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There IS a script to abusive men’s behaviour. But that’s still no excuse

What makes some men act inappropriately? Psychiatry professor PHILIP GRAHAM explores the science behind harassment

It is a scandal which started in Hollywood and has spread around the globe, as sexual harassment allegations are made against more individuals, and concerning more institutions.

The full repercussions are yet to be fully understood, but this troubling issue has already raised many unanswered questions. Perhaps the most pertinent: just why do some men choose to act in this way? The answer may not necessarily be what you expect.

The scrutiny that such stories here and abroad are bringing to the issue of inappropriate sexual behaviour is to be greatly welcomed, but there is one aspect that has, thus far, been overlooked: the science behind sexual harassment.

When people have stopped to consider this aspect, it has usually been with reference to biological factors like levels of sex hormones, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology.

But while these are important in motivating men to behave sexually, they tell us little or nothing about the nature and direction of such behaviour, when it occurs.

For that, we must look elsewhere. A good starting point is so-called ‘sexual script theory’, which was first formulated by two sociologists, John Gagnon and William Simon in the 1970s as a way to examine sexual interactions between men and women.

In my recently published book, Men and Sex: A Sexual Script Approach I have proposed a modification of their ideas, though the framework of their original theory is maintained.

I propose that when men are in a situation that may result in sexual behaviour, what they do is determined by their sexual ‘scripts’ – a set of ideas covering relevant values, attitudes and, above all, rules about what constitutes acceptable behaviour.

These scripts are formed from a range of influences: the culture in which an individual operates; his personality and previous experiences; and his interaction with the individual with whom he might engage in sexual behaviour.

The role of culture or social norms in determining male sexual behaviour is obvious. This is as true for rape, the most serious form of sexual violence, as it is for inappropriate behaviour, such as unwanted touching.

In his book Berlin: The Downfall, Anthony Beevor describes the way large numbers of Red Army soldiers raped as many as two million German women as they invaded from the East. In contrast, there were probably only isolated rapes carried out by soldiers of the Allied armies invading from the West.

The fact that senior officers and Soviet leaders, from Stalin and Beria downwards, either ignored or even covertly encouraged the rape of German women was at least partly responsible for the behaviour of their soldiery. Similar cultural influences were responsible for the rape of Bosnian women by Serb soldiers, with the connivance of their leaders, in the 1992-1995 Balkan wars.

Evidence for the importance of social or cultural factors in other forms of sexual coercion, such as unwanted touching, is largely anecdotal, but it is very powerful. Not only among politicos in Westminster, but in the legal and medical professions and in universities, there are countless examples of senior men taking advantage of their position to engage in touching younger women and, in some cases going a great deal further, in a manner that has been very clearly signalled as unwelcome.

Although culture and social factors are of great importance, it is notable that men living in the same society, exposed to the same expectations, behave sexually very differently from one another.

Men who are impulsive risk-takers are more likely to engage in inappropriate behaviour than those who are reflective and cautious. Previous experiences, in childhood, adolescence and in later life, may also mould sexual behaviour. Men who have been sexually abused in the past, for example, are more likely to abuse their current sexual partners, both emotionally and physically.

Finally, we need to consider the way men’s scripts are influenced by those women with whom they behave sexually. It is not victim-blaming to recognise that the way women vary in their dress, manner and conversation will affect the sexual scripts of the men they meet. This is not to excuse, in an any way, the behaviour of men who might harass them. But it would be unrealistic to suggest that men’s sexual behaviour is unaffected by the women with whom they interact.

Given this framework of understanding, how does the application of sexual script theory affect our understanding of, for instance, the encounter between Sir Michael Fallon and the journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer – which has since contributed to his resignation as defence secretary – when, at a party conference dinner, he put a hand on her knee?

It is likely that the sexual script he was reading from was telling him that, in a situation in which attendees at a conference are away from home, sexual opportunities are open to him that would not exist in other circumstances.

The script he was following probably indicates that, if he puts his hand on Hartley-Brewer’s knee, this would help him to check whether she is likely to be sexually available.

Fallon’s script would further tell him that, if she is indeed attracted to him, she would put her hand on his and a sexual encounter may have eventually followed. If she does not respond, this would mean she isn’t interested, but she would almost certainly not make a scene, so nothing will be lost.

The sexual script of the politician in these circumstances is likely to be influenced not only by the pervading culture, the specific context in which the encounter takes place, but also by the fact that, in his personality, he may be a risk-taker.

Finally, in addition to the pervading culture and Fallon’s personality, there is the effect of the reaction of the woman on the interaction. In this case, the subsequent scenario was, of course, greatly influenced by the journalist’s forceful reaction to his behaviour.

If, after he has been rebuffed once, the politician put his hand on her knee for a second time, he would be engaging in coercive behaviour, in an activity that is clearly unwanted.

Most coercive sexual behaviour, (ranging from unwanted touching, to, at its most serious, rape), is performed by men whose scripts tell them that they have an entitlement to sex with women.

Contained in such scripts are patriarchal beliefs that men can take what they want in sexual relationships. The personalities of such men are often aggressive and risk-taking in non-sexual situations, as well as in sexual. So, men convicted of rape have often been previously convicted of non-sexual violence.

Rules governing what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in male sexual behaviour are poorly formulated in our society. With the welcome reduction in patriarchal attitudes in most parts of the West over the last 50 years (though in many places there is still a long way to go), there has been a change in the boundaries of acceptability. Again, such an observation should not be interpreted as an excuse for poor behaviour, but as a recognition of changing times.

The lack of clarity on where the boundaries now exist has led to attempts to frame codes of acceptable sexual conduct. Such codes have been drafted most commonly in universities and colleges with a so-called ‘hook-up’ culture, involving widespread casual sexual relationships. They are more widely relevant.

In the 1990s, Antioch College in Ohio proposed guidelines which stated that each partner was required to give a verbal ‘yes’ as steps of increasing sexual intimacy were taken.

In a recent study, Charlene Muehlenhard, from the University of Kansas, analysed the views of young people on relevant policies. Most reported they did not wish to be bound by the Antioch College policy. They thought that it would be unrealistic and unenforceable and that verbally asking for consent would be awkward.

On the basis of interviews with large numbers of young people, Dr Muehlenhard and her colleagues articulated a number of issues that they regarded as central to any proposed code of conduct relating to sexual consent.

They suggested it was important to recognise that individuals in potentially sexual situations often have multiple objectives. For example, they may wish for intimacy to stop, but they may also not want to hurt the feelings of the person they wish to discourage. Further, decisions about what to do in tricky situations may follow one from another. A woman may only use verbal refusal when non-verbal refusal has been ineffective. Young people revealed there was a difference between total passivity, which indicated non-consent and failure to resist which might mean consent.

Given these findings, it is not surprising that establishing rules of acceptable sexual conduct can be extraordinarily difficult. Nevertheless, difficult or not, what should surely be part of any code of interpersonal conduct is that, in the context of increasing intimacy, if one partner makes it clear he or she does not wish to go further (or anywhere at all) in participating in sexual intimacy, this wish must be respected immediately. Failure to respect such a wish requires sanctions and may constitute criminal assault.

All the same, the issue of power imbalance is currently regarded as highly relevant to accusations of sexual harassment. Even given this fact, it would surely be neither possible nor appropriate to attempt to discourage sexual relationships between two people whose power balance is unequal.

Indeed, absolute equality between a couple must be very unusual. In nearly all cases one of a couple is, for example, more resourceful, wealthier, more desirous of a sexual relationship (and therefore more vulnerable), than the other.

Even in cases where one of the couple has it within his or her power to advance or destroy the career of the other, it must be accepted that consensual sexual relationships should be possible.

In the past, many male medical consultants have married their female junior doctors, scientists their research assistants, university lecturers their postgraduate students and lawyers and MPs their secretaries following fully consensual courtship.

Hopefully, in the future, such relationships, undertaken in the context of power imbalance, will much more commonly take place when the woman is in the more powerful social position.

It seems reasonable to suggest however that there should be a particularly strong requirement for a man in a position of power to ensure that a less powerful woman with whom he wishes to pursue a sexual relationship is willing and herself desirous (not just acquiescent) before any sexual intimacy occurs.

This is more likely to be the case if he only makes sexual advances to a woman with whom he is already in a mutually enjoyable social relationship and is prepared to take ‘no’ for an answer.

Philip Graham is Emeritus Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Institute of Child Health, University College, London. His book Men and Sex: A Sexual Script Approach was published earlier this year by Cambridge University Press.

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