The #MeToo and “Time’s Up” movements have catapulted sexual harassment into the headlines. Wealthy and powerful entertainers, politicians, business executives and others have lost careers and reputations as their histories of sexual assault have come to light.
But the problem itself is far from new, of course, and far from solved. And for decades before the horror stories emerged about Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and the like, researchers of sexual violence have toiled in relative obscurity, scientifically studying abuse’s debilitating effects on people and organizations, and trying to reduce its incidence.
A preeminent researcher in the field, University of Oregon psychology professor Jennifer Freyd, spoke at the recent Wharton People Analytics Conference. Freyd has been recognized for her influential theories about sexual violence and is the author of the award-winning book Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. She described the damaging psychological and even physical effects on victims when companies mishandle complaints, and offered practical ways that firms can reduce sexual harassment in their ranks.
Sensitive to Betrayal
Freyd described the concept of betrayal trauma — which she pioneered — to explain why sexual harassment is so psychologically damaging. Human beings, she said, are “exquisitely sensitive to betrayal.” We constantly make unspoken agreements, and when we feel betrayed, it’s costly and harmful to us psychologically.
At the same time, people are extremely dependent creatures, relying upon their parents during infancy and then on institutions such as schools, employers and governments in varying degrees throughout our lives, Freyd said. In your job, for example, you’re dependent on your boss, and “you continue to do things to be appreciated by that person” in order to cement this necessary relationship.
So when the caregiver, or professor, or supervisor is the abuser, there’s a conflict between two basic psychological systems, said Freyd. Betrayal trauma is the result, often accompanied by a survival mechanism called betrayal blindness: The victim doesn’t recognize they’re being abused. “You’re only going to make your situation worse, so it’s safer to ‘not know’ what’s going on,” she explained.
“You may have heard people say … ‘The rape was bad, but what was even worse was how I was treated after the rape occurred.’” –Jennifer Freyd
Freyd said betrayal blindness is pervasive, and not only victims but also perpetrators and witnesses engage in it. It’s also “extremely toxic,” she noted, and causes significant distress over and above the original abuse. Studies have linked it to a plethora of conditions including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, hallucinations, self-harm, substance abuse, re-victimization and physical illness.
A related phenomenon is institutional betrayal, Freyd said, which refers to a bad response from one’s school or workplace to a reported assault. Institutional betrayal can be overt or can simply constitute a failure to protect people when they have reasonably expected to be safe. In studies of educational institutions, Freyd and her colleagues found that a large portion — 40% — of those reporting sexual assault also indicated they had experienced institutional betrayal and had trauma symptoms caused by it. “It’s added harm, above and beyond the interpersonal violation,” Freyd said.
The findings were similar to those of a 2016 paper by Veterans Administration researchers who found that military sexual trauma survivors who also felt betrayed by their institutions had more PTSD, more depression and higher odds of attempted suicide.
Freyd added, “You may have heard people say, and military personnel say, ‘The rape was bad, but what was even worse was how I was treated after the rape occurred.’”
The Company’s Response
Institutional betrayal isn’t good for your company, said Freyd. The data show that it leads to more sick days and more absenteeism. Some people will even leave the firm. And those who stay often become less engaged with their work.
There’s also a reputational cost. “Individuals who’ve experienced institutional betrayal are less likely to say good things about the institution to other people.”
When an employee reports sexual harassment, what exactly constitutes a bad response? Freyd described some common ones, saying they may or may not be well-intentioned, such as not acknowledging the abuse, or trying to reassure in order to minimize it — for example, saying “Oh, that was so long ago.”
Other techniques include turning the discussion to oneself in an attempt to distract or calm the victim. Or taking control away from the victim, saying, “I’m going to go and do something with this information.”
A “particularly pernicious” response, said Freyd, is called DARVO (Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender). Freyd coined the term in 1997 to highlight how perpetrators sometimes portray themselves as the “real” victims. She showed a slide with examples of the technique. Deny: “None of this ever took place.” Attack: “You are a disgusting human being.” Reverse the roles of victim and offender: “I am a victim.”
“These [statements] are in quotes because somebody said those words. Somebody very, very famous,” she said.
Only 6% of graduate students who were sexually harassed reported it to the university.
Frustratingly, DARVO works, according to Freyd. Victims who get DARVOed are more likely to blame themselves for the assault. And observers exposed to a DARVO situation begin to question the abused person’s credibility.
“DARVO must be called out to defang it,” said Freyd. She noted that she has an upcoming research project to try to measure the effects when people point out that it’s happening.
Many sexual abuse victims don’t even get an institutional response because they never report the harassment. In a study on graduate students who had been sexually harassed by faculty or staff, Freyd found that only 6% had reported it to the university. That leaves, of course, a whopping 94% who kept it to themselves.
In another study, comparing official reporting to self-reporting, Freyd and colleagues found that, for example, if there are 100 abuse survivors and six or eight of them say they reported it, only about two of those reports actually make it through the system. The information is “dying in the pipeline.”
“Although reporting can lead to good outcomes, in fact it’s an extremely risky thing to do,” Freyd commented. Getting a bad response can make things worse for the victim, both psychologically and in practical terms. But the widespread lack of reporting is a roadblock to combatting the overall problem.
Reducing Institutional Betrayal
Freyd asserted that companies can prevent institutional betrayal by demonstrating institutional courage. She offered a number of recommendations. One was to comply with relevant laws. “This seems like a ‘duh,’ but I so often find that people are not following basic civil rights laws like Title VII and Title IX,” she said.
Make sure your leadership is educated about sexual violence and related trauma. And respond sensitively to victim disclosures. “There’s a huge benefit there,” she commented. Although many people don’t know how to be good listeners — and it’s not taught in schools — she and a colleague have designed an intervention to improve listening experiences, which is posted on her website.
She also recommended that companies apologize. “Apologies can be done, and they can even get past your general counsel and still be sincere,” she said. “It takes some time to thread the needle, but it is doable.”
Another tip is to “cherish the whistleblower,” she said. “I don’t know why we have so much trouble with this, but the whistleblower is your best friend. If they’re telling you something is going on in your organization, listen.”
Furthermore, it’s crucial to conduct scientifically sound, anonymous company surveys on sexual harassment and institutional betrayal, she said. “People will not talk easily about these issues. If only 6% are reporting, that’s not usable data.”
“Apologies can be done, and they can even get past your general counsel and still be sincere.” –Jennifer Freyd
Because sexual violence thrives in secret, Freyd said, be transparent about your data and about company policies while protecting people’s privacy. She noted that this would ultimately be “very liberating” for the organization. She also noted that companies that are concerned about potential negative press can keep survey results internal. They can nevertheless make use of the data to create a better work environment and will reap the benefits.
University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth, who interviewed Freyd at the conference, brought up the issue of some people’s skepticism about whether allegations are true. Freyd stated that the phenomenon of false accusations has been studied extensively, and the rate is relatively low. “It’s similar to any other kind of misbehavior, typically under 10%,” she said. “But we always need to have systems that are fair … and protect people from being falsely accused.”
Duckworth also asked Freyd if companies should be concerned about getting negative press if a sexual harassment problem becomes public. “People do take a reputational hit when they’re honest about these problems,” Freyd responded. “At the same time, I believe that the institutions that do that are ultimately going to be well-positioned with consumers down the road.” She gave the example of college selection, saying that parents of high school students are becoming savvier about this issue and asking institutions for information.
An inspiring example of institutional courage, Freyd said, occurred a few years ago at Oregon State University. She recounted how in 2014, a woman contacted both the university and a news reporter to discuss her 1998 gang-rape by a group of OSU football players. The original incident had been “handled horribly” by both the university and the police, Freyd said, and the victim — spurred by improved public awareness of college sexual assault — had decided to reopen the issue.
What Freyd finds notable were the actions of the university’s president, Edward Ray. “Instead of being defensive, he took it on,” she said. He ordered an investigation, contacted the individual to share the results, and composed a “beautiful apology letter.” Remarkably, he then hired the woman, Brenda Tracy, to a two-year position as a sexual violence consultant. Tracy has gone on to become a standard-bearer for campus sexual assault prevention, working with athletic coaches and teams around the country. Freyd said Ray received “enormous good PR” for his handling of the matter.
Are the #MeToo and “Time’s Up” movements signs of progress? Freyd believes so. “Sexual harassment has reached a kind of awareness, like a tipping point I guess. And to me that’s very exciting because I think social change and liberation works that way,” she said. “I hope we won’t go back.”