When Do Men With Power Engage in Sexual Harassment?

Research suggests three reasons why power can contribute to sexual harassment.

Posted Dec 07, 2017

Beginning with famed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, numerous powerful men have recently been accused of sexual harassment. Many people were shocked and dismayed that so many men would abuse their power in this way. But of course, not all powerful men are sexual harassers. So why might some powerful men be more likely than others to sexually harass their subordinates? Research, including a new paper published just this past month, points to three possible reasons.

1. Men who associate sex with power are more likely to use power to get sex.

Studies assessing men's unconscious tendency to associate sex with power (by associating sex and power-related words together more quickly) have shown that men who link sex and power are especially prone to sexual aggression. One study found that men who link sex and power are more likely to use coercion to get dating partners to have sex with them.1 Another study found that men who make this link were more likely to say that they would sexually harass a woman in hypothetical workplace scenarios.2

2. Power may cause those who are seeking casual encounters to overestimate others' sexual interest.

When people are high in power, they are more likely to see other people as a means to an end — That is, as a way to satisfy their own goals.3 Powerful people also tend to have less empathy for others.4,5 So if a high-powered man is especially interested in pursuing sexual encounters, he is likely to see an attractive female subordinate as a possible way to reach that goal. Without strong feelings of empathy, it will be less likely that he will really understand the difficulty of her position or accurately read her feelings toward him.

To test this idea, Kutzman and Maner had 78 undergraduate participants work on a task in mixed-sex pairs. One student in the pair was assigned to be the leader and the other the subordinate.6  After they worked together on the task, participants were asked to rate how sexually interested they were in their partner and to estimate how much they thought their partner was interested in them. They found that for participants who reported a general interest in casual sex, those in the high power condition were more likely to overestimate their work partner's interest in them.

3. When insecure men suddenly have power, they are more likely to sexually harass.

Melissa Williams and her colleagues point out that despite the common association between sex and power, men who are insecure and low in social status are actually more likely to be sexually aggressive than higher status men.7 This suggests that men like Weinstein should be less likely to engage in sexual aggression, since their social status is quite high. On the other hand, there is much research to show links between high power and sexual aggression, as discussed earlier in this article. Williams and her colleagues speculate that these seemingly contradictory findings can help explain when powerful men are most likely to abuse their power. Men who generally feel powerless are likely to have a need to compensate for that lack of power. So when they suddenly find themselves in charge, they may be especially likely to take advantage of it. In a series of studies just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they explored this hypothesis.

In one study, participants of both sexes who felt chronically powerless were more likely to report that they would be willing to engage in sexually harassing behaviors toward a subordinate at work. In another study, the researchers asked participants to imagine they had a crush on a coworker to see how both chronic feelings of power, and being in a powerful position over the crush, were linked to the participants' likelihood of sexual harassment. Participants were asked to imagine that their workplace crush was either just a coworker of theirs or was one of their subordinates. Participants who chronically felt powerless, but were in a position of power over their crush, reported that they would be more likely to sabotage their crush's chances of getting a new position on another work team and that they would be more likely to engage in inappropriate behaviors like flirting or stealing a kiss.

The final study looked at actual behavior, rather than hypothetical situations. In this study, male participants had an online conversation with a woman they were working with on a project. The participant's job was to choose messages for his female partner to memorize, some of which were sexually explicit. Participants in the high-power experimental condition were primed to feel powerful, and they were told that they would be the only ones in the position of choosing which messages to send. Participants in the low-power condition were told that both they and their partner would take turns choosing messages. The results showed that men who chronically felt powerless were more likely to choose sexually explicit messages to send to their female partners at a time when they were in a position of power.

Taken together, these studies suggest that while power does not necessarily make men more likely to sexually harass, for men who are not used to having power in their lives, the temptation to abuse newfound power may be greater.

Which, if any, of the three reasons outlined above can explain any of the famous harassment cases that have rocked the media is a matter of opinion. And before we can fully understand any particular case, we need more facts about these men's lives, personalities, and backgrounds. But this research may help explain why for some men, power leads to sexual harassment. 


1 Zurbriggen, E. L. (2000). Social motives and cognitive power-sex associations:Predictors of aggressive sexual behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 559–581. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.78.3.559

2 Pryor, J. B., & Stoller, L. M. (1994). Sexual cognition processes in men high in the likelihood to sexually harass. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 163–169. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0146167294202003

3 Gruenfeld, D. H., Inesi, M. E., Magee, J. C., & Galinsky, A. D. (2008). Power and the objectification of social targets. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 111–127. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.95.1.111

4 Galinsky, A. D., Magee, J. C., Inesi, M. E., & Gruenfeld, D. H. (2006). Power and perspective not taken. Psychological Science, 17, 1068– 1074. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01824.

5 Gwinn, J. D., Judd, C. M., & Park, B. (2013). Less power = less human? Effects of power differentials on dehumanization. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 464-470. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.01.005

6 Kunstman, J. W., & Maner, J. K. (2011). Sexual overperception: Power, mating motives, and biases in social judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 282–294. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0021135

7 Williams, M. J., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Guillory, L. E. (2017). Sexual aggression when power is new: Effects of acute high power on chronically low-power individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112, 201-223. doi: 10.1037/pspi0000068