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Sexual Harassment and Brain Chemistry

A new way to think about workplace behavior

As we reckon with the long overdue cultural shift brought on by the #MeToo movement, how can we help understand the behaviors that many men are now re-evaluating?

The answer may lie in the imbalances of our brain chemistry.

Pulsing within us are chemicals that stimulate and motivate and other chemicals that serve to relax and calm us down. Think of a car needing both an engine and a brake to function properly. And we all suffer from some kind of imbalance—we either have too little in the way of calming brain chemicals (primarily involving the neurotransmitter serotonin), or too little stimulating brain chemicals (primarily dopamine). Those with dopamine imbalances are D types and those with serotonin imbalances S types.

Early in our lives, these imbalances set in motion coping strategies designed to help us modulate the emotional discomfort caused by stress. Stress suppresses the prefrontal cortex, impairing executive functioning— attention, problem solving, impulse control, and smooth emotional regulation. At the same time, stress activates the amygdala, the grey matter that uses emotion rather than reason to shape actions. When stressed, S types tend to feel overstimulated and look for ways to avoid or reduce stimulation, while D types, feeling understimulated, are on the hunt for something that registers as exciting and potentially rewarding.

So how does this relate to sexual behavior, particularly those decisions and actions that are predatory and inappropriate?

S-type men tend to think before they act and worry more about the personal consequences of their actions. They are less daring and better able to delay gratification, which may make them awkward and lousy dates, but they are not likely to be perpetrators of sexual assault. Those few S types who do step over the line sexually tend to be sneaky and insidious—because they are risk averse and motivated to avoid punishment and disapprobation. Guided more by calculation and planning, they can be particularly dangerous. Such men can choose and groom their subjects with great patience and manipulation (think Larry Nassar).

D-type men, having too little available dopamine in their systems, look for ways to feel “normal.” Especially when stressed, they search for ways to increase stimulation and secure small hits of dopamine. Risk and danger provide that dopamine. Combine this tendency with difficulty in delaying gratification and it’s easy to understand why a higher percentage of D types are sexual transgressors.

For D types the signal strength of “I want what I want and I want it right now” is very strong. It’s powerful when it’s attached to a new iPhone, boat, or object of romantic longing. It can be so loud as to drown out the realities of cost, consequence, and consent. The marriage of imbalanced dopamine and power, perceived or real, amplifies that signal strength, trivializing the woman who is the object of the man’s impulse.

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At companies and universities across the country, mandatory sexual-harassment training includes scenarios in which employees are and asked to indicate what is and is not appropriate. While this method may not do any harm, its takeaway is akin to, “Just say no to drugs.” And, as it was in the 1980s, the message is too simplistic to be useful.

The problem is that there are no evidence-based treatment programs we know of for the sort of sexual misconduct that gave birth to the #MeToo movement. There do exist addiction-related approaches designed for behaviors like substance abuse and gambling men can enroll in. These are essentially modified 12-step programs with no empirical evidence as to their effectiveness. There are even some residential treatment programs with names like Gentle Path at the Meadows and Promises that purport to treat sexual addiction, employing 12-step programs. And that’s about it. None of these treatment protocols identify and help modify the root causes animating certain men with dopamine imbalances.

Empathy training has proven to be relatively ineffective. Why? Empathy training is conducted in the abstract, when the prefrontal cortex is awake. For D types, registering empathy at the moment of sexual arousal requires curiosity and an external focus. The generosity of curiosity too often fades in the haze of sexual anticipation and is lost. Reward, pleasure, and the projection of power are all internal fixations. Confrontation therapy, on the other hand, has better results. Being faced by a woman in pain or anger deprives the man of minimizing what he is doing, and draws a big underline below the danger he creates for himself.

We can understand the situation more deeply if we look at the underlying brain chemical issues. Men should understand how they are set up by their brain chemistry. Response to a simple questionnaire can identify the coping strategies associated with imbalanced serotonin and dopamine. The treatment of important dopamine imbalances can involve rebalancing brain chemicals pharmaceutically. For less marked D-type imbalances, a series of focused exercises can be used to override the self-defeating elements of these unconscious strategies to avoid the emotional discomfort of having too little systemic dopamine.

Men who understand and deal responsibly with the hidden drivers of behavior are far less likely to be sexual harassers. Until more men accept this, we hope women will keep their voices loud, their consent (or lack thereof) clear, and the threat of line crossing broadcast at full volume. 

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