Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Icon Intimidation and Sexual Predation

Barriers to investigation and criminal prosecution of the famous.

Dr. Mary Ellen O’Toole and I* have a combined half-century of experience—as a forensic psychologist and an FBI profiler—in the analysis of predatory behavior. Our professional work has allowed us to interview predatory individuals from all walks of life, assess their criminal behavior, testify in court, and publish research in an attempt to understand their behaviors. Some of these individuals are sexual predators, intent on exploiting opportunities to gratify their sexual desires, and if necessary, use the violence of action to do so.

A few of these individuals are icons within our society, a Greek term which originated as an artistic depiction of an object of devotion, such as Christ, Mary, saints or angels from within the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. In popular culture it refers to an individual or celebrity who contributes a defining characteristic to the society and who, in turn, is perceived as an object of deference.

Icons of predation surround us. The irony of its etymological origins does not escape us. O’Reilly, Weinstein, Spacey, Simmons, Rose, Trump, Lauer, Halperin, and Clinton were considered icons in their chosen professions, objects of idealization and devotion. Their status afforded them respect, fame, admiration, money, and influence—formidable adversarial characteristics for their victims. We refer to this as icon intimidation, a term coined by Dr. O’Toole many years ago as an FBI agent and profiler. While working a number of cases with high profile suspects, she became aware that their stature impacted the victims’ reactions to their sexual crimes, and often the investigators, prosecutors, judges, and juries who determined the outcome of the case. The inequality of power—what we term a power differential--in such cases, gags the victim. She becomes hostage to the perception of the enormous power of the perpetrator, often confirmed by legions of helpers who collude with the offender to entice or threaten, or both. Such helpers may paradoxically be icons of those who support the rights of the less powerful—Hillary Clinton and David Boies come to mind—making their efforts on behalf of the perpetrator even more effective.

The victims realize that their lives and careers, as they know them, will change dramatically if they report the behavior. Secret financial payments, often times paid to victims, and in some cases our tax money, causes the assaultive and harassing behavior to appear less criminal; it now becomes a civil negotiation in which silence is rewarded, and bad behavior can be bartered with a check and a secret handshake—just business as usual for the Icon who, almost by definition, has considerable financial resources. What is the thread that binds the victim, the perpetrator, and their helpers? The sexual predation will be redefined—rape becomes sexual assault, molestation becomes groping, pedophilia becomes dating very young women—, minimized, rationalized, normalized—things were different back then, or “it’s just who he is.” Sometimes it is so shocking to the victim that she will dissociate in the midst of the traumatic violation, feeling separate or outside her body while penetration is occurring, and be left with only spotty memory of the event itself—another impediment to successful criminal prosecution. Sexual assault is a notoriously underreported crime, so it is not at all surprising that many of these victims lived with their secrets for years, telling few if any people. Many kept quiet in part because of concern of retaliation, which is completely warranted in these cases. Victims of icon predators often see their attacker in the news, on TV, capturing the headlines, reminding them of just how powerful these men are, and consequently the grave risks she takes if she tells her story. These Icons have the power to devastate a victim’s life, with their resources, their influence, and a stable of expensive attorneys on standby to dispute her allegations, and wage a war of retaliation against her.

The Icon’s behavior in these cases is very high risk. It could mean disaster for him if the victim or a bystander comes forward, and the behavior is witnessed with accuracy and resolve. Nonetheless, Icons continue to engage in their risky behavior, sometimes for years, seemingly immune to the danger it poses for them. Oftentimes the modus operandi, the means to complete the sexual crime, is strikingly repetitive, giving truth to the independent recollections of many victims. Why would the tactics be repeated? They have worked. The Icon is often sexually stimulated by the capture of the victim, who is forced to watch, or in cases of sexual assault, is further turned on by her suffering. For the sexual predator, especially if he is sadistic, this is both thrilling and exciting.

How can this be? As a personality correlate, often these Icons are pathologically narcissistic—some are also psychopathic—wherein their sense of impunity leads to greater sexual crimes. However, such impunity is also their Achilles heel and often leads to more brazen and risky behavior, since their prior adventures have been done without negative consequence. They think they are above the law.

We also learn from their predation. The ICON looks for potential victims he can access for availability, desirability and accessibility. Research tells us that a large proportion of women who are sexually victimized have been victimized before. As in the wild, the predator separates the vulnerable from the herd. He hunts for the right victim, and because of his stature, many people are drawn to him, even fawn over him, providing him with a large victim pool, readily available and accessible to him.

Some of these Icons will engage in predatory behavior without violence. Louis C.K. thought his masturbation in front of young female comedians was acceptable as long as he asked politely if he could show them his penis. We define such nonviolent predation as opportunistically searching for a suitable victim, without the use of aggression or violence. However, if the Icon utilizes predatory violence, it involves the deliberate use of aggression to advance toward a specific goal, usually penetration. Such predation is neither impulsive nor out of control. It is planned and executed. The allegations against Weinstein, if proven, strongly suggest such planning and preparation.

Predation or hunting behavior maximizes the probability of success and heightens excitement. His watching, observing, and calculating when and where to approach or assault, unbeknownst to the victim, is an additional rush. The victim is relying on the trust that has been established between them to keep her safe. He establishes trust to victimize her. His attention, the grooming behavior he engages in with the victim, the compliments he pays her, are a means to an end, and used to convince the victim he does not pose a threat.

Why have we used the pronouns he and she for perpetrator and victim? Because sexual predation is largely a gender-based crime. Most offenders are male, and most victims are female. We are in the midst of a sea change in the acceptable moral behavior toward women within our society. Sexual desire is welcomed. Sexual predation is not.


*The views expressed are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent the policy or position of the FBI.