Boston University’s Emily Rothman on what causes the behavior and whether it is treatable
By Jeanne Whalen | The Wall Street Journal
As revelations and allegations about sexual assault and harassment mount, The Wall Street Journal spoke with Boston University’s Emily Rothman about what causes the behavior and whether it is treatable. Dr. Rothman is associate professor and co-director of the Violence Prevention Research Unit at Boston University School of Public Health, where she conducts research on sexual assault, intimate-partner violence and other issues. Recent allegations against many prominent men have ranged from verbal harassment to groping to rape, a group of behaviors that fall under the definition “sexual violence,” Dr. Rothman said. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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Why do men commit this kind of sexual assault or harassment?
I would be one to say both men and women perpetrate sexual violence, but it’s a very small fraction of women who are the perpetrators. There are four main reasons we think people do this. First, some people have self-regulation problems, problems with impulsivity. Some have socio-emotional functioning problems, which is fancy way of saying they may have distorted ideas about intimacy. A healthy, happy, normal adult can relate to another adult about their feelings, talk to them, have a relationship that is healthy for both people. But if you [have socio-emotional functioning problems] and have a sex drive, that can create sexual violence.
Another is an entitlement attitude. That might be something we see more often in people who are in positions of power. They feel it is their right to do what they want.
The final one would be deviant arousal. A fancy word for this is paraphilias. It means you are diagnosed with [behavior including] voyeurism or sexual interest in children or frotteurism, which means you like to rub up against people.
How do you define sexual violence?
Any form of unwanted touching or sexualized behavior. So it could include stalking or online harassment. It doesn’t have to include touching.
Does it include verbal harassment, such as comments about a woman’s body?
Do the men carrying out this behavior know it’s wrong?
I would say that there is usually a mix. It usually depends on the individual.
Are there certain things they tell themselves to make them think the behavior is OK?
I think many perpetrators of sexual violence use justifications with themselves or have a running interior monologue, a narrative that justifies the situation or makes it OK. And it’s really important to figure out going forward, after someone commits sexual violence, if you can interrupt that inner monologue and change it.
Is it a power thing for some men? Are they trying to exert power by behaving this way?
Oh, yes. In any instance where I was talking about male entitlement as being a reason, I would put power and control in that same box. Power and control is definitely part of it.
Where does male entitlement come from?
It comes from cultural forces all around us. Some of those are pretty overt. Some of them are perhaps more subtle. We call those social norms—the way people are encouraged to act. Boys are encouraged not to cry. For girls it’s, ‘Isn’t the girl pretty, she should be smiling and passive.’ All these norms are translated to us all day long, from other people, from the media, from the choice of toys as you walk through the stores, telling us how men behave, how women behave.
Can sexual violence or harassment behaviors be stopped through treatment?
That can vary widely in terms of what type of behavior we’re talking about…what will stop them from perpetrating again, what will fix this problem, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. In the media we tend to treat sexual violence as if it’s one monolithic thing. If you’re in the field of sex-offender management and treatment, we would say there is such a wide, wide spectrum of behaviors. There are some people who are sociopaths and not redeemable. There are others who do not perpetrate sexual violence again after some kind of intervention. And what kind of intervention works and for who depends on the person.
What are the interventions?
There is individualized therapy. Some are cognitive behavioral therapy and some aren’t. Sometimes a course of psychiatric medication has a positive effect for some people. There are psycho-education programs that have perhaps some benefits for some people. What is hard to figure out for any of these treatments is, are people recidivating and we don’t know it because it’s hard to track and hard to measure? And it is frustrating we aren’t investing more resources in appropriate treatment and prevention. If we put as much into this as we do in cancer we could make substantial headway.