In the past two months, an unprecedented number of well-known men have been revealed as sexual harassers and fired or forced to resign from high-profile jobs. There has been lots of justified condemnation of the harassers as well as praise for the bravery of the people who reported them.
There will probably be many more scandalous and surprising cases before this wave of denunciations ends. Seeing these harassers brought down is satisfying and represents long-overdue justice to supporters of women’s rights. It is especially gratifying to the many women and some men who have personally experienced sexual harassment. Still the question remains, will punishment of current abusers prevent future abuse? Unfortunately, it probably won’t.
Consider the death penalty. Comparisons of states that do and don’t have the death penalty show that states with the death penalty have just as many murders as states without it. There are several reasons for this. In the first place, few murders are planned rationally. People are not thinking about the possible legal penalties. Second, people who commit all types of crimes don’t expect to be caught or punished- if they did, they would not commit the crime. Criminals tend to be focused on immediate rewards, not on long term consequences. More crimes are impulsive than planned. These factors also apply to the behavior of repeated sexual harassers. There are also some additional factors: denial and narcissism.
Denial is what it sounds like: the harasser denies he is doing / has done anything wrong. Deniers insist that forced sexual contact was actually agreed to, or simply deny that any contact occurred, or claim it could not have happened because, for example, the accusing woman is “unattractive.” Another form of denial is to admit the harassing behavior occurred but claim that the woman “misunderstood”: it was just a joke, or just friendly affection.
Narcissism is a key personality trait that can be seen in most harassers. Narcissists are people whose world revolves entirely around themselves, and they feel that others’ worlds should resolve around them as well. To narcissists, other people exist only in relation to themselves. Since other people don’t exist except to meet the narcissist’s needs, it doesn’t matter if they’re hurt or injured unless the injury interferes with their ability to meet the narcissist’s needs. Narcissists often rise high within their professions due to their capacity for self-promotion. By definition, a narcissist cannot truly believe he has done something wrong, although if it will help him he may say he’s done wrong. A person like this who makes an unwanted sexual approach that is rebuffed will feel that the rejecting other party, and not himself, is at fault. To minimize the chance of rejection, narcissists tend to approach people for sexual contacts who find it difficult to refuse – employees, job applicants, students, much younger people.
Unfortunately, a narcissist cannot be taught to stop being a narcissist. With this personality trait as well as some others (such as sociopathy) the realistic approach is for potential targets to resist abusive behavior. This could mean, for example, leaving the room or loudly yelling “no!” in response to inappropriate behavior. It could mean avoiding being alone with the offender, and helping other potential targets avoid being alone with him. It could mean speaking openly with others about incidents and submitting a joint complaint, which is harder to dismiss than a single individual’s complaint. Over time, preventive action by potential targets and changes in business management to respond appropriately to sexual harassment will do more than firing harassers to change the adverse environment in which many people still work today.
Eva Hersh is a Baltimore family physician. Send your comments and questions to her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.