You hear it said about sexual harassers all the time: “Guys like that will never change.”
That may be true for those who are out-and-out psychopaths and those with other serious disorders, but experts say most sexual harassers are not in that bucket.
“They’re apples and oranges,” says forensic psychiatrist and Temple University School of Medicine professor of psychiatry Barbara Ziv, who has spent decades studying both victims and perpetrators of sexual misconduct. Most are “opportunistic offenders” or self-delusional, she says, but they’re not beyond help.
“Those aren’t individuals who are sort of hardwired to sexually assault,” she says. “And those are the people that have the most potential for learning and not doing it again.”
Ziv, who will testify for the prosecution in the upcoming rape trial of former film producer Harvey Weinstein, says the bulk of offenders are too often conflated with the most egregious ones who dominate the headlines.
“Even my saying that there’s a distinction can be perceived as letting men off the hook,” she says. But “the #MeToo movement has to become more sophisticated, and we should, two years out, be able to distinguish between these buckets.”
Indeed, two years into the #MeToo movement, with growing focus on when –and if — it’s appropriate for men ousted for sexual harassment to return to work, attention is also shifting to underlying questions of rehabilitation: Can proven sexual harassers change? And if so, how? A burgeoning industry of therapists, coaches and counselors are now working with offenders to try to reform them. It’s not just for their sake, they say, it’s the only way to ensure long-term, meaningful cultural change.
“Justice needs to be had,” says University of Toronto psychologist James Cantor. “But so long as we keep talking about ‘we need to just gather up the evil [offenders], dismiss them and ignore them,’ we’re not going to either rehabilitate these people or prevent more of these cases from the future.”
That’s not to say the work is easy.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says one man who says he had buried his misconduct for decades. All the news of alleged sexual misconduct in the headlines as the #MeToo movement was gaining steam compelled him to finally confront what he had done, from stealing a kiss at the office to date raping a woman he barely knew, several decades ago.
He asked that his name not be used for fear that backlash would hurt his family. But, determined to grow from being part of the problem to part of the solution, he’s now facing his demons head-on.
“I was shook by the realization that I had been able to go through my life powered by privilege, without owning up to this,” he says. “And there are probably a lot of other guys who had done those things, and if we want to prevent [this] and change culture, our actions need to come out in the light of day and be the basis for conversation.”
He has been doing his own soul-searching in counseling and through a process called “vicarious restorative justice,” where he meets with survivors as a kind of “stand-in” perpetrator for survivors who cannot, for various reasons, meet with the actual perpetrators in their own cases. He listens to them describe their experience as victims, and they listen as he takes responsibility for what he did to his victim.
“That would be to say, ‘I took your body for my pleasure and my needs,’ ” he says, choosing his words carefully and deliberately. “I knew you couldn’t stop me from doing it. I knew that you were hurt, but I got up and left you there, having been violated by me, because of my selfishness and my belief that what you had was mine for the taking.”
Then, he acknowledges the damage he did. “You may have had depression, you may have — ” he begins, before catching himself and switching to the first person. “I may have caused you anxiety and a lifetime of difficulty having relationships.”
And lastly, he offers an apology.
“It’s not your fault,” he says, “and it’s not something that was anything other than my boorishness, my belief that I could have whatever I wanted. And I’m very sorry that you were hurt.”
It’s cathartic for him and healing for the survivors who were with him in the circle, including Alissa Ackerman.
“I don’t even know how to describe it in words,” she says, “but it was just this moment of being heard, by someone who’d caused sexual harm. It is a weight that you no longer have to carry.”
Ackerman, an assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University, Fullerton, now leads restorative justice circles for others, convinced that it can teach empathy and motivate change like nothing else.
Indeed, it was no coincidence that only while listening to survivors describe their pain did the man in her circle remember — for the first time in decades — his victim’s first name.
“In the middle of the sessions, he just blurted it out when it came back to him,” recalls Ackerman. “He was able to humanize her because he had to humanize the four of us sitting right in front of him.”
“I was pretty shaken by it,” he sighs. “She became a real person.”
“It’s not exactly therapy, but it’s definitely therapeutic,” says Cordelia Anderson, who has been doing sexual assault prevention work since the 1970s. “It’s a way for people to get insight into their own behavior and recognize the impact of their behavior on others and how these things have ripple effects.”
Restorative justice is not for everyone; it’s a non-starter if the survivor does not want to engage or if the perpetrator is denying any part of his misconduct. From the get-go, he has to admit and take responsibility for all of it.
In many cases, offenders will have gotten to that point through conventional counseling, where perpetrators may be pressed, for example, to unpack their own past traumas, boundary issues, or self-delusion and denial.
“A person engaged in what we call ‘motivated reasoning’ will only see what they want to see and discount or ignore counterevidence,” Cantor says. For example, he might tell himself a co-worker is “not meeting my gaze because she’s busy or embarrassed, rather than because she’s not interested.” In the same way, he will dismiss any signs he has crossed a line, convincing himself that “the other person is overreacting.”
Research on treatment specifically for sexual harassment is scant. But Vaile Wright, director of research and special projects at the American Psychological Association, says extrapolating from studies on sexual assault, there is cause for optimism. Wright says strategies like cognitive behavioral therapy, which break down the thoughts and feelings driving bad behavior, are particularly promising. For example, in the case of a guy who repeatedly makes unwelcome advances to a co-worker, a therapist can help dig deeper to discover what makes him feel entitled to keep “hitting on her.” Or, Wright explains, the process might help reveal that when she rebuffs him, he takes that to mean “she is a tease” and therefore “a bad person [who] gets what she deserves.”
“You just go down a rabbit hole until you can figure out what it is that’s at the core of the problem,” Wright says. That could be anything from feelings of inadequacy to outmoded views of gender roles and power.
It’s why another approach gaining interest focuses on toxic masculinity.
“A big part is peeling off the armor and bringing these guys into state of being utterly raw, utterly vulnerable,” says Joshua Hathaway, who does personal coaching and leads men’s retreats through a group called The Brotherhood Community, in Santa Cruz, Calif. One by one, he says, he’s trying to change hearts and minds by helping men show up “as the attuned, empathetic understanding, listening version of themselves, instead of the guy who’s going to try to talk somebody out of their opinion or the guy who’s going to deny certain facts, to defend ourselves and our ego.”
Hathaway will often start men with simple exercises, like going a full day only listening. Or, another exercise, he says, requires that “the first thing that comes out of his mouth in any conversation is reflecting back what he just heard.”
“It’s learning how to wield power in more responsible way,” Hathaway says. “It’s dismantling our misogyny. It’s dismantling a lot of these prejudices that dehumanize other people. And that’s messy work.”
While counselors say a growing number of men are buying in, others are dubious. They worry about such softer, gentler rehabilitative approaches gaining favor over punitive ones.
“Quite frankly, I think there should be a fear of social stigma, a fear of social sanction, a fear of social consequence attached to boorish and sexually improper behavior,” says Max Eden, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “My concern is that were not only letting men off the hook with this, but we’re actually creating a reward structure for behaving badly and by going through what might not be a very sincere redemption process.”
But proponents insist that it’s hard to fake your way through intense personal encounters such as restorative justice circles. One of the things that process does best, Ackerman says, is to suss out who is genuinely remorseful and rehabilitated and who may be going through the motions just hoping to get their career rehabilitated.
“At the end of the day, you don’t know who’s being authentic except when you have those really in-depth, one-on-one encounters when perpetrators can talk about their understanding of the harm they’ve caused,” she says.
But even then, it’s not like you get a diploma from your therapist. So how’s an employer to know whether a person is changed enough to be worthy of returning to work?
That’s something very much on the minds of Elizabeth Grossman, a defense attorney who represents men accused of sexual misconduct, and Caprice Haverty, a clinical and forensic psychologist who treats them. They’ve been trying to conceive of some kind of audit to identify who has gone the distance and who may have run off course. It might also offer some confidence, or cover, to an employer considering hiring someone with a checkered past.
“My concern is that we not lose the power of this moment,” Grossman says. Society, she says, “needs to figure out the way forward for people who’ve transgressed, so we can keep them motivated to do the deep hard work and change.”
Just like the criminal justice system has compulsory progress reports for sex offenders, Haverty says people who are working on rehabilitating themselves after getting fired for sexual harassment could have “a frank and confidential dialogue and get honest feedback.”
“We have ways of measuring authenticity,” she says. Though Grossman is quick to add, it may be more gut than science.
“This is not measured by a ruler,” she says. “They’re instinctual understandings.”
In a few cases, employers are getting involved themselves in efforts to rehabilitate offenders. Not every offense should result in termination, says Mary Koss, a professor of Public Health at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and an expert in gender-based violence and restorative justice. And in those cases, she says, employers could be doing a lot more to coach and guide employees at the earliest signs of trouble.
“Instead of just putting a letter of warning in their personnel file, [and letting the offender] move on having learned nothing, I wish there were more opportunities to give close mentoring to people,” Koss says.
She has been called in to be a kind of “babysitter” for guys who misstepped. In one instance, she gave a man some coaching and implored him to “come tell me what you’re thinking about doing before you do it, and then we can decide if it’s a red light or a green light,” she recalls. Not long after, he came to tell Koss he was planning to ask a co-worker out on a date. “I said to him: ‘Red light! This is not a bar.’ ”
For some employers, a better solution is to make outside counseling a condition of continued employment after a first-time, relatively minor offense. But more often, companies will steer clear altogether, says Stephen Gianotti, who is president of New Hampshire-based business consulting firm The Woodland Group. He says companies are more likely to “have the attitude that ‘Look, we’re not a social welfare institution here. We make widgets, we don’t change people. If people don’t want to behave, then we need to get rid of them.’ ”
“The obvious problem with that,” Gianotti says, “is that the person who gets fired goes someplace else and is likely to do it again in some other organization, so they’re just kicking the can down the road.”
On the other hand, the obvious problem with attempting to rehabilitate offenders is that it comes with no guarantee.
Psychiatrist Ziv recalls working with one executive, who dutifully listened and seemed to understand, as she explained for hours and hours, why it was wrong to touch a female colleague, flirt with her or make comments about her looks.
A few months later, she saw him again “and the first thing he said to me when I walked into office was ‘Don’t you look pretty!’ All the time I spent with him, and he was oblivious.”
Unfortunately, Ziv sighs, we’ll only know for sure if someone has really changed and ready for a second chance is after they’ve had their second chance and didn’t blow it.