Can You Rehabilitate a Sexual Predator?

Disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein is now allegedly seeking treatment for his sexually abusive behaviour. But can someone who’s been accused of rape and sexual assault really get better?

Laura Hensley
Disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in a white shirt and black blazer
(Photo: Getty/Leo Tapel)

After news broke that disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has allegedly entered a treatment facility to deal with “various psychological issues,” many were skeptical as to whether this move was just to save face. It’s reported that Weinstein, who has now been accused of rape and sexual assault by more than 50 women, is being treated in Arizona for the next month in an outpatient program.

Just how seriously Weinstein is taking rehab is subject to debate, but his time in treatment poses a very important question: Is it possible to rehabilitate a sexual predator?

According to Dr. James Cantor, a Toronto-based researcher and professor who specializes in atypical sexual behaviours, the answer depends on what’s causing a person to behave badly in the first place.

“It’s not necessarily the behaviour they’ve engaged in that tells us if a person will be helped or not in therapy,” Cantor says. “It’s really the mindset that the person is in.”

Cantor, who does not work with Weinstein, explains that people who typically commit sexually violent crimes tend to fall into two categories: those who have an anti-social personality disorder or who are psychopaths, and those who have a paraphilia.

“Talking about anti-sociality and psychopathy, these are people who just take what they want—even if it means damage to another person,” Cantor explains. “It’s as if these people are incapable of recognizing people as people… they will just steal sex because that’s how they’re going to get it the fastest and easiest.”

On the other hand, for a person who has a paraphilia, sexual gratification comes from behaviour that is atypical and extreme. Most paraphilias are very specific, and include exhibitionism, sexual masochism, voyeurism and frotteurism.

“People who have a paraphilia—these are people with highly, highly, atypical sexual interests, such as violence. They are regular, everyday nice people, but they are turned on by something that is potentially harmful. One can almost think of these people as if they’re into BDSM, but mimicking the pain and the humiliation isn’t enough—it has to be real or unrealistically real for them,” says Cantor.

“These people claim that the healthy, loving sex that the rest of us think of doesn’t do it for them. They’re not interested in that; they’re only turned on in situations that are very coercive.”

While a person’s paraphalia cannot be changed, Cantor says behaviour can be modified through therapy. For instance, if someone has a sexual interest in violence, they can learn how to have healthy, safe interactions with other willing people who share the same preference. “It’s that thought process that we can help the person with,” says Cantor.

When it comes to psychopaths, however, their lack of empathy challenges rehabilitation. “These people have no desire to try to change themselves,” Cantor says. “In some cases, there are therapies that can make it even worse, as once they receive training in how other people are thinking, they often integrate that information in order to get better at manipulating people.”

Cantor stresses that just because two people may act in a way that appears similar, the way a therapist would treat someone with a paraphilia would differ from the way they would treat a psychopath. He says that these two kinds of people have nothing to do with each other.

“Even though their behaviours might look very similar to someone on the outside, what’s going on inside the heads of these [two types of] people is completely different,” Cantor says. “We have to know what the motivations are in order to know what kind of therapy to do and to give our best predictions for how successful that therapy is going to be.”

In order for a person to actually benefit from treatment, they must genuinely want to change and have an understanding of how their behaviour is harmful. They must realize that they’ve done something wrong, and work on finding ways to modify their actions in the outside world. In the case of Weinstein—who has not publicly admitted his alleged wrongdoings since the New York Times and The New Yorker published decades-long allegations against him—owning up to his behaviour is necessary.

Apart from a statement released on Oct. 5 that acknowledged he “caused a lot of pain” and is “remorseful about the people” he hurt, Weinstein has disputed claims of sexual harassment in response to allegations from Cara Delevingne and Lupita Nyong’o. On top of the growing list of women stepping forward with accounts of assault, Weinstein is currently being investigated by police in L.A., as well as in London and New York.

“After they’re in trouble—and after the public relations system is going—when a person is forced to ask for help…how much is just trying to throw one’s self at the mercy of the court and look better in the court of public opinion? Or in actual upcoming court cases?” Cantor says.

“Without speculating too much about Weinstein, when we have a person who is in a situation only after the fact asking for help. It’s a little hard to be convinced of that.”

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