The poetic beauty struck me even while my entire body was contracting. The man speaking was drunk. I had asked him several times to stop calling me, at least not so late. He was married, with four children, 20 years my senior, and the president of the company I was working for at the time. I was in my late 20s. It was 1984.
Somehow, between the persistence of the phone calls and my repeated attempts to create boundaries while being human and caring, an unlikely friendship developed. Maybe because I was touched by the vulnerability at his core, or inspired by his brilliance and apparent openness. Slowly and painfully I realized, like so many women before and after me, that maintaining the budding friendship would require succumbing to the sexual overtures. I remember the moment of saying straight into his eyes: “Do you really want me to kiss you even if I don’t want to?” I was so shocked by his insistence in the face of my disinterest, that I lost my will; as if being seen solely as an instrument for his pleasure actually made me less of a person in my own right.
A relationship of two years emerged. It had its moments of true intimacy. And it was a difficult and complicated relationship. When the time came to end it, he predictably asked me to resign. I, unpredictably, declined. I loved my job and didn’t want to lose it. He protested, insisting that it would be difficult for him to see me daily after the breakup. I told him he could fire me, and that I would speak about why. To this day, I am astounded by my matter-of-fact courage.
Two years later, I discovered the literature on sexual harassment. My world exploded in understanding of what had happened; one of my own pivotal #MeToo moments. Even then, I knew I was relatively lucky. No ruined career. No watching him continue, with impunity, to victimize others.
Now, as so many more women are coming forward, the scope and severity of the issue are clear: nine out of ten restaurant workers in the US experience sexual harassment, for example, as reported in The Glass Floor. What, then, are we to do about the magnitude of sexual violence against women and its impacts?
Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, most of the response I’ve seen has been as follows: find all the ‘bad apples’ and punish them sufficiently, leaving only the ‘good men’ behind, the ones that Heather Wilhelm describes as “normal human beings with operating empathy sensors and competent command of every basic human emotion.”
Even in articles I’ve found deep and refreshing, like this one from Rebecca Traister, there’s always a push towards punishment: “without real, genuine penalties on the line, without generations of men fearing that if they abuse their power, if they treat women like shit, they’ll be out of jobs, shamed, their families devastated — without that actual, electric, dangerous possibility: Nothing. Will. Change.”
As Dominic Barter of Restorative Circles told me recently, “so much of what’s being written about the subject at the moment only gives the options of silencing or condemning. As long as personalized condemnation is the only reaction that is validated, I have little faith in change.”
Most people seem to believe both that punishing men is successful at protecting and supporting women, and that nothing other than punishment could be. I question both. Punishment addresses neither the effects nor the causes of harm done. For one thing, punishment is directed at the person who harassed, assaulted, or raped, without any attention given to the person who was harmed and to what will happen with them. Even civil suits only offer financial compensation, as if money can act to restore what was broken in human relationships and trust.
With regards to the causes of harm, punishing ‘bad apples’ won’t transform the situation that so many women face on a daily basis, even if some specific men in positions of great power and visibility are fired or charges are pressed against them. Although those particular individuals may no longer pose a threat to women, at least temporarily, the problem is much more prevalent than a few people at the top. Punishment doesn’t deal with the underlying problem nor lead to change that is deep enough to transform the root causes of male violence.
A focus on individual punishment ignores the vicious brutalization that is the socialization of boys, resulting in cutting men off from the experiences of empathy that all boys and men, just like girls and women, need for healthy human development. It also creates anxiety in men, who, by virtue of being human, want to be seen for their own goodness. It can lead to defensiveness, questioning women, or aiming to prove that #NotAllMen are involved. It perpetuates separation and isolation for men, and feeds the continuing cycles of abuse against women. Ultimately, advocating for punitive measures is based on the notion that there is something fundamentally problematic in all or some men, and that only deterrence through fear will alter men’s behavior. If, instead, we believe (as I do) that sexual predation is culturally created and condoned rather than biologically innate, then a different approach makes more sense, one that creates enough space for truth to come forth and for transformation to occur.
An alternative to the bad apple thesis is to identify root causes and transform the conditions that sustain them. That means shifting from an individual to a systemic lens, and from a punitive to a restorative response. It means examining the patriarchal scripts and training within which sexual harassment is nurtured and persists. Without this systemic lens, it’s impossible to understand how men who are generally seen by others as decent, caring, and committed to the liberation of women participate in sexual harassment.
Patriarchal scripts are prepared for us before we are born, affecting both men and women in varied and complementary ways. Justin Baldoni, in a recent talk at TEDwomen, describes the version he received: “acceptance meant I had to acquire this almost disgusted view of the feminine, and since we were told that feminine is the opposite of masculine, I either had to reject embodying any of these [feminine] qualities or face rejection myself. This is the script that we’ve been given.”
Baldoni describes the process of internalization that so many men go through, the brutality of men’s socialization that robs them of their tender humanity and prepares them for their patriarchal roles. Catharine MacKinnon, whose legal work in the 1970s was pivotal in putting sexual harassment on the agenda, captures the results in “Rape: on Coercion and Consent,” a chapter in a book that is as fresh today as when it was published in 1989. “It is not only men convicted of rape who believe that the only thing they did that was different from what men do all the time is get caught,” she writes, since “men are systematically conditioned not even to notice what women want [and] … women are socialized to passive receptivity.” The notion of the ‘good guy’ becomes meaningless when even well-meaning men coerce women without intending to, and without seeing themselves as doing so.
How does this happen? Part of the answer lies in how difficult it is for so many women to say “no” and for so many men to hear it. In addition to the very real negative consequences that may come to women when saying “no” in certain contexts, so many of us have internalized doubt, confusion, passivity, and powerlessness through our own patriarchal training. Without grasping the depth of patriarchal scripting, it can be hard to reconcile a woman’s apparent agreement or acquiescence to something with her assertions that she did not want it. Knowing what the man who was pursuing me was after, for example, why did I ever let him into my apartment if I didn’t want the same thing? When another man, at another time, used very minimal force which I could clearly resist in terms of physical strength, why did I freeze in shock instead of firmly saying no? Why do women sometimes wait years before reporting incidents, or don’t do it at all? Without a systemic lens, we are taught to read all of this as meaning that women wanted what happened, even when they insist that they did not. Without effective channels for us to speak and be heard about our experiences, how will men learn about the impact of their actions?
Thus, the problem is cultural or structural, not primarily individual. And as MacKinnon reminds us, “individuals’ ability to resist or escape, even momentarily, prescribed social meanings” is incredibly limited “short of political change.” We are all implicated in both problems and solutions. As Leah Fessler says “No one—regardless of their education, hometown, or politics—is immune to sexism.” Granted, sexism isn’t the same as sexual harassment or assault; it is, tragically, the breeding ground; the baseline of “othering” of girls, women, and femininity, which makes the lines all too fuzzy. Recognizing this can bring understanding and compassion to the extraordinary capacity of patriarchy to reproduce itself en masse, and to each of our participation in this, and thus open the gate for creative, restorative solutions.
We are far away from this structural point of view being widely embraced. Many responses to the current revelations about sexual harassment take refuge in the opposite point of view. “Sadly, some people would rather cast stones at all men” says journalist Heather Wilhelm in response to critics like Carina Chocano who, naming patriarchy, insist that “Weinstein’s pattern of behavior is emblematic of a system that runs on power differentials.”
If, instead, we take seriously MacKinnon, Chocano, and many others, and maintain our structural lens while continuing to seek protection and support for women and transformation of root causes, then we have a lot to gain from listening to those who have bravely embraced the restorative path.
On the individual level, we can perhaps find inspiration in the story of Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger. In a recent Ted talk they describe their many-year journey of reconciliation initiated by Thordis nine years after Tom raped her when she was sixteen. . In Thordis’ words: “how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognize the humanity of those who commit it?” Recognizing the humanity of those who sexually harass and assault women includes, in particular, having some faith that they can be affected by learning about the impact of their actions. Restorative experiences provide a place for the truth of women’s devastation to be heard and integrated, which provides healing and transformation for the women at the same time as providing an opportunity for the men in question to learn, heal, transform, and support the women they have harmed. This is why restorative approaches reduce recidivism, sometimes to the point of 0% of graduates of a multiyear program for batterers. The executive director of the organization that ran the program said they adopted a more restorative approach after noticing that: “Treating abusers like they were bad people reinforced a sense of shame they already felt about themselves and didn’t allow space for change.”
Ann Malabre has been advocating for a restorative approach in response to her own and dozens of other former students’ experiences of decades of sexual misconduct by teachers at Exeter, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire, US, reported in a series of articles in the Boston Globe over the last two and half years.
I talked with Ann and read some of what she’s written to other survivors, with whom she has formed a group for mutual support and for effectiveness in approaching the school. Meanwhile, Exeter has already paid lawyers seven million dollars to fight against the few (of many) survivors who filed lawsuits. What has that done for the survivors, mostly women, who’ve come forward? Very little, says Ann. “So many people are reacting to, defending from, profiting on, and deciding about the survivors, and in all this, so little accountability, true justice, and reform.” Ann’s restorative approach, although limited by the school’s insistence on legal and adversarial responses, aims to reach as much understanding as possible about what happened, its causes, and its effects, so as to reduce or eliminate the chances of this happening again. Her key question: what could unite alumni, survivors, faculty, administration, and the larger community?
Ann believes that a focus on taking survivors’ stories seriously, inviting faculty (both those accused of sexual misconduct and everyone else) and administration to take in, acknowledge, and learn from the impact, and creating meaningful avenues for repair of harm, can go a long way towards healing for all. To the survivors, she suggests leadership as a form of healing and growth, going beyond basic post-trauma survival. At present, Ann and other survivors are working with the school on the possibility of refunding survivors’ tuition, as a meaningful act of indicating that their suffering is taken seriously. They have invited Exeter to become a leader in facing sexual misconduct charges. The story is still unfolding. If successful, it can be one model for how an institution can hold itself and its members accountable to harm without blame, without punishment, while addressing the root causes through collective learning.
Done on a large enough scale, I believe restorative approaches can fully replace punitive responses, providing better long-term protection and an opportunity for all to examine and heal from the patriarchal scripts into which we have been socialized. Eventually, they would no doubt lead to questioning, challenging, and transforming the political, economic, and legal systems that reproduce patriarchy.
And until then? What’s to be done with the men in positions of power, and the many more with less power, who keep being identified as having sexually abused women?
I understand why there is so much pressure on political, governmental, and corporate entities to distance themselves from the individuals involved. In the absence of enough better options, such measures can indeed offer the affected women some breathing room. I mourn how rarely such measures are taken with a truly protective intent, and how often the focus on punishment interferes with the results. To move towards a different climate, I call on more and more institutions to create restorative systems and processes to allow those impacted to tell their stories and be taken seriously, those who’ve been accused to engage with the impact of their actions and take meaningful responsibility for those actions, and all involved to identify action steps to transform the power relations that perpetuate harassment and violence, one institution at a time.
INVITATION: To discuss this and other posts with me and other readers of this blog, check in to the free Fearless Heart Teleseminars. Next dates:
Sunday, January 28, 2018 10:30 am – 12:00 pm PT
Sunday, February 25, 2018 10:30 am – 12:00 pm PT
Monday, February 26, 2018, 5:00pm – 6:30 pm PT
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Image Credits: Top: “Sad Woman” by Jiri Hodan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Second “Bad Apples” by Craig, Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0