It has been almost a month since #MeToo flooded social media. Since then, almost a daily parade of new sexual harassment, abuse, or assault allegations are being brought to light about accused perpetrators like Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Charlie Sheen, Louis C.K., Ed Westwick, Roy Moore, and Kevin Spacey. The responses by the accused have varied from silence, to deflection, to admission, to outright denial.
Some statements have puzzled people, wondering how could they not know what they were doing was wrong or would upset someone else? Sadly, this relates to a concept frequently found in my therapy practice, in which many victims are astounded when they realize that their rapist doesn't know he is a rapist. After the assault the perpetrator may act casual, inviting them for breakfast, acting affectionate, kiss them, or invite them on another date. They behave as though what had occurred was completely consensual despite the fact that moments or hours before they were holding the victim down, whispering threats in the victim's ear, ignoring the victim's cries of pain or profound lack of interest or engagement, or ignored the fact the victim was intoxicated, passed out, or vomiting and while they pursued sex.
Sometimes the victim will run into the perpetrator months or years later and be astounded at how "normal" they act. They may approach them like friendly, long lost friends seeking to engage in polite conversation. They may reach out to the victim over social media with casual "hellos" and "how have you beens?" The victims may react in paralysis, fear, or rage and are additionally astounded when they see the look of confusion reflected in their perpetrator's face.
The victim/survivor comes into my office begging the question: Is it possible that my rapist does not know he raped me? Sadly, in some instances, the answer may be yes. For those that lack empathy, awareness of others boundaries or feelings may not exist. The default is: if this benefits me, my actions are ok. Lack of empathy can be the bi-product of someone in a status of power or privilege, "Just boys being boys," "locker room talk," or "old school." For other sexual violence perpetrators, they may have a sense, if not clearly know what they did was wrong, but use elements of denial, minimization, deflecting blame, or manipulation to escape any form of personal accountability to seep into their conscious awareness.
Is it possible that some of these celebrities really did not know that what they were doing was wrong? Well, since they kept the secret and did not exhibit those behaviors in public, then probably on some level they did know. I would argue that they probably were in a position that did not serve them well to think it was wrong. "He/she really wants this," "They deserve this," "I deserve this," "They like how it feels," "Everybody does it" are all arguments used to justify sexual violence. Think of it this way: if you were about to step on an ant and crush it, you would probably tell yourself that have good reason to do so, that it won't matter, that they cannot feel anything, that you are really being helpful...but you can do this because essentially you see the ant as significantly less powerful and less important than yourself. At least if you think about killing a shark you may still justify the kill, but you will still probably worry about the consequences to yourself because the shark is inherently more powerful. Power, control, status, privilege, and lack of empathy play important roles in supporting rape culture. When way are so inundated in rape culture, like a lobster in pot slowly brought to a boil, we may not even realize we are in danger of becoming the next meal because the environment around us was already so unhealthy in the first place.
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Megan Garza, MA, LMFT is a certified Specialist in Treating Trauma at a Supervisory level and is Licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist. She specializes in work with sexual abuse survivors.