Sexual harassment is about men establishing dominance over women. Issues of entitlement, power, and control have gone unchecked for far too long.
Following the allegations of the sexual predatory behavior of men like Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, Al Franken, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, and Matt Lauer, to name only a few, I have become intrigued with the question: “Why do these men behave differently from those who choose not to harass women?”
I have been aware of men’s sexist attitudes throughout my 45 years as a psychologist; however, I have been surprised by the number of high-powered men “called out” for sexual assault on women. I am gratified by the number of women who have chosen to come forward.
My research suggests that we are only beginning to gain insight into the mentality of the accused harassers. However, I want to share some of what the research shows.
Attitude Toward Women
In the early 1980s, before Anita Hill’s testimony at Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, most men didn’t think that their advances toward women were unwanted or inappropriate. The sad part is that women had to endure being touched, pinched, and manhandled while they were seething inside. They smiled and gave a friendly wag of their finger and felt they couldn’t do anything about it.
Men’s inclination to make sexist remarks and inappropriately touch women has persisted at an unconscious level since recorded history. Men have been totally oblivious to the discomfort they create with an inappropriate sexual comment or crossing a personal boundary.
Harassment is a way for men to exploit and manipulate women, a way to maintain and gain power. Dominance, not desire, is on the mind of men who sexually harass women. These men use their power explicitly or implicitly to intimidate and harass women. They try to minimize their inappropriate behavior and act like it’s completely normal and acceptable. The victim is placed in an intimidating lose-lose situation without any power over the advances.
Characteristics of a Sexual Predator
Even though research into the mentality of accused harassers is at best incomplete, there are some common characteristics.
Entitlement — When a name man touches a woman without asking, he does so because he feels entitled. To him, the gesture may be meaningless. He feels it is simply a friendly gesture. He says to himself, “After all, what could be wrong with putting my arm around her waist? I’m not molesting her.”
For her, however, the “gesture” has a totally different meaning. Nico Lang of the Rolling Stones writes, “You might not think a pinched cheek or a shoulder caress is something to lose sleep over. But the next time you see a man put his hand on the small of a woman’s back, look at her eyes. Look at her smile. If you’re looking closely enough, I bet you can see her faking it. I bet you can see how painful it really is.” The point is, the man is invading another person’s personal space. He is ignoring her personal boundary.
David Ley writes, “There are intense issues of entitlement, power and control that have gone unchecked leading to situations where men feel it’s perfectly fine to engage in these kinds of behaviors.”
Narcissism — A narcissistic personality disorder is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. They feel entitled. It is easy to connect the dots and understand how a narcissist follows his will to control. After all, “It’s all about me.” Could it be that the majority of men who abuse women are fairly high on the narcissistic scale?
Moral Principles — Albert Bandura, a renowned psychologist, first proposed the idea of moral disengagement. The perpetrator often justifies his actions by compromising his moral principles: “After all, this is the way it’s always been.” The perpetrator justifies his actions and feels he did nothing wrong.
Labeling Behavior — A perpetrator will justify his behavior with an acceptable label. For example, Bill Cosby referred to his sexual assaults as a “rendezvous.”
Displacement of Responsibility — In this case, the harasser simply blames what they’re doing on things beyond their control. They might blame it on the victim: “After all, she was wearing a miniskirt and a halter top. She was asking for it.”
Sexual objectification — I think this is difficult for most men to understand, because men have sexually objectified women for a long time. Sexual objectification happens when a women’s body or sexual functions are isolated from her as a person and treated as objects to covet or touch. When this happens, the value or worth of a woman’s body is connected to how sexually gratifying it is.
Impact on the Victim in the Workplace
Imagine, if you will, a woman early in her career being inappropriately touched or spoken to. She begins to wonder if she did something to make it happen or encourage it. She feels embarrassed and fearful other people will find out. She begins to doubt her abilities and wonders if she was hired only because of her sexual value. She begins to question her achievement and ask herself, “Is this simply what it’s like in the field?”
She has nothing to compare her experience to, and has no idea what normal is or even what her recourse might be. All she knows is that she is having trouble sleeping and is feeling depressed and anxious. At this point, she doesn’t know if there are others being harassed, nor how to find out.
All of the research tells us that sexual harassment can wreak havoc on its victims. It can cause mental health issues, as well as physical effects. When people in the workplace are dismissive of harassment, they frequently say, “I understand how the sexual assault can lead to serious consequences, but how can simple harassment be so harmful?” The problem with this kind of thinking is that it discounts medical science and discounts the stories of victims of harassment. It exaggerates the crippling doubt that so many victims face. There are doubts that foster denial and other complications.
More specifically, the emotional responses to harassment include anxiety and depression. Physical symptoms run the gamut of muscle aches, headaches, or even chronic physical health problems, such as high blood pressure and problems with blood sugar.
According to Nannina Angioni, a labor and law employment attorney who has worked with sexual harassment cases, “Employees talk of having a pit in their stomach commuting to work, having anxiety, panic attacks, inexplicable fits of crying and physical manifestations of stress such as hair falling out, hives, weight gain or loss, sleeplessness and lethargy.”
What to Do
After looking at the effects of sexual harassment in the workplace, the urgency to do something in our society becomes apparent. Currently, the media coverage of the perpetrators is overshadowing the impact on the victims. The impact on the victims should have equal coverage. There is an urgency for managers to create a harassment-free workplace with clear guidelines, adequate training, and rule enforcement. There need to be clear protocols for responding to harassment. The goal should be to create a culture where sexual harassment is not welcome nor tolerated.