Seeing a female police detective lead former Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein in cuffs outside New York’s First Precinct in May certainly looked like a victory for the #MeToo movement. This rich and powerful man has now been indicted on multiple rape and criminal sexual act charges. This week, Weinstein was indicted on three more charges, including the sexual assault of a third woman. It would be hard to imagine a comeback story for the movie mogul — even if he managed to evade prison. America has rejected him as a serial abuser of women.
But for many people, quitting abusers is not so easy. It is a formidable challenge for targets, bystanders and society as a whole that we are only beginning to grapple with. Too often, we remain in thrall to people who inflict pain and pathologies on others. Why is it so hard to get free? Will #MeToo make it any easier?
Clinical studies show that women who get involved with abusers are very often well-educated and powerful, according to psychologist Sandra L. Brown, who has written a book on this subject. Many also exhibit positive traits like empathy and deep investment in relationships. And yet, these are the very traits that can turn against them when they are partnered with a manipulative and destructive person, because it creates strong psychological incentives to stick around.
For many people, quitting abusers is not so easy. It is a formidable challenge for targets, bystanders and society as a whole that we are only beginning to grapple with.
Combine these types of hooks with the gaslighting, blame-shifting and threatening behavior typical of abusers, add a heap of shame, and you have a recipe for what some psychologists call “trauma bonding” — loyalty to a person who is destructive. Such bonds are said to occur in relationships where there is “intermittent reinforcement” — a pattern of unpredictable rewards and punishments. It’s the same mechanism that keeps gamblers glued to the blackjack table.
The very human process of falling in love lights up the brain in ways that scientists now know are similar to what happens to drug addicts. Anthropologist Helen Fisher has studied the heightened activity of neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine involved in romantic love, and found that the reward pathways are similar to the peaks and crashes produced by cocaine.
In the best-case scenario, Fisher argues, passionate feelings can be a positive addiction that leads to healthy bonding. But it can also go horribly wrong, giving insight into why the word “passion” has its roots in the idea of suffering. Culture reinforces the associations of pain and love: “He hit me / And it felt like a kiss,” sang The Crystals in 1963, a lyric picked up by contemporary pop siren Lana Del Ray in her 2014 song “Ultraviolence.”
Women who have extracted themselves from relationships with abusers testify to the harrowing process of walking away. A recent New Yorker article revealed the alleged abuse suffered by four women who had dated former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who resigned shortly after its publication. One of the women, Michelle Manning Barish, sustained an ear injury but did not tell the doctor it was the result of a blow from the state’s top law officer. “I was protecting Eric,” she told The New Yorker. “And I was ashamed. For victims, shame plays a huge role in most of these stories. I want people to know that.”
Get the think newsletter.
One of the other women, Tanya Selvaratam, added that she blamed herself for Schneiderman’s behavior and tried to help him find a therapist. “I was scared what he might do if I left him,” she explained, describing death threats and promises to have her surveilled — an action he was uniquely equipped to carry out.
Many women never manage to break away and adopt a permanent role as pain reservoirs and defenders of abusive men. Camille Cosby, who continues to support her husband, Bill Cosby, even after his rape conviction, comes to mind.
Many women never manage to break away and adopt a permanent role as pain reservoirs and defenders of abusive men.
If women do come forward about abuse, many are routinely greeted with vicious attacks. When Amber Heard, the former wife of Johnny Depp, alleged that the actor physically terrorized her, she was accused of lying to shake him down for money. Heard donated the $7 million she was awarded in a divorce settlement to charity; Depp is still swashbuckling around Hollywood.
Manning Barish and Selvaratnam managed the feat of leaving while Schneiderman was still one of the most powerful and admired men in New York, positioned firmly on society’s pedestal. They had to endure their hell privately, while the man who abused them received endless public accolades.
Schneiderman received praise for speaking out against domestic abuse and was honored by women’s groups. It is mind-bending to imagine the cognitive dissonance endured by people who are abused by society’s heroes.
#MeToo may be changing this dynamic, however. Family justice advocate Mary Travers Murphy reports that #MeToo is helping targets of abuse, both women and men, to re-examine their situations and seek help. One woman wrote a blog crediting #MeToo and Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the 2018 Golden Globes, where Hollywood’s treatment of women was a central theme, for helping her to admit that she was in an abusive relationship: “I did not realize until the cruelty was so starkly thrown in my face that under no circumstance should I have to endure such abuse,” she stated.
Cultural products are taking on abuse and sexual harassment more explicitly in the new era, stimulating frank discussions among more receptive viewers. The new season of Netflix hit series “13 Reasons Why,” based on a young adult best-seller by Jay Asher, is a mystery drama that explores the aftermath of the suicide of a high school student, Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford. Issues of grief, addiction, harassment and assault weave through the narrative of a group students coping with Hannah’s fate and their high school’s bullying atmosphere.
A central character is wealthy and popular athlete Bryce Walker, portrayed by Justin Prentice, who, unlike the others, seems on top of the world — enjoying the affection of his baseball teammates and his girlfriend, cheerleader Chloe Rice.
Bryce, however, is also a serial rapist. Yet most of his friends turn a blind eye to his violence and Chloe stays with him after he hurts and degrades her, and even though everyone has heard about the role his predation played in Hannah’s suicide. When Bryce is finally arrested for rape, Chloe then lies on the stand to protect him. She’s the character viewers are most confused about, wondering why she stands by him.
Actress Anne Winters, who plays Chloe, explained in an interview available at the end of the Netflix series that while she was troubled by the character’s decisions, she could understand how being chosen by the most powerful guy in high school is a heady experience for a girl, one that makes her feel not only beautiful, but elevated by his status.
“To get rid of it is not only to get rid of everything that makes her feel validated,” explained Winters, “but also validation in every other aspect of her social life in high school.”
Chloe has absorbed cultural messages that reckon her worth as a measure of physical attractiveness and the ability to garner male attention. Even when she learns that Bryce has sexually violated her while she is passed out drunk as his buddies snap pictures, Chloe is unable to override that powerful programming. She knows that if she admits the truth about Bryce, she will not only have to confront the intensity of her own pain and betrayal, but will probably endure still more abuse from classmates who will slut-shame her and call her crazy.
But for every Weinstein or Schneiderman, there are still plenty of others who continue to receive society’s adulation and a free pass on abusive behavior — mostly glaringly President Donald Trump.
Again, #MeToo is helping to reshape such harmful cultural narratives. But for every Weinstein or Schneiderman, there are still plenty of others who continue to receive society’s adulation and a free pass on abusive behavior — mostly glaringly President Donald Trump, who, from his all-powerful perch in the White House, continues to dodge accountability for his “Access Hollywood” tape, claiming that it is inauthentic, and multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment. In December 2017, the White House released a statement painting three of Trump’s accusers as politically motivated.
Then there are the countless bosses, co-workers, partners, relatives, neighbors and friends whom we know to have abusive traits but still receive our protection and adoration.
Moving forward with #MeToo does not mean demonizing men. But it does mean refusing to prop up abusers and people who do not accept responsibility for their harmful behavior. It also means not letting ourselves off the hook — either as individuals or as a society — when we see patterns of abuse as bystanders but do not call them out. It means supporting cultural messages in which male strength does not rest on the ability to dominate but on the willingness to respect and defend others. And it means applauding and supporting targets who take the courageous step of leaving abusers and sharing their stories. They are our heroes.
Most of all, it means acknowledging that female worth is not just a function of physical attractiveness and being chosen by a man. It is, quite simply, a given.
Lynn Stuart Parramore is a cultural theorist who focuses on the intersection between culture and economics. She is the author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in 19th-Century Literary Culture” and her writing has appeared in Reuters, Lapham’s Quarterly, Salon, VICE, Huffington Post and others.