Truthies and Sexual Predation

In much of life what matters is what we believe at the moment we take an action. We treat that belief as-if it was real regardless of "evidence" or what others may believe.  The only belief which matters is our own - at that moment (it may change). Colbert called these beliefs "truthies." In a world of truthies, reality is beside the point. The world of sexual predation is a world of truthies.

With truthies, context often overrides the "face value" of the information presented.  We filter our immediate encounters through the meanings that get cued or triggered from amongst the vast corpus of ideas, "facts," labels, categories, beliefs, impressions, stories, etcetera we carry around in our minds. Context is critical. Our subconscious reaction to context is to prime some subset of these items to be "at the hand" for us to pay attention to should we need to. Encountering Al Franken the Senator with all its gravitas on the stage at Saturday Night Live will thus trigger dissonance. So too would seeing Senator Franken acting out a comedy skit on the floor of the US Senate. We react to the dissonance by asserting a truthie - whatever feels right at that moment we treat as-if it were true.

Truthies may be convenient and dissonance-resolving, but they can act to filter out valuable input which might matter. Reliance on felt truth leaves one unprepared for new information and thus unprepared to react to unexpected or emergent situations.  

Which brings us to Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein and an ever growing list of powerful people who are asserted to be sexual predators. When dealing with stories and incidents of sexual harassment and assault all too often context is relegated to the background. But, it is context that partially determines both how the scenarios play out and are viewed. Sexual predation is interwoven with the power imbalances which form their context. Those power imbalances cannot be overlooked.

The ability of the powerful to abuse and harass their victims was highly dependent upon the power differential's imposition of an uncertainty on the victim which was not present for the perp. As each encounter with a victim took place, the victim needed to process not only the explicit information demands of the perp but also the implicit uncertainty regarding the consequences of saying no. Sometimes, it is alleged, the tradeoffs were made explicit - do this or I will do x to you or your career. But, far more often the tradeoffs were unstated and uncertain. What "might" happen hung in the air as a set of implicit threats. Their very implicitness allowed the perp to maintain the illusion that what happened was "consensual."

The overarching context here matters greatly.  The truthies of sexual predation amongst Hollywood, journalists and the like was that such behavior was "expected" and "part of the game." Not only were Lauer's colleagues aware of his behavior, they apparently roasted it as "sport" in 2008. The triggers that that tolerance/endorsement creates in the mind of a potential victim is coercive. The many rumors concerning Weinstein's propensity for "revenge" acted in a similarly coercive manner.  

Behavior is not just the result of a weighted consideration of articulated and explicit information — context and meaning triggers play huge roles in our decision-making. A key to changing the culture which seemingly "allows" harassment and abuse of this kind is to change the triggers regarding implicit uncertainty which both victim and perp face. The perp relies on the idea that he is in control. If the environment were to create uncertainty for the perp, behavior is likely to change.

This is key - if we want behavior to change, we need to change the context. Information, exposes, public shaming, corporate pledges, etcetera are all good, but, in the end, they are insufficient to get behavior to change. Changing behavior requires changing contexts.

Hollywood’s TIMESUP initiative announced on January 1 represents the beginning of such a change. What TIMESUP does is let victims and prospective victims know that there exist resources to help overcome the power imbalance between victim and perp. It is the power imbalance which makes implicit intimidation all too easy. Perps have the money and the resources. Now their victims have access to TIMESUP – which promises to provide both a legal defense fund and a set of positive efforts to combat predation.

Sexual harassment and sexual assaults are not, however, just a Hollywood problem. Millions of Americans have been victims — at all ages, both genders, and across far too many industries. Hollywood, journalism, venture capital, and politics have seen nearly 100 powerful figures exposed and shamed as accused perps. The shaming may out the perp and stop repeats by that particular person – but that is not its major effect. What the shaming does is change the context: the powerful too can be taken down, silence cannot be permanently coerced, you Ms. (or Mr.) Victim your story matters. The resulting story telling has been eye-opening. Yet is it enough?

The New York Times report on sexual harassment at a Ford Motors plant (December 19) sadly suggests that the answer is no. Storytelling, public shaming, and dedicated resources have a strong enemy to fight: the cultural and mental meaning triggers that tell a perp the unacceptable is okay, the coerced is consensual, and the behavior is just boys being boys. These same factors are at work on America’s college campuses where there is no evidence that affirmative consent programs and mandatory education have actually changed behavior beyond increasing awareness amongst those who are unlikely to be perps. At college, the power imbalance seems to be created by greek life and sports teams. Outside of those forums, power imbalances are rare. Americans outside of college tell a different story. At work, power imbalances are the norm. If we are to create meaningful change regarding sexual predation, we need to tackle the mental triggers which those power imbalances create and which perps exploit.

TIMESUP is a start. It will provide resources to victims and change the perception that the perp holds all the cards. Every industry needs its own TIMESUP movement. But, that may be too much to ask. Hollywood has powerful women and a group of concerned powerful men. Other industries lack the critical mass to get a TIMESUP off the ground (and a failed TIMESUP movement would create a set of mental triggers which would only set the cause back – challenges to power imbalances are only liberating when they succeed).

TIMESUP will serve as an inspiration and an experiment. It is not alone. The organization I am the director of, Empowering Victims, has spent the past three years developing apps designed to help victims deal with the pernicious effects and mental triggers of the power imbalances they face. One of our projects involves an app which ensures that victims’ stories are recorded, preserved, and, on the victims’ terms, told. If everyone in a community, organization, or group has this app on their phone, no perp can be assured that silence can be coerced. Uncertainty is no longer just the purgatory of the victim, but an ever-present danger to any prospective perp. Like TIMESUP, our project is but a beginning.

All these projects need educational outreach – outreach focused on something more than the public shaming of powerful people who abuse their positions and others. We need outreach focused on what is right as much as on what is wrong. The Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace headed by Anita Hill is one such effort. The Affirmative Consent Project aimed at college students is another. They too are but beginnings.

We need to create change so that the youth of today do not share their parents’ and grandparents resigned view that workplace power imbalances mean that sexual harassment and abuse are just part of life. As April Rai, the executive director of the National Organizations for Youth Safety puts it: “Educating and empowering youth is critical as we address strategies that shape cultural norms. Tomorrow’s leadership has to learn what right looks like – today.”

Context matters. Power imbalances are not going away. Yet, we can affect what being in one triggers in both the mind of a potential perp and the mind of a potential victim. Together we can work to help shape a context which no longer makes sexual predation seem easy. We need your help.

Note: Michael Lissack is the Executive Director of EmpoweringVictims, the social action arm of (a 501(c)(3) educational research organization). EmpoweringVictims offers free apps to help victims and prospective victims deal with sexual assault, domestic violence, and bullying. See

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