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Why “rehabilitating” powerful men is the wrong approach to ending sexual harassment

Planning comebacks for the accused risks perpetuating the problem.

Matt Lauer in September 2017
Matt Lauer in September 2017.
Noam Galai/Contributor/Getty Images

During a drunk-driving arrest in 2006, Mel Gibson said, “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” In a tape released in 2010, he used a racist slur and told his then-girlfriend that if she got raped, it would be her fault. In 2017, Mel Gibson appeared with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg in the family-friendly holiday film Daddy’s Home 2.

To some, Gibson’s comeback an example of how quickly Hollywood forgets, and how willing American society is to brush off the abhorrent acts and words of powerful men. To others, it’s a model of successful rehabilitation.

“Murderers have been known to earn a second chance after serving their time, so why not sex pariahs?” asked Jack Shafer at Politico on Wednesday. He followed that question with what he called “Shafer’s Pariah Rehabilitation Playbook,” a six-step plan to help those accused of sexual harassment or assault repair their reputations. According to Shafer, powerful men laid low by recent allegations can rise again, like Mel Gibson and other once-disgraced figures, if they play their cards right.

The problem with Shafer’s argument isn’t the steps themselves, many of which (“confess your offense without qualification,” for instance) could help perpetrators repair the harm they’ve caused. The problem is focusing on what men accused of abusing their power can do to get some of that power back, rather than on how to prevent abuses in the first place.

The reports of unwanted advances, groping, and sexual assault behind locked office doors that have horrified many Americans in recent weeks aren’t just the result of men behaving badly — they’re the result of a power structure that kept those men safe and others at risk. Rebuilding that same power structure ensures that the same abuses happen again.

For evidence that a few men with outsized power in the workplace can put others at risk, look no further than the recent New York Times exposé of the networks of journalists, agents, and entertainment executives who protected Harvey Weinstein for decades. When actresses complained about Weinstein, agents told them “that’s just Harvey being Harvey.” One talent manager told the Times he had to keep working with Weinstein because “sometimes he was the only game in town.”

The picture emerging from the more than 80 women who have come forward with reports about Weinstein is not that of a single bad man but of an entire system rigged to protect a few men at the expense of everyone else. And focusing on how to rehabilitate the men now being accused of misconduct risks replicating that system, rather than doing the work to ensure that everyone feels safe at work.

Shafer does not defend Weinstein — he suggests that for the once-powerful producer, the only appropriate restitution may be jail. But for other men, he suggests extending a helping hand. Perhaps the most troubling part of his rehabilitation playbook is the suggestion that accused men “submit to a credible sponsor” to help rebuild their reputations.

“In Hollywood, Jodie Foster helped cure Mel Gibson’s pariahhood,” Shafer writes. “Brian Williams could intervene with Matt Lauer (remember Lauer’s interview with Williams when he was shamed for his fabulist turns?). Tina Fey could work with Al Franken. I don’t know how credible a sponsor I would be, but I’d be humbled to be part of the reintegration of my friend Michael Oreskes into professional life.”

Rather than helping those accused of abusing their power win it back, shouldn’t people like Williams and Fey be using their clout to advocate for those whose lack of power put them at risk in the first place?

Before media and entertainment luminaries start sponsoring the comebacks of their disgraced friends, they should spend some time mentoring and helping people marginalized by their race and gender, so studios, film sets, and newsrooms are no longer dominated by a few white men. And they should advocate for better sexual harassment policies and more egalitarian workplace cultures to break down the extreme power differentials that help harassers operate with impunity.

This is not to say the men Shafer mentions should have no chance at redemption. Shafer is right that murderers who have served their time have the right to reenter society and lead productive lives, and harassers should have that right as well. He is also clear that even those who follow his playbook may not be able to regain their former positions in society — “you might never rise to your pre-pariah status,” he writes. It’s worth noting that Gibson, though apparently now fit for family Christmas films, is by no means the Hollywood heavyweight he once was.

Still, first we need to think about what fair and equitable workplaces would look like for everyone. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, has found that powerful men tend to overestimate their subordinates’ sexual interest in them and “sexualize their work, looking for opportunities for sexual trysts and affairs,” he writes in the Harvard Business Review. Research has also shown that even people randomly assigned to “powerful” groups begin to behave in unethical ways. All this suggests, according to Keltner, that “abuses of power are predictable and recurring.” Rather than giving abusers back their power, we should look for ways to distribute power more fairly so abuse is less likely to happen.

The avalanche of public reports of harassment in the last few months have shown us what many marginalized people already knew: When a group of workers are treated as second-class citizens, they become vulnerable to predators.

We should also know that forcing a few predators to apologize and make restitution won’t fix the problem. We need to remedy the inequality that put people at risk. To do that, we have to fundamentally change the power structures of workplaces and entire industries — not take abusers out for a little scrubbing and put them back in place.