Years ago, after the revelation of sexual predations of male members of the U.S. Navy upon their female underlings, the Navy announced a “zero tolerance” policy. I, then the chair of the American Psychiatric Association Committee on Women, was invited to address a meeting of top Naval officers. They seemed dismayed when I told them that zero tolerance was just the beginning. Declarations that certain behaviors are unacceptable are facile, flimsy, and ultimately disingenuous substitutes for the infinitely more difficult task of monitoring and policing forbidden behaviors and protecting potential and actual victims.

The United States, I pointed out, has a zero tolerance policy on murder but still has to maintain a large force of police officers, detectives, judges, and prison guards to enforce that policy. The Navy had to have a similar approach to sexual assaults. Judging from the recent reports of female members of the military, that hasn’t happened.

However, as we know all too well, sexual harassment is a phenomenon plaguing many segments of society, from the film industry to the news media to politics – and beyond. Men also are victims of sexual harassment and assault, and the negative reactions they endure are as least as severe as are those of women. As these reports surface, several key questions arise for those of us who treat patients: What accounts for the guilt and embarrassment that women feel after they have been victimized, and what can psychiatrists say to patients to help them process these breaches? Also, how can we differentiate between clear harassment and uncomfortable sexual transgressions that are grayer in nature?

Clarity in the law

Unwanted physical intrusion by one adult on another is against the law in the United States. Then why do we need laws specifically banning rape? In addition to the fact that rape, unlike any other assault, can result in conception, sexual assault is recognized as a particularly and uniquely evil and damaging invasion and degradation.

Although there are cultural differences about responsibility for rape, and whether marriage obviates a woman’s right to refuse sexual contact, there is little or no dispute about the need to recognize rape as a distinct, degrading, and particularly heinous attack. It is, therefore, no surprise that people who are raped feel soiled, shamed, and degraded. Those feelings are exacerbated by centuries of shifting responsibility for sexual assault, whether forced intercourse or other unwanted sexual behavior, from the perpetrator onto the victim.

The shifting of blame has been rejected in theory, but it very much persists in actuality. Who among us does not wonder how the victim was dressed or why (s)he was on that street, at that party, in that man’s room? Other forms of harassment echo the motivations of rape – to demonstrate the unanswerable power to degrade – and result in similar psychological responses.

The recent media revelations have lumped physical assault together with unwanted touching, sexual acts undergone as a result of psychological coercion, unwanted exposure to perpetrators’ genitalia and masturbation, and offensive sexual requests and comments. All of those acts are wrong, but they are not equivalent. An elderly man in a wheelchair grabbing an adult woman’s buttocks is not in the same category as an adult man sexually assaulting an underage girl.

What is the genesis of all this misbehavior? It’s not just about sex; it’s about sex and power. For many men, bragging about sexual conquests and making derogatory remarks about women’s physical appearance demonstrate machismo – define maleness.

It is not surprising that such comments are called “ locker room talk ”; sports are macho displays as well. Physically violating sexual boundaries is just the talk put into action. And macho works. Last November, more than 40% of female voters in the United States voted for the candidate who reportedly cheated on at least one of his three wives, bragged about unwanted sexual assault, and has been credibly accused of many other illegal and/or inappropriate behaviors.

Where does it end?

What is going to be the result of all this hullabaloo? The list of convincingly accused perpetrators grows by the day. Sexism and sexual misbehavior are endemic in every sphere of human endeavor, up to and including, of course, the clergy, who are meant to be models and protectors of virtue. The scope of recent revelations may be unusual, but revelations about one sector or another have happened every few years: the military, clergy, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, academia. What would happen if all the sexual misbehavior were to be revealed, and the perpetrators removed from their leadership and management positions? Would we have a film industry, a financial industry, a legislature? I saw a headline somewhere: “He’s always indispensable; you never are.” The argument, or myth, of indispensability is a powerful protection for powerful individuals. The powerful are too powerful to tolerate mass expulsions. Already, Congress has resorted to the time-honored and demonstrably useless response: training. Others among the accused report that they are undergoing treatment of sex addiction, a diagnosis our profession has wisely discarded , and for which there was no effective treatment.

Sex, while not addictive, does have a role in sexual misbehavior. Through the ages, women’s reproductive hormones have been a focus of social and medical attention, as the source of unpleasant behaviors, and, in fact, psychopathology: premenstrual dysphoric disorder, postpartum depression. Little or no attention has been paid to the problematic psychosocial effects of male reproductive hormones. In addition to the offensive behaviors currently in the headlines, there is the behavior of adolescent males. Isn’t reckless driving related to the pubertal influx of testosterone ( Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2006;30[3]:319-45 )? This gender discrepancy deserves scientific and social attention.

What can psychiatrists do to help women (and men) who are affected by sexual misbehavior? This is a difficult problem. What would help most victims, of any injustice, most would be to confront those responsible, and see them removed from positions of power and otherwise punished. However, the recent reports of seemingly swift and severe responses are misleading. The responsible journalists who have reported these cases have, in most cases, devoted months to finding victimized women, persuading them to go public, and corroborating their accounts. The perpetrators, even when complaints have been made, have gone unpunished, and often been promoted, for years or even decades. Women who complain often are subject to employer retaliation.

So a treating psychiatrist is left with less-than-satisfactory recommendations and responses. The most important intervention is to identify and counter the patient’s inaccurate and damaging assumptions: that she was responsible, that she should and could have refused to tolerate the misbehavior, that she has been left tainted, impure. Some social groups and families will have reinforced the latter feeling. The remainder of the psychiatric intervention will be focused on the patient’s particular symptoms – of posttraumatic stress, anxiety, or depression – and the relationship between her symptoms, history, and psychodynamics. Group therapy or other support by women who have faced similar abuse may be helpful. I’m afraid that we will continue to have many such patients to treat.

Dr. Stotland, past president of the American Psychiatric Association, is professor of psychiatry, and obstetrics and gynecology, at Rush Medical College, Chicago. She has written numerous articles and books, including “Cutting Edge Medicine: What Psychiatrists Need to Know” (American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2002).


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