The women who have publicly accused San Diego Mayor Bob Filner of unwanted sexual advances now outnumber the world’s continents. On Tuesday, an eighth came forward, alleging that then Congressman Filner tried to kiss her at a business meeting in 2011. Ignoring the heaping calls for his resignation, the Democrat has instead said he will start two weeks of intensive behavioral counseling on Monday, Aug. 5. At best, experts say, that’s a good first step.
The world still hasn’t heard Filner’s side of these eight stories, including allegations made by a woman who is suing him and the city of San Diego for sexual harassment. Soon after murmurings of misconduct surfaced three weeks ago, Filner issued a video apology saying he had “failed to fully respect women.” At the July 26 press conference announcing his decision to enter counseling, he apologized — again without including any specific admissions or responses. And he took no questions. Filner’s implied message seemed to be that he hoped two weeks of therapy would be a turning point of penance on a road to redemption.
Political experts like Steve Erie, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, seem skeptical that Filner’s decision is about anything more than optics. “Filner’s taken a page from Hollywood celebrities. When you’re caught in a scandal, plead an addiction and seek therapy,” he tells TIME in an e-mail. “Given the sheer number of women who’ve come forward, denial was not an option. The formula: confess your sins, plead for forgiveness and seek rehabilitation.” Members of the media responded with a dubious tone too. Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall, for instance, referred to the program as “a quickie two-week fix up.”
So what exactly is sexual rehab? The first thing to know is that the programs are like seats on an airplane: they’re built to take people to the same place, but the trip can be wildly different depending on how much you pay. There are programs subsidized by medical insurance, in which men and women will stay in modest “halfway houses” where they have to sign in and out anytime they leave. Then there are ranches where group therapy might come after chef-prepared eggs Benedict and before an acupuncture appointment. Rob Weiss, who works for Elements Behavioral Health and founded the Sexual Recovery Institute (SRI) in Los Angeles, says high-end rehab can cost up to $60,000. The institute’s two-week program (one of which starts on Aug. 5), costs in the neighborhood of $12,500 — without housing included.
Weiss estimates that there are about five or six dedicated rehabilitation programs like his in the country, which do not, for example, also offer treatment for people with drug or gambling addiction. Participants in their two-week sessions have “moderate-level” problems, he says, and lead largely functional lives. Up to 14 men might be in the program at once, and their problems could range from habitual workplace harassment to habitually cheating on their wife with prostitutes.
In both his video apology and announcement, Filner expressed that it is “simply not acceptable for me to try to explain away my conduct as the product of the standards of a different generation.” Raising that notion, even to debunk it, suggests that some people might think that was a reasonable excuse — or that he had previously believed it was. The first step in a program like SRI’s would be confronting that kind of rationalization or denial. The second stage would be considering the consequences of their actions on others. And the third would be identifying triggers, like being left alone with a woman, and “teaching the person ways to avoid their vulnerability,” Weiss says.
William O’Donohue, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada at Reno, is an expert on sexual harassment. When asked what steps might be useful in a two-week program, he identifies many of the same techniques SRI uses: teaching victim empathy; debunking irrational thoughts like “I’m entitled to this kind of thing”; analyzing the events that lead up to an offense; and encouraging positive addictions — like exercising or charity work — to take the place of negatives ones. But, he says, there is no research proving that such programs have any effect for people accused of inappropriate workplace behavior (partly because it’s hard to find sexual harassers willing to volunteer for a controlled experiment).
Both O’Donohue and Weiss say that recovery from a sexual-behavior problem, however severe, requires years of therapy. “Males and their sexual impulses are hard to control, especially for someone who has multiple offenses,” O’Donohue says. “The more victims one has, the higher the probability of relapse.” The best possible change is teaching men or women to avoid tempting situations, he says. The objects of their desire are unlikely to change, and studies of some serious sexual offenders have suggested relapse rates are as high as 40%. In his statement, Filner said that his two-week program would be followed by “ongoing, regular counseling.”
Even if Filner does manage to reform his ways, it remains to be seen whether the people of San Diego will support him after he returns to full-time work on Aug. 19. Should Filner continue to plant his feet in office, acceptance is certainly the easier route: the only two ways to oust an unwilling mayor in California, whatever his baggage, are a recall election or a felony conviction.