The public revelations of so many famous sexual harassers, abusers, and predators accused in recent days, weeks, and months including Hollywood celebrities (Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C. K., Bill Cosby, Woody Allen), politicians (Roy Moore, Anthony Weiner, Donald Trump), news media people (Bill O’Reilly, Robert Ailes) makes one wonder if sexual harassment and exploitation are everywhere. And sadly, the answer appears to be yes! Additionally, recent sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, collegiate (Penn State) and Olympic (women’s gymnastics) athletics, elite private boarding schools (Horace Mann, St. George, Exeter), and the military (West Point) not to mention the recent #metoo social media phenomenon all underscores and spotlights the fact that sexual victimization by powerful and influential men is extremely and tragically common. Sadly, sexual exploitation is everywhere and has been throughout history. While these current explosive stories get a lot of media attention because the perpetrators are famous, equally egregious behavior occurs daily in businesses, schools, factories, and everywhere that people with power interact with people who don't. For those of us who work in this area professionally, our reaction to the recent media revelations about sexual exploitation tends to be, “What took you folks so long to figure this out? We have known about this for a very long time and could rarely get anyone, including the media, to take notice and take it seriously!”
Quality research, as well as the clinical practice in psychology and related fields, well informs us that sexual victimization including harassment, exploitation, assault, pedophilia and hebephilia (targeting teens) is common. For example, studies have shown that almost a third of adult women claim that they were sexually abused by an adult when they were a minor child with about fifteen percent of males reporting similar victimization for those who grew up in the last half of the 20th century. Studies have also found that about 5% of school teachers in the public school system have sexually violated their minor students while 4% of Catholic clerics have sexual violated minors (also during the last half of the 20th century). And clergy in other traditions don’t fare much better according to best available data. These findings focus on the sexual abuse of minors by adults and yet don’t even consider sexual harassment or exploitation among adults only where these numbers really skyrocket.
The most recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore, for example, have set off an avalanche of similar reports as victims feel empowered to come forward and tell their stories. Having worked clinically with many sexual abuse victims, it is important that victims feel safe and supported in their efforts to reveal the truth of their victimization steps are taken to ensure that they are not further victimized by their revelations. Furthermore, is it also important that predators are held to account regardless of how important, powerful, rich, or well liked they are in the public’s eye.
There is never a good reason or an excuse to sexually violate or exploit anyone that includes any behavior from unwanted persistent flirting to sexual harassment to actual sexual assault and rape. Having worked with numerous sexual predators in psychotherapy and in psychological evaluations I know that they can be very good at minimizing and denying their horrific behaviors as well as blaming their victims at the same time.
All of us can do our part to maintain a zero tolerance for sexual exploitation in whatever environments we live and work as well as give clear and corrective feedback to potential perpetrators that their behavior will not be tolerated anywhere. We can also support and encourage victims too. Additionally, we can be sure that policies and procedures about sexual harassment in school, civic, church, recreational, and work environments are enforced and that offenders are always held to account without exception and no matter who important they seem to be.
Tragically, those with power and control over others will too often use their influence to exploit. We all must do our part to make sure that they don’t ever get away with it. Observational learning and modeling research suggests that these behaviors will decrease when it becomes clear that others are held to account. And doing the right thing means that sexual exploitation is never tolerated and that people should always be treated with respect and even compassion by those in power. Recent revelations in the news are an opportunity to be a game changer but your help is needed to make it so. Will you do your part? Are you in?
Copyright 2017 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP
Pipe, M. E., Lamb, M. E., Orbach, Y., & Cederborg, A. C. (Eds.). (2013). Child sexual abuse: Disclosure, delay, and denial. Psychology Press.
Plante, T. G. (2004). Sin against the Innocents: Sexual abuse by priests and the role of the Catholic Church. Westport, CT, US: Praeger Publishers/Greenwood Publishing Group.
Shakeshaft, C. (2004). Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature PPSS 2004-09. US Department of Education.