Suddenly Powerful: The Making of a Sexual Harasser

Research reveals the link between sudden status and sexual aggression.

Posted May 30, 2020

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Source: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

When you think about sexual harassment, you probably envision a boss harassing a subordinate, or a man harassing a woman. Maybe you recall memorable scenes from movies or television programs that dramatize sexual harassment, often perpetuating stereotypes.

Although in reality, both men and women can be either perpetrators or victims, sexual harassment usually involves power imbalance. The relationship between the perpetrator and the victim is usually asymmetrical, such as boss-secretary, teacher-student, coach-athlete, or supervisor-subordinate. Although we do indeed hear about atypical instances of harassment such as a secretary sexually harassing his or her boss, more often than not, harassment involves an unequal distribution of power in favor of the perpetrator. But according to research, one important factor appears to involve examining when the perpetrator rose to power.

Suddenly “Someone” Can Spark Sexual Aggression

A sudden rise to power can create social culture shock for someone not used to thinking of themselves as important. But people differ drastically in the way they respond. Many newly promoted workplace heroes or social A-listers graciously embrace their newfound status and success with humility, exercising power through servant leadership. Others respond very differently. What causes the difference?

Melissa J. Williams et al., in a study aptly entitled “Sexual Aggression When Power Is New” (2017), examined potential negative effects of a sudden rise to power.[i] They began by noting that although prior researchers characterized “sexually aggressive behavior” as a manifestation of possessing power, there is mixed evidence that power actually causes sexually aggressive behavior. Testing their hypothesis that power can at least create the opportunity to express sexual aggression, they found that it was chronically low power individuals who are more likely to exploit such opportunities. 

In two of their studies, Williams et al. found that men with low power who were placed in a high power position displayed the highest amount of hostility after being rejected by an attractive woman. In two more studies, they found that both men and women with chronically low power who were given acute power were more likely to admit willingness to inappropriately pursue an “unrequited workplace attraction.” In a fifth study, they found that “having power over an attractive woman increased harassment behavior among men with chronic low, but not high, power.” 

Williams et al. noted that individuals who view themselves as regularly deprived of power appear to possess a stronger desire to experience feelings of power, and are more likely to pursue that goal through sexual aggression.

Summarizing their results, Williams et al. observed that power does indeed apparently play a role in sexual aggression, but not uniformly.  Instead, they explain that “experimentally manipulated power increased hostility toward women (Studies 1 and 2), sexual harassment proclivities (Studies 3 and 4), and harassment behavior (Study 5) only among participants with chronically low levels of power.”

Commenting on the interaction between having power and desiring power, Williams et al. note that chronically low-power people who desire power are not in a position to pursue avenues to achieve it. Experimentally creating an “acute power role” offers low power individuals an opportunity to feel powerful by dominating someone else. Further, they demonstrated in their 5th study, that was because people who chronically experience low power desire power more strongly as compared with people in a chronic state of high power. 

The Benevolence of Power

Williams et al. made an interesting observation regarding the impact of acute power on people already in positions of power. Considering prior research articulating the difference between power viewed as a selfish opportunity versus an obligation to care for others, they suggest that a desire for power operates differently on different people. They explain that this desire caused people with chronically low power to “construe the power manipulation as an unequivocally attractive opportunity for the self,” while the weaker desire for power experienced by people who have chronically high power might have caused them to experience acute power as less pleasurable and actually more burdensome, viewing it as “an obligation to consider the effects of one’s behavior on others.” Williams et al. speculate that this difference may explain why chronically high power individuals tended to respond to receiving power by exhibiting a higher degree of social responsibility.

The bottom line appears to be that power does not always corrupt—in terms of increasing proclivity to engage in sexually aggressive behavior. Far from it; individuals rise to power every day through promotion, fame, accomplishment, and other types of achievement without ever losing their composure, compassion, and other positive personality traits. Such positive personalities will continue to be role models for those who achieve acute power and might not automatically be so graciously predisposed.

Facebook image: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock


[i] Williams, Melissa J., Deborah H. Gruenfeld, and Lucia E. Guillory. 2017. “Sexual Aggression When Power Is New: Effects of Acute High Power on Chronically Low-Power Individuals.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 112 (2): 201–23. doi:10.1037/pspi0000068.