

I’ve immersed myself in several continuing education experiences over the last several months. Some highlights:

  • Treatment of Borderline, Narcissistic, and Histrionic Personality disorders with Daniel J. Fox
  • The 6th Annual Sexuality Conference at KU Med
  • Genital Pain: Pelvic Floor Function & Health with Foundation Concepts Physical Therapy (for cooperative physical & mental health treatment of genital pain)

How to Fall in Love (Again)

If you’re feeling distant from a partner or loved one and want to reconnect–you may need to:

  • look at your partner with beginner’s mind
  • do the scary work of emotional vulnerability

36 Questions is structure that can help you with these common sense, yet often elusive practices. These questions were developed and tested by psychologists. The results? A pair of strangers fell in love.

Transgender Assessments

I work with many clients who suffer from gender dysphoria. During any given week, I host several conversations regarding clients’ gender expression as related to their sense of self and well-being. There are several means, depending on the situation, to bolster client efforts in synchronizing their gender expression (cues visible to others) with their gender identity (their self-experienced gender).

Some people seek an official assessment for potential hormone referral therapy. These assessments include an intake of the client’s life history including child & adolescent development; transition goals; coping resources; and any co-occurring problems (such as depression or trauma histories). During later stages in the process, I may invite clients to bring family members into the meetings for increased social support (this part is required earlier for adolescents).

Other clients, such as gender non-conforming people, benefit from deconstructing any unhelpful gender associations & roles they internalized from developmental and social contexts. Then, therapeutic techniques such as assertiveness training help privilege their own unique identity and facilitate choices & empowerment.

November and December Updates

Wow, time flies when you’re having fun! Here are my major business updates for November and December 2016, I: