We can’t stop sex harassment by firing or incarcerating our way out; we can stop it by using ACEs science

acelogo (1)


So, Harvey Weinstein has gone to ground, along with Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and Kevin Spacey, to name a few, and they’re likely never to work in their chosen fields again. This week, federal Appeals Court Judge Alex Kosinski retired after 15 women, including former clerks, accused him of sexual misconduct. Do a search for “sexual harassment” and stories about dozens of men across a variety of professions appears.

Sexual harassment is everywhere – all professions, including higher education, and all walks of life (see the NYTimes article about women who work in Ford’s Chicago plants). The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that 60% of women report having experienced sexual harassment. That’s 45 million women. Forty-five million. And a much smaller, but still in the millions, number of men have also been sexually harassed by their male or female bosses.

The solutions so far — Fire them! Jail them! Destroy them! — might garner some headlines and short-term satisfaction. The solutions certainly fit our traditional approach of using blame, shame and punishment to attempt to change human behavior.

But we can’t fire or imprison our way out of this — it’s too big and too complex. Here’s why: Let’s just assume that it’s not a one-to-one ratio of sexual abuser to abused. In Harvey Weinstein’s case, for example, more than 90 women have come forward. Let’s say it’s a one-to-40 ratio. That means about one million men have sexually harassed mostly women and some men. Even if it’s a one-to-20 ratio, that’s about two million men who have sexually harassed others. Sure, we could fire them all. But we can’t throw them all in jail — there’s not enough room, and aren’t we trying to put fewer people in prison, anyway? And, even if we did, we’d face another million or two to throw in jail in a few years, because the root of the problem lies in childhood.

We’ve already learned that we can’t incarcerate our way out of our opioid problem, we can’t expel or suspend our way out of behavior problems in schools, we can’t hospitalize our way out of heart problems, auto-immune disorders and cancer. If we don’t get to the common roots of these problems, we’ll just keep growing children into adults that harm others by violence, bullying or sexual abuse, and/or themselves by becoming addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Whichever way they go — harming themselves or harming others — they’ll likely suffer health consequences, too. Because all of these problems have the same roots: ACEs….adverse childhood experiences, AKA childhood trauma.



Morgan Spurlock

Of all the men who’ve been in the headlines lately, it’s Morgan Spurlock who’s come closest to understanding the links between his childhood and his behavior as an adult. Spurlock says he’s “part of the problem”, and confessed to sexually abusing a woman who calls it rape, harassing women (and thinking it was funny) as well as being unfaithful to every girlfriend and wife he’s had. He continues:

But why? What caused me to act this way? Is it all ego? Or was it the sexual abuse I suffered as a boy and as a young man in my teens? Abuse that I only ever told to my first wife, for fear of being seen as weak or less than a man?

Is it because my father left my mother when I was child? Or that she believed he never respected her, so that disrespect carried over into their son?

Or is it because I’ve consistently been drinking since the age of 13? I haven’t been sober for more than a week in 30 years, something our society doesn’t shun or condemn but which only served to fill the emotional hole inside me and the daily depression I coped with. Depression we can’t talk about, because its wrong and makes you less of a person.

And the sexual daliances (sic)? Were they meaningful? Or did they only serve to try to make a weak man feel stronger.

Ok….I can hear some of you now: “Oh boo hoo. Whine. Whine. He’s just making excuses. We can’t let men off the hook so easily.”

Here’s why Spurlock is on to something, and where our new understanding of human behavior can actually help us solve this so that our daughters and sons don’t have to experience what we did.

ACEs comes from the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), groundbreaking research that looked at how 10 types of childhood trauma affect long-term health. They include: physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; living with a family member who’s addicted to alcohol or other substances, or who’s depressed or has other mental illnesses; experiencing parental divorce or separation; having a family member who’s incarcerated, and witnessing a mother being abused.

Subsequent ACE surveys include racism, witnessing violence outside the home, bullying, spanking, losing a parent to deportation, living in an unsafe neighborhood, and involvement with the foster care system. Other types of childhood adversity can also include being homeless, living in a war zone, being an immigrant, moving many times, witnessing a sibling being abused, witnessing a father or other caregiver or extended family member being abused, involvement with the criminal justice system, attending a school that enforces a zero-tolerance discipline policy, etc.

Thirty-eight percent of children in every state have at least one ACE, according to an analysis of the 2016 National Children’s Health Survey by the Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative (CAHMI) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. That’s 34 million children. Thirty-four million. Many of those children will accumulate more ACEs. Some will grow up to harm others. Others will grow up to harm themselves. Many will do both.

The epidemiology of ACEs — i.e., the ACE Study and other surveys — is just one of five parts of ACEs science, which also includes how toxic stress from ACEs damage children’s developing brains and how it affects adult brains; how toxic stress from ACEs affects health; how it affects our genes and is passed from one generation to another (epigenetics); and resilience research, which shows the brain is plastic and the body wants to heal. Resilience research focuses on what happens when individuals, organizations and systems integrate trauma-informed and resilience-building practices, for example in education and in the family court system.

The ACE Study found that the higher someone’s ACE score – the more types of childhood adversity a person experienced – the higher their risk of chronic disease, mental illness, violence, being a victim of violence and several other consequences. The study found that most people (64%) have at least one ACE; 12% of the population has an ACE score of 4 or more. Having an ACE score of 4 nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer. It increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700 percent and the risk of attempted suicide by 1200 percent. (For more information, go to ACEs Science 101. To calculate your ACE and resilience scores, go to: Got Your ACE Score?)

I can’t tell from Spurlock’s essay how many ACEs he experienced, but there are at least two and a hint of a third, which paved the way for his coping mechanisms for depression, emptiness and feelings of powerlessness — alcoholism and abusing others — to make himself feel less empty and more powerful.

In a New York Times article about how Anita Hill is leading a new Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, who led the founding of the commission, said something hopeful: “The commission will not seek just one solution, but a comprehensive strategy to address the complex and interrelated causes of the problems of parity and power.”

We need comprehensive. We could continue our Whac-a-Mole approach to workplace issues…one program to go after sexual harassment, another to stop bullying, another to address absenteeism, another to address high health costs by instituting workplace wellness policies….with a combination of training (how many of you have done the required online sexual harassment training?) and punishment.  We know how that approach has turned out.

OR….we could address them all at once with a comprehensive ACEs science approach — changing our culture by integrating into every organization in every community in the U.S. the trauma-informed and resilience-building practices and policies based on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) science to create environments that no longer traumatize traumatized people. This means moving from a blame, shame and punishment workplace culture, to a culture of understanding, nurturing and helping people heal themselves.

A personal note: I’m long and deep into the #MeToo realm, so don’t throw me into the apologists’ tank. I began experiencing sexual abuse from the age of six  into my teens, and experienced sexual harassment in nearly every place I worked. And, contrary to what some people say, it doesn’t stop because women get older; I experienced a man abusively scouting for his prey just two weeks ago, more than 60 years after I was unfortunate enough to go down this crappy rabbit hole. For years, rage was my savior, until it became a burden and a hindrance to healing. And now, after years of work, I’m deep into solutions: What can we do to stop and prevent this? With what we’ve learned in the last 20 years, and the practices and policies that pioneers in this arena have put in place, there’s no doubt we can.

Integrating trauma-informed and resilience-building practices and policies based on ACEs science in all workplaces isn’t as impossible as it sounds. Thousands of organizations have done so, mostly in the social services, education and health care sectors, with a smattering in juvenile justice, family courts, the faith-based community, drug courts, law enforcement, and state agencies. But practically no organizations in media, entertainment, law, the tech industry, the political arena, sports, manufacturing, insurance or retail have.

And we all need to participate in this. Because, despite our focus on the perpetrators, all of us are a part of this problem. We all have ACEs or know or are affected by those who do (whether family, friends, co-workers, bosses, elected officials, etc.) and therefore we all must participate in the solution.

People such as Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer could never have abused so many women had they not had people who enabled their behavior, either by supporting them (i.e., continuing to work for them knowing that they were ushering women into a dangerous encounter or looking the other way when abuse occurred). They could not have continued their behavior for as many years as they did had we not all participated in a culture where women weren’t believed, and victims blamed for the abuse of those who had the power of employment and resources over them, and where we elect people who have knowingly harmed others and bragged about it privately or publicly. (For a remarkable analysis of how Donald Trump’s childhood has manifested itself in his adult behavior, read this interview with Dr. Gabor Maté.)

Changing this culture isn’t easy, but we can do it. Not RAH RAH we can do it, but we can do it because enough people already have and have the data to show that this approach works.

At the essence of this change is each one of us being able to look at someone like Harvey Weinstein and wonder what he experienced in his childhood that led him to strip naked, put on a robe, and then ask women to massage him or watch him masturbate. Or look at his enablers and wonder what they experienced in their childhoods that would have them knowingly go along with helping put another person in harm’s way. Or wonder about ourselves because we ended up in a room with him, and understand that with our history of sexual abuse or other ACEs we aren’t equipped with the “danger radar” that people who grew up in a healthy environment are equipped with, and, further, that we are likely respond to an attack by freezing or appeasing instead of fighting or fleeing. (See Louise Godbold’s excellent essay about her experience with Weiinstein.)

And only then can we figure out how to create an environment that’s safe enough for all of us to talk freely about what happened to us, what we’ve done to harm ourselves or others, to ask forgiveness, to make amends, to change our behavior as best we can, and to understand that some situations will always trigger us, to be kind to ourselves when that happens and to give ourselves and others the time and space to recover.

That’s not to say that there are some people who have been so damaged by their ACEs that they may never be able to go through this process, and in those cases, they need to live in a place where they can no longer harm others, and also need to be treated with respect for the suffering they’ve experienced.

There’s one more thing: Many people have said that sexual violence is the worst thing a woman or man can experience and does more damage than some other types of abuse. There’s no doubt that sexual abuse is horrible and can cause lifelong damage (speaking from experience). But the ACE Study and brain science provide some useful perspectives that can help us understand our own ACEs and the ACEs that others experience.

“Although violence can beget violence, it’s hardly the only cause of violence,” says Dr. Vincent Felitti, co-principal investigator of the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). “Basically there are lots of other ways,” he says. “Humiliating people. Isolating people. Verbally provoking them. All of those have potential for producing violence in response.”

In addition, violence can provoke nonviolent behavior that can be just as damaging as violence.

He noted one other surprise from the ACE Study, which 39 states, the District of Columbia, and several countries have now replicated with similar results. When it came to the consequences of ACEs, it didn’t matter what the types of ACEs were; on a population level, they all do the same damage. An ACE score of 4 that includes divorce, physical abuse, an incarcerated family member and a depressed family member has the same statistical outcome as an ACE score of 4 that includes living with an alcoholic, verbal abuse, emotional neglect and physical neglect.

“We studied a whole range of outcomes — emotional, social, financial, biomedical, etc. If someone had an ACE score of 2 or 4 or 7, it didn’t matter how you made the ACE score up. It didn’t matter. That was unexpected and a surprise,” says Felitti.

And brain science clearly shows that the brain doesn’t distinguish among different types of trauma. To your neurons, the stress response from verbal abuse can be as damaging as neglect or living with a family member who’s alcoholic, or experiencing the humiliation and powerlessness of racism, or sexual abuse. For a great explanation of this, read Donna Jackson Nakazawa’s book, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology and How You Can Heal.

The bottom line is that when you’re healthy and don’t have a high ACE score, or you do have a high ACE score and are building resilience into your life every day to keep healing, you’re NOT as likely to harm anyone or yourself, or unconsciously put yourself in harm’s way. As people wise to ACEs science say: Hurt people hurt people, whether it’s others or ourselves.

That’s a handy thing to remember when thinking about those 34 million kids who have at least one ACE, and how we should be working on creating a world where they don’t accumulate more.

Written By Jane Ellen Stevens

We can’t stop sex harassment by firing or incarcerating our way out; we can stop it by using ACEs science was originally published @ Jane Ellen Stevens – ACEs Too High and has been syndicated with permission.

Photo by Backbone Campaign


Our authors want to hear from you! Click to leave a comment

Related Posts

Subscribe to the SJS Weekly Newsletter

Leave a Reply