We can’t stop sex harassment by firing or incarcerating our way out; we can stop it by using ACEs science

AMeToo

So, Harvey Weinstein has gone to ground, along with Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and Kevin Spacey, to name a few, and they’re likely never to work in their chosen fields again. This week, federal Appeals Court Judge Alex Kosinski retired after 15 women, including former clerks, accused him of sexual misconduct. Do a search for “sexual harassment” and stories about dozens of men across a variety of professions appears.

Sexual harassment is everywhere – all professions, including higher education, and all walks of life (see the NYTimes article about women who work in Ford’s Chicago plants). The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that 60% of women report having experienced sexual harassment. That’s 45 million women. Forty-five million. And a much smaller, but still in the millions, number of men have also been sexually harassed by their male or female bosses.

The solutions so far — Fire them! Jail them! Destroy them! — might garner some headlines and short-term satisfaction. The solutions certainly fit our traditional approach of using blame, shame and punishment to attempt to change human behavior.

But we can’t fire or imprison our way out of this — it’s too big and too complex. Here’s why:

Let’s just assume that it’s not a one-to-one ratio of sexual abuser to abused. In Harvey Weinstein’s case, for example, more than 90 women have come forward. Let’s say it’s a one-to-40 ratio. That means about one million men have sexually harassed mostly women and some men. Even if it’s a one-to-20 ratio, that’s about two million men who have sexually harassed others. Sure, we could fire them all. But we can’t throw them all in jail — there’s not enough room, and aren’t we trying to put fewer people in prison, anyway? And, even if we did, we’d face another million or two to throw in jail in a few years, because the root of the problem lies in childhood.

We’ve already learned that we can’t incarcerate our way out of our opioid problem, we can’t expel or suspend our way out of behavior problems in schools, we can’t hospitalize our way out of heart problems, auto-immune disorders and cancer. If we don’t get to the common roots of these problems, we’ll just keep growing children into adults that harm others by violence, bullying or sexual abuse, and/or themselves by becoming addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Whichever way they go — harming themselves or harming others — they’ll likely suffer health consequences, too. Because all of these problems have the same roots: ACEs….adverse childhood experiences, AKA childhood trauma.

Aspurlock

Morgan Spurlock

Of all the men who’ve been in the headlines lately, it’s Morgan Spurlock who’s come closest to understanding the links between his childhood and his behavior as an adult. Spurlock says he’s “part of the problem”, and confessed to sexually abusing a woman who calls it rape, harassing women (and thinking it was funny) as well as being unfaithful to every girlfriend and wife he’s had. He continues:

But why? What caused me to act this way? Is it all ego? Or was it the sexual abuse I suffered as a boy and as a young man in my teens? Abuse that I only ever told to my first wife, for fear of being seen as weak or less than a man?

Is it because my father left my mother when I was child? Or that she believed he never respected her, so that disrespect carried over into their son?

Or is it because I’ve consistently been drinking since the age of 13? I haven’t been sober for more than a week in 30 years, something our society doesn’t shun or condemn but which only served to fill the emotional hole inside me and the daily depression I coped with. Depression we can’t talk about, because its wrong and makes you less of a person.

And the sexual daliances (sic)? Were they meaningful? Or did they only serve to try to make a weak man feel stronger.

Ok….I can hear some of you now: “Oh boo hoo. Whine. Whine. He’s just making excuses. We can’t let men off the hook so easily.”

Here’s why Spurlock is on to something, and where our new understanding of human behavior can actually help us solve this so that our daughters and sons don’t have to experience what we did.

ACEs comes from the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), groundbreaking research that looked at how 10 types of childhood trauma affect long-term health. They include: physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; living with a family member who’s addicted to alcohol or other substances, or who’s depressed or has other mental illnesses; experiencing parental divorce or separation; having a family member who’s incarcerated, and witnessing a mother being abused.

Subsequent ACE surveys include racism, witnessing violence outside the home, bullying, spanking, losing a parent to deportation, living in an unsafe neighborhood, and involvement with the foster care system. Other types of childhood adversity can also include being homeless, living in a war zone, being an immigrant, moving many times, witnessing a sibling being abused, witnessing a father or other caregiver or extended family member being abused, involvement with the criminal justice system, attending a school that enforces a zero-tolerance discipline policy, etc.

Thirty-eight percent of children in every state have at least one ACE, according to an analysis of the 2016 National Children’s Health Survey by the Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative (CAHMI) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. That’s 34 million children. Thirty-four million. Many of those children will accumulate more ACEs. Some will grow up to harm others. Others will grow up to harm themselves. Many will do both.

The epidemiology of ACEs — i.e., the ACE Study and other surveys — is just one of five parts of ACEs science, which also includes how toxic stress from ACEs damage children’s developing brains and how it affects adult brains; how toxic stress from ACEs affects health; how it affects our genes and is passed from one generation to another (epigenetics); and resilience research, which shows the brain is plastic and the body wants to heal. Resilience research focuses on what happens when individuals, organizations and systems integrate trauma-informed and resilience-building practices, for example in education and in the family court system.

The ACE Study found that the higher someone’s ACE score – the more types of childhood adversity a person experienced – the higher their risk of chronic disease, mental illness, violence, being a victim of violence and several other consequences. The study found that most people (64%) have at least one ACE; 12% of the population has an ACE score of 4 or more. Having an ACE score of 4 nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer. It increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700 percent and the risk of attempted suicide by 1200 percent. (For more information, go to ACEs Science 101. To calculate your ACE and resilience scores, go to: Got Your ACE Score?)

I can’t tell from Spurlock’s essay how many ACEs he experienced, but there are at least two and a hint of a third, which paved the way for his coping mechanisms for depression, emptiness and feelings of powerlessness — alcoholism and abusing others — to make himself feel less empty and more powerful.

In a New York Times article about how Anita Hill is leading a new Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, who led the founding of the commission, said something hopeful: “The commission will not seek just one solution, but a comprehensive strategy to address the complex and interrelated causes of the problems of parity and power.”

We need comprehensive. We could continue our Whac-a-Mole approach to workplace issues…one program to go after sexual harassment, another to stop bullying, another to address absenteeism, another to address high health costs by instituting workplace wellness policies….with a combination of training (how many of you have done the required online sexual harassment training?) and punishment.  We know how that approach has turned out.

OR….we could address them all at once with a comprehensive ACEs science approach — changing our culture by integrating into every organization in every community in the U.S. the trauma-informed and resilience-building practices and policies based on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) science to create environments that no longer traumatize traumatized people. This means moving from a blame, shame and punishment workplace culture, to a culture of understanding, nurturing and helping people heal themselves.

A personal note: I’m long and deep into the #MeToo realm, so don’t throw me into the apologists’ tank. I began experiencing sexual abuse from the age of six  into my teens, and experienced sexual harassment in nearly every place I worked. And, contrary to what some people say, it doesn’t stop because women get older; I experienced a man abusively scouting for his prey just two weeks ago, more than 60 years after I was unfortunate enough to go down this crappy rabbit hole. For years, rage was my savior, until it became a burden and a hindrance to healing. And now, after years of work, I’m deep into solutions: What can we do to stop and prevent this? With what we’ve learned in the last 20 years, and the practices and policies that pioneers in this arena have put in place, there’s no doubt we can.

Integrating trauma-informed and resilience-building practices and policies based on ACEs science in all workplaces isn’t as impossible as it sounds. Thousands of organizations have done so, mostly in the social services, education and health care sectors, with a smattering in juvenile justice, family courts, the faith-based community, drug courts, law enforcement, and state agencies. But practically no organizations in media, entertainment, law, the tech industry, the political arena, sports, manufacturing, insurance or retail have.

And we all need to participate in this. Because, despite our focus on the perpetrators, all of us are a part of this problem. We all have ACEs or know or are affected by those who do (whether family, friends, co-workers, bosses, elected officials, etc.) and therefore we all must participate in the solution.

People such as Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer could never have abused so many women had they not had people who enabled their behavior, either by supporting them (i.e., continuing to work for them knowing that they were ushering women into a dangerous encounter or looking the other way when abuse occurred). They could not have continued their behavior for as many years as they did had we not all participated in a culture where women weren’t believed, and victims blamed for the abuse of those who had the power of employment and resources over them, and where we elect people who have knowingly harmed others and bragged about it privately or publicly. (For a remarkable analysis of how Donald Trump’s childhood has manifested itself in his adult behavior, read this interview with Dr. Gabor Maté.)

Changing this culture isn’t easy, but we can do it. Not RAH RAH we can do it, but we can do it because enough people already have and have the data to show that this approach works.

At the essence of this change is each one of us being able to look at someone like Harvey Weinstein and wonder what he experienced in his childhood that led him to strip naked, put on a robe, and then ask women to massage him or watch him masturbate. Or look at his enablers and wonder what they experienced in their childhoods that would have them knowingly go along with helping put another person in harm’s way. Or wonder about ourselves because we ended up in a room with him, and understand that with our history of sexual abuse or other ACEs we aren’t equipped with the “danger radar” that people who grew up in a healthy environment are equipped with, and, further, that we are likely respond to an attack by freezing or appeasing instead of fighting or fleeing. (See Louise Godbold’s excellent essay about her experience with Weinstein.)

And only then can we figure out how to create an environment that’s safe enough for all of us to talk freely about what happened to us, what we’ve done to harm ourselves or others, to ask forgiveness, to make amends, to change our behavior as best we can, and to understand that some situations will always trigger us, to be kind to ourselves when that happens and to give ourselves and others the time and space to recover.

That’s not to say that there are some people who have been so damaged by their ACEs that they may never be able to go through this process, and in those cases, they need to live in a place where they can no longer harm others, and also need to be treated with respect for the suffering they’ve experienced.

There’s one more thing: Many people have said that sexual violence is the worst thing a woman or man can experience and does more damage than some other types of abuse. There’s no doubt that sexual abuse is horrible and can cause lifelong damage (speaking from experience). But the ACE Study and brain science provide some useful perspectives that can help us understand our own ACEs and the ACEs that others experience.

“Although violence can beget violence, it’s hardly the only cause of violence,” says Dr. Vincent Felitti, co-principal investigator of the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). “Basically there are lots of other ways,” he says. “Humiliating people. Isolating people. Verbally provoking them. All of those have potential for producing violence in response.”

In addition, violence can provoke nonviolent behavior that can be just as damaging as violence.

He noted one other surprise from the ACE Study, which 39 states, the District of Columbia, and several countries have now replicated with similar results. When it came to the consequences of ACEs, it didn’t matter what the types of ACEs were; on a population level, they all do the same damage. An ACE score of 4 that includes divorce, physical abuse, an incarcerated family member and a depressed family member has the same statistical outcome as an ACE score of 4 that includes living with an alcoholic, verbal abuse, emotional neglect and physical neglect.

“We studied a whole range of outcomes — emotional, social, financial, biomedical, etc. If someone had an ACE score of 2 or 4 or 7, it didn’t matter how you made the ACE score up. It didn’t matter. That was unexpected and a surprise,” says Felitti.

Brain science clearly shows that the brain doesn’t distinguish among different types of trauma. To your neurons, the stress response from verbal abuse can be as damaging as neglect or living with a family member who’s alcoholic, or experiencing the humiliation and powerlessness of racism, or sexual abuse. For a great explanation of this, read Donna Jackson Nakazawa’s book, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology and How You Can Heal.

The bottom line is that when you’re healthy and don’t have a high ACE score, or you do have a high ACE score and are building resilience into your life every day to keep healing, you’re NOT as likely to harm anyone or yourself, or unconsciously put yourself in harm’s way. As people wise to ACEs science say: Hurt people hurt people, whether it’s others or ourselves.

That’s a handy thing to remember when thinking about those 34 million kids who have at least one ACE, and how we should be working on creating a world where they don’t accumulate more.

17 responses

  1. Every now and then, I read an article that actually addresses a social problem in a big picture, balanced and accurate way.
    Thank you so much for doing this. I hope you are comfortable with me sharing this with my state’s (Montana) Sex Offender Treatment Association, as well as some of my friends and family!
    (I started a sex offender program in 1983 with a colleague of mine, after specializing with children of alcoholics and sexual abuse victims. For about 10 years, I didn’t mention much to colleagues in the sex offender specialty field that a major focus of our treatment was the neglect and abuse in the history of the clients we saw, as well as restoring relationship skills that there abuse and neglect background never gave them. Believe it or not, dealing with an offender’s victimization was kind of a taboo back then… There was this crazy belief that “they would use it as an excuse”. In my training, I was actually told to “forget what I know about treatment from the mental health field… These are manipulative criminals!” (Took me about five years to recover from that!)
    With the exception of one or two out of hundreds of clients, the clinical reality was that most of them, like many abuse victims, had trouble [at first] allowing themselves to feel the feelings towards their parents’ abuse and neglect, and would commonly tell us that they were responsible for their own abuse, had it coming, etc.! It also became fairly obvious fairly quickly that the defenses they used to deal with their own abuse, or rather, NOT deal with the feelings related to their own abuse and neglect…, were often instrumental in the defenses they “used” to not be aware of the impact to their own victims!
    The transformations that I have seen over 35 years that we’ve been doing this has become one of the most fulfilling areas to work in. (Only thing that beats it is the connections and love I feel with my family and support people in my personal life!) 🙂
    … And as Alice Miller pointed out in the 60s and 70s, the solution is one of a change in the culture – specifically, how we raise our children.
    I have told many that asked me about the #metoo movement, that one of my main concerns was that there would be this crash and burn “punish them” response that would overlook the enabling and cultural “piece” that without being addressed, would do very little to solve the problem!
    Thanks again! (PS: Gabe Mate was one of those people that, early on, gave me the courage to start speaking out more about the model we were using… One that actually allowed partners of sex offenders to participate in the same groups…focusing on THEIR enabling of various avoidant and/or aggressive behaviors in their family relationships, and learning the same healthy relationship skills that the (mostly) men who acted out were learning.)

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  2. Pingback: We can’t stop sex harassment by firing or incarcerating our way out; we can stop it by using ACEs science • SJS

  3. Thank you! I hope you’ll find my blog and read my book on Developmental Trauma Disorder. I include a chapter on DTD, the nervous system, drug / alcohol use, ACES and the intergenerational component of trauma. I do believe there are strong social justice implications when we consider the long term ramifications of childhood trauma.

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  4. Pingback: Shaping Young Minds – We Call Them Unredeemable

  5. Well thought out article. I particularly endorse the though that we have to move from a blame, shame and punishment workplace culture, to a culture of understanding, nurturing and helping people heal themselves.

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  6. Thanks so much for this thoughtful, revealing, clear response Jane. I always love quotes from Dr. Felitti – he and Anda are both so incredibly compassionate. And I agree – it’s time to stop the trauma and we really do have the evidence now. It’s time to become trauma-informed as a society, as a medical culture and well beyond. Thanks for everything you do with ACEs Too High.

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    • There are also other types of ACEs besides harmful parenting, including bullying by peers and teachers, racism, involvement with the foster care system, living in an unsafe neighborhood, witnessing violence outside the home, living in a war zone, being an immigrant, etc.

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  7. Great article. Completely agree. All kinds of abuse, neglect need acknowledgment.
    We need to focus on prevention. I believe putting ‘The Roots of Empathy programme’ into every school would be very effective and concentrating on helping all those already affected to build resilience, helping all expectant and new parents to ‘heal’ enough preventing handing down of more suffering, and helping them bond and attach through infant massage training with support. I have a high ‘ACE score myself, my resilience is due in many ways to having been able to find suitable support to help me do the hard long term work needed to be as ‘healthy’ and resilient as I am, now in my late 50’s.

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  8. I visit my wife 4 days a week in a locked unit. We have been married for 51years and counting. She has Alzheimer’s. I am a retired social worker, worked in child welfare. I met my wife in high school. Learned over the years the extent of her childhood abuse and neglect.She struggled through years of depression, anxiety, panic, therapy, medication, nutrition, exercise, acupuncture…etc. We met Dr. Felitti and learned from his study about ACES. No surprise there. My wife had suffered the Perfect (Brain) Storm. She also suffered numerous physical health problems and a 10 year history of heavy drinking, that ended following a ‘black out’ that scared her. It is only our deep friendship and love that has kept us both going. I wrote a book about her history and our history. So, at the end of all this, in May 2014 I had a stroke, three months later she was diagnosed and placed in a unit 25 miles from our apartment. We have three adult children. Our oldest is a LCSW (go figure) who specializes in trauma therapy. I recently read BEHAVE, by Robert Sopolsky, neurologist/biologist at Stanford, and it shook me all over again, all these years later, the specific damage to the brain that ACES does. Keep this blog going. I will pass it on to our kids and friends. Thank You!

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  9. Thank you for this excellent, nuanced and (these days) countercultural essay, grounded in science. The whole paradigm has been dumped upside down by what we now know. It’s taking the world a while to catch up!

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