A psychologist explains why men who advocate for women's rights can be abusive in their private lives.
Getty Images

The allegations that former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman physically and emotionally abused four women are violent and disturbing. But the fact that Schneiderman publicly advocated for women while allegedly abusing them in private adds another layer of horror to this story, which was reported this week in The New Yorker.

In his role as New York’s top law enforcement officer, from which he resigned on Monday, Schneiderman fought for women’s rights. The man who allegedly choked women in private introduced a domestic violence bill to make strangulation a violent felony. The man accused of slapping women so hard they had to seek medical attention recently filed a lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein and tweeted his support for the Me Too movement. And the same man who allegedly threatened to kill his girlfriends and called them “whores” promoted policies to better protect sexual assault survivors.

The Me Too movement has shown that offenders don’t all fit the same mold. Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Al Franken ― all have been accused of predatory behavior despite their overtly feminist and progressive politics. Schneiderman’s case seems particularly difficult to reconcile given that he’s being accused of the very kind of abuse he tried to prevent throughout this career.

HuffPost spoke with Lori Haskell, a Toronto-based psychologist who specializes in sexual violence, about why equal rights crusaders can also be can predators.

How is it possible that someone who professionally advocates for equal rights could be abusive toward women in their personal lives?

I think that offenders like this actually live with a cognitive split. They think of abusers as sexist men who would never do the type of work that they are doing. They don’t have an understanding that these acts of violence can be part of someone who considers himself to be quite equal and reciprocal in his relationships. And when they act aggressively or violently, they try to say, “This is part of a consensual sexual act. This isn’t part of how I treat women. This is something disconnected over here that’s private. This is not about who I am as a person.” And then they justify their violent behavior with some explanation that they were wrongfully accused or that these women provoked the abuse or wanted it.

What is happening on a psychological level that allows this cognitive split to happen?

Our prefrontal cortex helps us inhibit impulses so we can think through and organize our thoughts and responses. When the moral reasoning part of our brain gets deactivated by alcohol or high levels of adrenaline and stress, other impulses from our limbic system come to the forefront.

We have a lot of these really negative emotional memories called implicit memories ― they are not part of the narrative we have of ourselves. They could include violent fantasies or deep-seated fears about loss of control. Schneiderman may not be aware that on an intimate level, he has a desire to be in charge of or dominate women, but when he’s in those moments and is fueled by alcohol, he has reactions and behaviors that he’s not able to inhibit with his prefrontal cortex.

“I think lots of men get in these positions of power, the opportunity is there, and they don’t stop themselves.”

- Lori Haskell, a Toronto-based psychologist who specializes in sexual violence

Schneiderman has denied the allegations of abuse, saying he has “engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity.” Could the fact that he’s championed women’s rights professionally delude him into thinking he’s not capable of being an offender?

Men who think “I’m not sexist” and “I think violence against women is wrong” really do integrate these beliefs into their identities. When men like Trump are blatantly sexist and say demeaning things, it’s so easy for other men to think, “I’m not him like him so I’m not an abuser.” Some men are only aggressive like this in intimate relationships with women. They aren’t the guys that are going to make sexist jokes and they aren’t intentionally thinking, “How can I harm a woman?” But they have these private moments where they feel insecure or threatened or triggered. They might be inappropriately sexually aroused by problematic beliefs and images to do with controlling women, and commit an act of violence or aggression.

So even predators themselves believe the myth that offenders fit an overtly misogynistic stereotype?

They do. It’s not one type of man who commits these acts. It’s easy to demonize men who use their status to construct a world where they can have access and power and domination. It’s been easy for other men to say that’s unacceptable. But to varying degrees there’s a lot of men with similar attitudes and behaviors. It’s the same as racism. When white people see blatant racist behaviors, they can be outraged and say, “That’s not me.” But they don’t often look at the many ways they may hold some similar views and have racist attitudes.

Do some people deliberately get in positions of power to more easily access their victims?

I don’t know how much of that would be a conscious choice. I think more likely is people in incredibly powerful positions letting themselves exploit it. You have to be almost like a psychopath to actually think, “I’m going to become a doctor and have access to kids’ bodies so I can sexually violate them.” That is so disturbed. I think lots of men get in these positions of power, the opportunity is there, and they don’t stop themselves.

As a psychologist, it must be a challenge to work with offenders who don’t acknowledge their own violent behavior.

You can only change implicit experiences by recognizing certain patterns of behavior and working to change yourself. Schneiderman would have had to think, “There’s a number of times now where I found myself with women and behaved in appalling ways. I don’t know what triggered me and why. But I need to understand this and I need to deal with this differently.” I’ve worked with men who will hold onto the belief that what they did was consensual. When they get to a place of admitting they did it, they are upset. But they can’t stay with that realization. Men who have sexually assaulted women will often backpedal and say, “Her body was saying ‘yes’ even if she was saying ‘no.’” To think “I’ve harmed someone” is something many people feel extremely upset about.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Before You Go

Popular in the Community