Growing Efforts Are Looking At How — Or If — #MeToo Offenders Can Be Reformed As a growing number of men brought down by the #MeToo movement attempt comebacks, a burgeoning industry of therapists, coaches and counselors is trying to help reform offenders.

Growing Efforts Are Looking At How — Or If — #MeToo Offenders Can Be Reformed

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Do men brought down by the #MeToo movement deserve a second chance? Several are attempting to make their way back into the public eye. And underlying questions about redemption, there are questions about rehabilitation. Can proven sexual harassers change? And if so, how?

NPR's Tovia Smith reports on a burgeoning industry of therapists, coaches and counselors trying to help reform them.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: You hear it about sexual harassers all the time; guys like that'll never change. That may be true for the out-and-out psychopaths and those with other serious disorders, but experts say most sexual harassers are not in that bucket.

BARBARA ZIV: They're apples and oranges.

SMITH: Forensic psychiatrist Barbara Ziv, an expert on victims and perpetrators of sexual misconduct, says most are opportunistic offenders or self-delusional, but they're not beyond help.

ZIV: Those aren't individuals who are sort of hard-wired to sexually assault. And those are the people that have the most potential for learning and not doing it again.

SMITH: Ziv, who will testify against former film producer Harvey Weinstein at his upcoming rape trial, says the most egregious offenders who make headlines are too often conflated with the rest.

ZIV: The #MeToo movement has to become more sophisticated. And we should, two years out, be able to distinguish between these buckets. But even my saying that there is a distinction can be perceived as letting men off the hook.

SMITH: But treatment, Ziv says, is not a repudiation of justice. As University of Toronto psychologist James Cantor says, it's not just about redemption for offenders. It's about prevention for everyone.

JAMES CANTOR: Justice needs to be had. But so long as we keep talking about we need to just gather up the evil, dismiss them and ignore them, we're not going to either rehabilitate these people or prevent more of these cases from the future.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What I had done was something that I really buried for decades.

SMITH: This man, who has been soul-searching about his own sexual misconduct, asked that his name not be used for fear the backlash will hurt his family. He says the #MeToo movement was a wake-up call that compelled him to finally face what he did. That was everything from stealing a kiss at the office to date raping a woman he barely knew decades ago.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I was shook by the realization that I had been able to go through my life powered by privilege without owning up to this. And there were probably a lot of other guys who had done those things. And if we want to prevent and change the culture, our actions need to come out in the light of day and be the basis for a conversation.

SMITH: He has been working through counseling and through what's called vicarious restorative justice, where he shows up as a stand-in for victims who can't meet with their own perpetrators. He starts by owning what he did.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That would be to say, I took your body for my pleasure and my needs. I knew that you couldn't stop me from doing it.

SMITH: He acknowledges the damage he caused.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You may have had depression. You may have - I may have caused a lifetime of difficulty having relationships.

SMITH: And he apologizes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's not your fault. And it's not something that was anything other than my boorishness, my belief that I could have whatever I want. And I'm very sorry that you were hurt.

SMITH: It's cathartic for him and healing for survivors who were there.

ALISSA ACKERMAN: I don't even know how to describe it in words, but it was just this moment of being heard by someone who caused sexual harm. It is a weight that you no longer have to carry.

SMITH: Alissa Ackerman, a criminologist, now leads restorative justice circles for others, convinced it can teach empathy and motivate change like nothing else. It's no coincidence that only while listening to survivors describe their pain did the man remember, for the first time in decades, his victim's name.

ACKERMAN: In the middle of the session, he just blurted it out. It came back to him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, I was pretty shaken by it. She became a real person.

ACKERMAN: He was able to humanize her because he had to humanize the four of us sitting in front of him.

SMITH: As one expert put it, restorative justice is not therapy, but it is therapeutic. Other approaches go the more traditional route. Dr. Vaile Wright with the American Psychological Association says research is still scant, but strategies like cognitive behavioral therapy are promising. The idea, she says, is to break down the thoughts and feelings driving bad behavior. For example, a guy who mistakenly believes a co-worker is interested in him.

VAILE WRIGHT: You start asking questions like, well, if it's true, then what? Well, then it would mean that I should get to hit on her. Well, after she said no and you still hit on her, then what? Well, it would mean that she was being a tease. OK. Well, if it was true that she is a tease, then what would that mean? Well, it would mean that she's a bad person, and she gets what she deserves. You just go down a rabbit hole until you can figure out what it is that's at the core.

SMITH: Correcting that, she says, often means addressing anything from feelings of inadequacy to outmoded views of gender roles. It's why another approach gaining interest focuses on toxic masculinity.

JOSHUA HATHAWAY: A big part of that is peeling off the armor and bringing these guys into a state of being utterly raw.

SMITH: Joshua Hathaway leads men's retreats through a group called the Brotherhood Community.

HATHAWAY: It's learning how to wield our power in a more responsible way. It's dismantling our misogyny. It's dismantling a lot of these prejudices that dehumanize other people. And that's messy work.

SMITH: Counselors say a growing number of men are buying in, but others worry about softer, gentler rehabilitative approaches gaining favor over punitive ones.

MAX EDEN: Quite frankly, I think, you know, there should be a fear of social stigma, a fear of social consequence attached to boorish and sexually improper behavior.

SMITH: Max Eden is with the Manhattan Institute for policy research.

EDEN: My concern is that we're not only letting men off the hook with this, but we're actually creating a reward structure for behaving badly and going through what might not be a very sincere redemption process.

SMITH: Proponents insist it's hard to fake your way through such intense personal encounters. And they say it's not meant to replace punishment, but they, too, can see there's no guarantee that it works.

Psychiatrist Barbara Ziv recalls working with one executive who dutifully listened for hours as she explained why it was wrong to touch a female colleague, flirt with her or make comments about her looks. Months later, she saw him again.

ZIV: The first thing he said to me when I walked into the office is, don't you look pretty? You know, all of the time that I had spent with him, and he was oblivious.

SMITH: Unfortunately, Ziv says, we'll only know for sure if someone's really changed and ready for a second chance after they've had their second chance and didn't blow it.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.


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