sexual abuseBy Russ Cashin

Anyone paying attention to the news of late is certainly aware of the most recent revelations regarding those in politics and in Hollywood who’ve been accused of inappropriate sexual conduct and even sexual abuse. While this issue is not new, the most recent round of individuals who’ve been exposed on a weekly basis for such aggressive and inappropriate behavior resulted in what has become the #metoo campaign.

While the willingness of victims of sexual abuse to speak out seems to have been on the uptick lately, raising the awareness of the widespread nature of this issue publicly, there seems to be more media focus on the consequences of this conduct rather than the causes and possible solutions to the pervasiveness of the problem.

Of course, the public awareness and discourse are vital since it seems that we’ve tended within our society to focus on past revelations briefly, only to conceal them again in the ever moving cycle of fresh “breaking news.” While I’m not sure we’ve reached what some are calling a “watershed” moment in this conversation around the issue of unwanted and abusive sexual behavior, it is definitely a beginning. In order to change the culture of abuse, whether sexual, physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual, we need to keep the conversation in the forefront. I would like to believe we could do this without further “revelations” of additional abusive situations, but I think we will see more of them.

As a person who studies and teaches psychology, I have been watching all of the recent activity somewhat through the lens of a researcher and observer. Not that I can do a study by a simple reading or viewing of the media reports and video interviews, but there are some aspects in the behavior of the accused that I find very interesting and informative.

It seems that we’ve had two fundamental types of responses by those who are accused: either outright denial or some type of unwilling accountability (usually a financial settlement or payment to the victim with a non-disclosure requirement attached) with only one case where it appears the offender has accepted some level of personal responsibility.

We as a society must learn that within any relationship, however brief or long, permission for any sexual contact or conversation is required to be clearly given between any two adults. Certain persons, particularly minors, do not even have the legal capacity to give consent.

It becomes even more important to be aware of potentially inappropriate behavior when both parties are adults if there is a significant “power differential” between the individuals. This power is the ability of one party to have significant or excessive influence over another person due to financial wealth, a position of some authority, significant age difference, etc.

When such a power differential exists, consent cannot truly be given freely. This is why most organizations, associations, and government entities now have ethical guidelines around this issue, especially in the health, teaching, and counseling professions and related professions. Many corporations or businesses also have guidelines provided by their respective human resource departments concerning similar conduct for management/employee relations.

While the move in the last 20 years towards having ethical guidelines and procedures around sexual misconduct and bullying has been in the right direction, why does the unwanted behavior persist, and how do we change the culture?

First, we need to understand that based on research, the primary predictor of aggression is gender. Sexual assault itself is a form of sexualized violence — that is, violence enacted in a sexual way — but really it is about power and control. This happens because the perpetrators put their desires over the victim’s agency to consent. Consequently, the victim is never to blame.

The recent allegations have been made against male offenders regardless of political affiliation or whether they are viewed as a conservative or liberal. This is not to say that women cannot be physically or sexually aggressive; however, it is a much rarer occurrence for women to be perpetrators than men. Victims can be either male or female, as we have seen most recently.

It is important that as a society we differentiate between a sexual predator and sexually inappropriate behavior. The former likely involves a serious pathology while the latter may just need corrective behavioral counseling. Being able to discriminate between the two is essential so that we don’t destroy a person for an immature act of sexual impropriety as opposed to pervasive or persistent behavior.

As I’ve reflected on my own life, I recently recalled an experience in my early 20s when a regional project manager (yes, a male) made sexually crude and vulgar comments to me on at least two occasions. I had been forewarned by the secretary in our district office of this individual’s flagrant and chronic vulgarity as she too had been apparently harassed by him on several occasions. However, back in the 1980s, the company I worked for did not have any sexual harassment policy. Further, since our workplace was remote from the corporate offices, we felt disempowered to do anything. I was also much younger and quite naïve and was so ashamed by the experience that I have never spoken the details of it to anyone until now. In fact, I’d mostly forgotten about it until the recent allegations surfaced. As a result of my own #metoo experience, I fully understand it when I hear the victims say they’ve kept their personal experience of sexual mistreatment quiet for many years or even decades.

The revelations about these abusers need to continue for us to heal as a society, but we must also begin to focus on ways to change the culture of the entire system. The awareness that occurs through the media is helpful but tends to last only until the next news cycle begins. Ethics rules that inform and guide those in positions of authority about proper conduct are also important, and the increase in sexual harassment training within organizations is helpful, but we must go further. It shouldn’t take 20, 30, 40 or more years for the victims to feel safe enough to come forward. We need to make the conversation itself a safe topic within our society.

We must not let the allegations go uninvestigated, nor should we compartmentalize and excuse sexual misconduct around candidates or elected officials just because we agree with their politics. This type of rationalization — or, rather, justification — is inexcusable. I’ve heard it said that how a person does anything is how they do everything. While this may not always be true, it often is, and experience has taught me that if a person is unethical or morally unprincipled in their personal life, they will probably also be in their professional life.

As these stories continue to unfold, we should not let the “breaking news” cycle push this conversation into the background. I, for one, believe the victims, and it is time to change the culture. We must continue the conversation.

Speak up if you are a victim. Now is the time in our history when victims are being believed. Be an open and good listener, providing a safe space for victims to speak. Do not vote for sexual predators against whom multiple credible victims have come forward. Together, we can right this societal wrong and move forward as a more compassionate and enlightened society. Together, we can change the culture.

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