Uncharted Territory

The cultural factors that contribute to sexual harassment are under scrutiny as never before. At the same time, fundamental biological truths continue to be ignored.

By Leon F Seltzer Ph.D., published March 7, 2018 - last reviewed on April 17, 2018

How should we regard men who have behaved objectionably toward women—from unwanted touching or kissing, to groping, to rape? Do they all equally deserve to be named, shamed, and fired or forced to walk away from their careers? 

The high-profile offenders whose actions have brought the issue of sexual misconduct roaring to the surface—politicians, broadcasters, comedians, and Hollywood power brokers—have precipitated a long-overdue national discussion. If the voices now driving this dialogue can avoid falling into a pit of polarization, the result may be the transformation of a culture that has remained stubbornly tolerant of sexism and sexual misbehavior.

No one should condone harassment or downplay the experiences of victims who have been demeaned and, at times, traumatized. However, this is an age-old problem, and scattershot retribution could only worsen the fear, mistrust, and division between the sexes. Legal due process is essential in helping observers make critical distinctions between degrees of misconduct, but so is an understanding of the psychological and biological factors that underlie the behavior. 

The worst abusers—a minority of a minority—exhibit narcissistic, even sociopathic traits. With an outsize sense of power, privilege, or entitlement, they chronically degrade women who ought to be respected as colleagues, and appear to experience little to no guilt about their actions. In my clinical practice, I've found such repeat offenders to be highly resistant to change. In other words, their behavior reflects their character.

Far more common are the members of a second group, males whose better instincts are subverted from within. It's a group poorly understood in the public discourse. In general, these men do not lack caring or respect for women, but they're susceptible to having their restraint ambushed by libido, and they embarrass or humiliate themselves by acting on their impulses. Afterward, they do feel guilty, and recognize that their actions can't legitimately be rationalized as flirtatious or consensual. But they are not the same as the callous individuals whose actions reflect a fundamental personality defect.

A third class of offenders is characterized primarily by ineptitude or naiveté. They truly believe, albeit wrongly, that their actions are innocent displays of affection, but putting an arm around female colleagues or friends, or kissing them on the lips, are justifiably experienced by their rattled targets as insensitive and discomfiting transgressions. And yet, as author Claire Berlinski recently wrote about the complexities of male-female interactions, "Anyone who imagines it is easy for a man to figure out whether a woman might like to be kissed is insane."

Given the disparities among offenders, reactions to them—both personal and institutional—demand nuance. Meting out identical punishment to all three groups has already begun to feed a backlash and undermine some women's claims. Still, there's an increasing sense that the penalties may need to be more rigorous, or their enforcement at least more consistent. The legal definition of sexual harassment establishes a fairly high standard—infractions must be "so frequent or severe that they create a hostile or offensive work environment or result in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted)." For cases that fall short of that bar, we need alternatives.

The Conundrum of Testosterone

Sexism and the tenaciously patriarchal nature of American culture play major roles in the ongoing harassment crisis. But the hormonal influence that overwhelms principled behavior in males does not receive adequate attention. A typical male's sex drive is stronger than the average woman's. And while the vast majority of men are able to control it, extensive research suggests that many can't be trusted to do so.

At a deep level, some men believe it's their prerogative to treat women as they wish, and, succumbing to powerful feelings of lust, they feel at liberty to act in sexually transgressive ways. Various studies have identified males with high testosterone (T) levels as being at greater risk for sexually assaulting women. Still, biology hardly determines destiny, and scientifically establishing a direct link between T-levels and aggression has proved problematic. The extensive research covered in James McBride Dabbs' groundbreaking book Heroes, Rogues, and Lovers: Testosterone and Behavior leads to the conclusion that, unlike in non-human animals, the correlation between high-T and aggression in humans, though positive, is weak.

These findings testify to the many uniquely human personality variables—and values—that affect the experience and expression of aggression. A University of Michigan report, "Understanding the Perpetrator," delineates the typical characteristics of male sexual offenders, including empathy deficits, anger, impulsiveness, blunted feelings, and macho, dominant, and controlling personality traits. 

When such men achieve positions of power, their abuse of it cannot be allowed to occur without consequences simply because of their value to their organizations. But with a better sense of the tumultuous biochemical origins of such conduct, we might be able to view them with more understanding.

My own professional experience with such individuals has convinced me that, on the whole, their many defenses—particularly, reactive anger, projection, and denial—unconsciously operate to safeguard an underlying vulnerability they lack the ego strength to handle. Additionally, their macho facade (also a potent defense) links to an empathy deficit which, in turn, protects them from vicariously feeling the hurt and humiliation their misdeeds cause. Although they're not aware of it, treating women with kindness appears to threaten them. They may fear that doing so would open up the floodgates of their own unresolved pain, typically from a childhood during which they felt deprived of tenderness, love, and caring.

The amount of testosterone coursing through a man's veins heavily governs his sexual appetite, at least physically. And when his T-levels rise, assuming he's heterosexual, he may struggle with almost irrepressible tendencies to view females as sex objects. We're obliged to acknowledge that testosterone, by activating a biological urge that sooner or later demands expression, ensures the survival of the species. Yet given the established constraints of civilization, and our susceptibility to disappointment and distress, this dynamic also guarantees enormous frustration and grief, and so it remains a cultural flashpoint.

Young women rightfully protest that they feel devalued when males see them, or treat them, as objects for sexual gratification. But it could be argued that, to an extent, teenage boys and men struggling with an ethics-free biological drive can't much help it. In those moments, they may have difficulty eyeing females multidimensionally, leaving them oblivious to women's essential humanity. Lacking what their bodies may insist is a need, they can come to personify the expression "hunger has no conscience." Another element to factor in: The male sex drive is closely connected to the "feel good" hormone, dopamine, a neurotransmitter with a key role in igniting the pleasure/reward centers of the brain. 

"All of our evolutionary programming has led us to this: a sex-crazed primate that struggles to overcome our biological programming, to act appropriately in modern society," biologist Rebecca Heiss writes. "In many ways, our standards and expectations of our moral aptitude far exceed our underlying brain programming. This is not a justification of sexual misconduct, simply a reality check. If we want to make things better, we have to first understand the roots of the problem. Humans are special, but not that special."

Illustration by Marc Burckhardt

The Road Forward

Mutual respect is at the core of our aspirations for a modern society, and many men can be guided toward a more civilized stance toward women, in spite of certain hunter-gatherer expectations that persist among us—men as more dominant, competitive, and aggressive; and women as more deferential, compassionate, and family-oriented. Consequently, some men may struggle not to view woman as "the fairer sex," with all of that term's problematic connotations of women as weak, subordinate, and dependent. 

Education can change this state of affairs, but the messages must arrive earlier than they traditionally have, and they must begin in the home. Long before they might sit through too-little-too-late workplace sensitivity sessions, males must be taught to emotionally identify with those they could potentially victimize, even inadvertently. This must be done much more effectively than it is at present if the sexes are to co-exist in greater harmony.

There are many valid reasons why most women who have been sexually mistreated, especially early in their careers, haven't reported it. In many fields and communities, it's been too hazardous to do so. Male-dominant institutions have been far too lax in adopting, or enforcing, penalties for unambiguous sexual misconduct—what Heiss calls our "immoral 'normalcy.'" Men who misuse wealth or station to sexually impose themselves on others must be held accountable in a way they traditionally have not. 

The variables in play make this goal especially challenging. As Stephen Marche, author of The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century, reflects, "What if there is no possible reconciliation between the bright clean ideals of gender equality and the mechanisms of human desire?" And yet, when we are spurred to broaden our perception of all we can be, interpersonal relations can become more open, and less fraught. With a deeper appreciation of what connects us, men and women should be empowered to see themselves in the other, and to understand each other as complementary. With this fundamental truth assimilated, we can begin to treat each other, at last, as equals.

However discouraging the current state of sexual relations, we can address this quandary as the humans we aspire to be. That means resisting both the chemical and cultural pressures, and rising to our most evolved selves.

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