As a sexual disorders therapist and author, I’ve been treating and writing about powerful, sexually misbehaving men since the Bill Clinton era. To one degree or another, I’ve dealt with them all: Clinton, John Edwards, Larry Craig, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, David Duchovny, Tiger Woods, Elliot Spitzer, David Petraeus, Anthony Weiner, Josh Duggar, Bill Cosby, Jared Fogle, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, etc. It’s my job. What I find interesting about this revolving door of sexual harassers, offenders, and cheaters is that sometimes the public is incredibly up in arms, other times not so much. For instance, the recent scandals at Fox (Ailes and O’Reilly), though they were certainly big news, did not seem to inspire the level of vitriol and cries for retribution that we’re currently seeing with Harvey Weinstein – even though the alleged behaviors are almost shockingly similar.
So, what gives? Why is pretty much every person in America screaming for Harvey Weinstein’s head on a platter, when Ailes and O’Reilly and even Bill Cosby have, for the most part, faded into the woodwork? Honestly, the only time I’ve ever seen this level of public and media response to a sexual scandal was with Tiger Woods, and in that case the reaction was mostly sadness mixed with morbid curiosity, rather than the outright fury we’re seeing now.
I wonder if maybe, just maybe, we’re angry about more than just Harvey Weinstein.
In the world of psychology, the term “displacement” is used to describe the transference of feelings from the original object to another object. For instance, a person could be incredibly angry about an argument with his or her spouse, but not feel comfortable expressing that level of anger to a loved one, so he or she might cut people off in traffic, or become angry with an employee, or overreact to a mistake made by a server at a restaurant, or whatever.
Expressing “sideways anger” in this way is a common psychological defense mechanism. Instead of directing our anger at the person with whom we are angry (usually because we are afraid of what that might cost us), we bottle up our feelings and we let them build up, until finally our powerful emotions burst forth, triggered by and aimed at someone other than the individual with whom we are most angry. In a way, we disown our anger out of fear. Except we don’t really disown it, we just hide it until it forces its way out in a displaced direction.
I believe this is what we are seeing with Harvey Weinstein. And no, I am not in any way trying to defend either Weinstein or his actions. Believe me, I am not. If the allegations are true, then he is a sex offender and a predator who should be held accountable for his actions. What I am saying is that some of our anger might be less about Weinstein and more about the buildup of cultural misogyny we’ve seen during the last two years. Remember, a man who compares women to bowling balls got elected president, the news network that supported him has endured two major sex scandals, and Jared Fogle, Bill Cosby, and Anthony Weiner have been charged with and/or convicted of sex crimes. The list goes on and on. Meanwhile, the sociopolitical atmosphere in our nation has regressed by about 60 years, with women and minorities the primary victims. And now Weinstein.
Well, the dam has burst. We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.
As a therapist, I understand that it’s healthy for us, both individually and collectively, to express our feelings, including anger, as long as we do so appropriately. Keeping painful emotions bottled up is not good for us. So, let’s get it out, experience it, examine it, process it, learn from it, and become better people. But let’s not think that we’re only angry at Harvey Weinstein. This is not all about one man. It’s about a type of man, a type of entitlement, a type of behavior that has gone on far too long. So some of our anger is about bigger picture issues – anger at men in power who don’t respect women, and anger at men who don’t take responsibility for the harms they cause.
When we understand that Harvey Weinstein is only a part of what we’re angry about, we can look more deeply at ourselves and what is driving our current, incredibly visceral reactions. If we are female we can ask, “When was I pushed too far by a man? How did I feel about that at the time, and how do I feel about it now? What was my response at the time? Do I wish I had responded differently?” If we are male we can ask, “Have I ever pushed too hard with a woman, overstepping her boundaries? How did I feel about that at the time, and how do I feel about it now? Do I need to make amends? What have I learned? How can I ensure that I will never engage in that sort of behavior again?” Admittedly, these questions are not easy to ask and answer, but they’re the type of questions that can help us grow and learn instead of simply repeating the painful experiences of our past.
Once again, I am not saying we should not be angry with Harvey Weinstein. We should be. He was a powerful man who allegedly used his power to abuse countless people, sexually and in numerous other ways. That sort of behavior is not forgivable. He deserves our rancor. But so do a lot of other people, and until we examine and understand this, we cannot fully heal as individuals or as a nation. #MeToo, as important, cathartic, and meaningful as it is, is the sound of one hand clapping. Until this becomes a conversation where #MeToo women are being heard and responded to by #ImperfectMen, we won’t heal, and we won’t grow. We aren’t even having a conversation.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is a digital-age intimacy and relationships expert specializing in infidelity and addictions. He is the author of several highly regarded books. Currently, he is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities. For more information please visit his website, robertweissmsw.com, or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.