Hollywood is abuzz this week following the firing of Harvey Weinstein from the company that he founded. Articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker contained allegations by at least 13 women of Weinstein’s sexually predatory behaviors. As the co-founder (with his brother Bob) of Miramax and The Weinstein Company, Weinstein was a giant of the film industry, making a significant contribution to independent film-making. The firing of Weinstein follows the downfall of other powerful men accused of using their power to sexually intimidate and harass women, including Fox News’s Roger Ailes and Bill O’ Reilly. It also follows the release about a year ago of the Access Hollywood tape depicting President Trump talking about grabbing and kissing women and the accusations against him that followed.
It is eye-opening how long these behaviors are alleged to have gone on for without any people in power coming to the victims’ aid. In this article I want to focus on a different topic, What are the strategies used by powerful men or by everyday manipulators to sexually harass women? The stories that accusers tell hold some clues, as does the recent release of a recording that was part of a 2015 New York Police Department sting operation against Weinstein.
My psychological analysis of these accounts, media interviews with victims, and recordings led me to find six different strategies used by powerful, sexually predatory men to get victims to give in to their advances.
According to the accuser’s accounts and the tapes, a common ploy of sexual predators is to first find a way to be alone with the woman and then physically intimidate or corner her. Whether it is under the pretext of showing the woman around a property or house, having a meeting that just happens to take place in a hotel room, or stopping by a residence to pick up something, the key is to get the woman alone. They then either grab the women, block the hallway so she can’t get through, or otherwise use their large physical presence to intimidate and dominate.
A common manipulative strategy used by sexual harassers is to minimize their inappropriate behavior and act like it is completely normal and acceptable - an everyday occurrence. In the Weinstein tape, after the model accuses Weinstein of touching her breast, he tells her that he's "used to it." These kinds of strategies get women to question their own perceptions of the situation. “Am I crazy?” or “Am I overreacting?” Another strategy described by accusers is to contact the woman shortly afterwards and act like everything that happened was completely normal, even if they had just masturbated in front of the woman or groped her. This forces the victim to either confront them outright in the moment (something that is difficult to do) or go along with the denial.
Sexual harassers and other abusers frequently use guilt to manipulate. Women are socialized to care about and help other people - not to make a scene or create public conflict. in the Weinstein tape, he repeatedly asks the model not to embarrass him in public, saying he comes to the hotel often and implying that her refusal would hurt his reputation. Another guilt-provoking strategy might be for a sexual harasser to imply that the woman owes him a sexual favor because he has been a mentor, given her a job, or helped her career.
What struck me about the Weinstein tape was how much he persisted in trying to persuade the woman to come into the hotel room with him, after she refused firmly so many times. This type of persistence is designed to wear down the victim’s defenses, forcing her to keep up a firm refusal over long periods. Weinstein repeatedly interrupts and talks over the woman, bulldozing past her reasonable attempts to tell him that she is not feeling comfortable. Pushiness gives the victim no option but to act harshly or rudely as the only way to set a boundary. Many women are uncomfortable acting harshly, even when appropriate, because of negative gender stereotypes. Women are supposed to be sweet and accommodating and if they’re not, they often pay a price.
These men use their power explicitly or implicitly to intimidate women, perhaps bribing women to comply or hinting at negative consequences if they don’t. Often the predators don’t have to say much - their position and the power differential speaks for itself. The implicit message is that you would definitely want to be on their good side otherwise they could make your life very difficult, block you from opportunities, or even ruin your career.
An old trick used by salespeople is to get you to commit to a small purchase first because this makes it more likely you’ll make a bigger purchase later on. Social psychology studies show that once you’ve agreed to a small favor, it’s more difficult to refuse a larger favor down the road. This is known as “the foot in the door” technique and is a clever way to get people to do what you want, even if they feel a bit uncomfortable. In the Weinstein tapes, he repeatedly asks the model to come into the room “just for a few minutes.” Similarly, a man might ask a woman to give him a shoulder massage. Once she complies, this opens the door for more sexualized touching. This technique makes it difficult for victims to refuse because you’re asking for something small. The implied message is that it would be mean-spirited to refuse such a reasonable, ostensibly nonsexual request.
These manipulative strategies are used by many to get what they want—whether it’s having sex, watching your kids or lending you money. When it comes to predatory or manipulative behavior, being forewarned is being forearmed. If you can anticipate these tricks, its easier to prepare a resistant strategy in advance. The larger issue, though, is that all people in positions of power have a responsibility to speak up when they see people preying on the vulnerable. We shouldn’t just leave it to the potential victim to figure out how to get away!