The cultural shift that has occurred this last year around #MeToo is momentous. Women are being empowered to identify and remove from power those men who have engaged in sexual misconduct in the workplace. While these efforts are noteworthy, they are occurring downstream from the source, where there’s plenty more where Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby came from. How do we correct misconduct at the source, heading it off upstream before it becomes problematic and results in victims downstream? And for those men who have exhibited problematic behavior, what’s required to get them to change?
First, we must understand that before there is behavior, there is an attitude, and that attitude is what drives the behavior. So, as in any 12-Step program, people exhibiting problematic behavior must admit it; it is impossible to solve a problem that does not exist. That admission would go something like this: “I admit there is a problem not only in my behavior, but also in my attitude, and having harmed others as a result of these behaviors my life has become unmanageable.”
The attitude is ingrained, acculturated, accepted and overlooked by millennia of patriarchal norms. At its worst, the patriarchy sees women as second class and as a kind of possession. Buried in this attitude is an unspoken, unacknowledged fear—a fear of what might happen if women are given full and equal status, their souls and bodies belonging fully to themselves and not to whatever male they might be affiliated with through employment, marriage, etc. This fear continually sends men the message that a woman’s autonomy will result in a loss of masculinity. I once heard it said that the sense of male sovereignty—what we are referring to when we refer to “manhood”—is something hard won and easily lost. Instead of resting on strength, it rests on weakness.
Sexual crime, the issue at hand in #MeToo, is an expression of that fear. It’s an expression that refuses to give women an equal share in sex. Predators seek to eliminate her ability to choose. It is an unwitting expression of weakness, hidden behind a counterfeit display of power and control. But, within it is also an expression of self loathing: I am so unable to accept the vulnerability I feel in my sexual longings that I reject it entirely and resort to violence instead. I can only feel safe when I have sabotaged the other’s power.
When observing patterns of behavior in abusers like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, and all the other men we’ve heard about over the last year, we are seeing something else I personally have not seen mentioned: the issue of addiction. In all of these stories, there is the element of repetition, over and over and over again. The same behaviors, the same modus operandi, the same ritual. Who is it that exhibits these rituals of repetition if not the addict?
These are people addicted to the hormonal rush of power and control, and also, perhaps less obviously, transgression. Transgression is the intentional, willing act of doing something you know to be wrong and doing it anyway, because you think you can. This behavior becomes the regular distributor of massive dopamine rushes, and these become hooked to it. I contend that these behaviors should be treated as addictions before they lead to victimization of others; and in cases where a sexual crime occurs, the perpetrator should be punished.
When a man sincerely takes that first step to treatment—admitting he has a problem—he is sabotaging his own fortress, forfeiting the fantasy of control, and for perhaps the first time in his life having to address his own sexual longings and the vulnerability that goes with them.
But trying to corral #MeToo offenders into sincere self-redress and correction is only a part of what must happen. The fact is, we have a societal problem. It is not just the offenders who must take this important first step, it is all of us. Who is this ‘We’? It is anyone who prefers denial of its existence over confrontation of the issue.
“We” are the men who are not #MeToo transgressors, but who still refuse to the see the problem. We try to absolve our responsibility by saying things like ”boys will be boys.” We minimize complaints. We avert our gaze.
I spoke to a woman friend the other day who said something like, “I don’t know what the big deal is, stuff like that has gone on forever, and it always will. Just get over it and go on about your business.” Another said, “Well, back in the ’80s, things were different. What’s the point of making a mountain out of a molehill from 35 years ago?” And this: “What is my son supposed to do when just anyone with a mean streak can make something up and ruin his life?”
Do I believe sexual violence can end? No, I don’t, because violence of all sorts exists in the darkest corners of human nature. But if you and I can admit that yes, that potential for violence exists—and that it lives in me as it lives in us all—we shine a light on it, dispelling the darkness and illuminating a pathway toward a better tomorrow.
Jim Dolan has worked as a psychotherapist and executive coach in Dallas for 40 years. His clients are adults and older teens struggling with anxiety, depression and relationship difficulties. He has also worked extensively with executives and lawyers dealing with personal problems, business development challenges, and leadership and peer relation difficulties. Website www.therapistjamesdolan.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org