What Is the Link Between Sex and Power in Sexual Harassment?

New research discovers how power predicts sexual abuse.

Posted Nov 08, 2017

Politicians in the smoking room of the House of Commons; From Wellcome Images
Source: Politicians in the smoking room of the House of Commons; From Wellcome Images

Accounts of sexual aggression in the worlds of entertainment and politics are abounding on both sides of the Atlantic. Is sexual harassment in these worlds about power?

The study titled "Sexual Aggression When Power Is New: Effects of Acute High Power on Chronically Low-Power Individuals" was partly inspired by previous research, which has found that among men and women strongly interested in casual sex, more power increases beliefs that subordinates are sexually interested in them. In contrast, more power decreased discernment of a subordinate’s sexual interest among those already less interested in casual sex.

Maybe aggression among the powerful arises from a threatened ego? The anecdotal allegations of sexual aggression that are hitting the headlines don’t make the predators sound commanding, rather their crude fumbling seems psychologically impotent.

But this new study reveals that the corrupting effects of power operate the same for men and women. Newly felt authority increases harassment tendencies among people who had been feeling low in power over a previous extended period, whether male or female.

This latest research finds that while men, in general, were more likely to report harassment proclivities compared to women, both men and women are also influenced by power in the same way.

That is, men who are feeling more powerless over an extended period but then experience new heightened power are the most likely to sexually harass, compared to other men. Likewise, women who are low in feeling influential but then gain new authority are the most likely to sexually harass, compared to other women.

The authors of the current study, Melissa Williams, Deborah Gruenfeld, and Lucia Guillory argue that maybe it’s the psychologically insecure, for whom power is compensating for some inadequacy, who are going to abuse influence for sexual advantage.

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, points out that it’s the parents who feel powerless relative to a demanding child are most likely to end up physically abusing their children.

Maybe it’s those who feel low-power because of personal insecurity, no matter the reality of their actual position in a hierarchy, who experience opportunities to wield real power as long-awaited chances to control others.

Previous research has already found that those in positions of power (vs. non-powerholders) are more likely to view people as objects, rather than as individuals.

This latest study involved a series of experiments including exploring the reactions of heterosexual men to attractive, but unavailable, women.

When men who had suffered longer-term feelings of low power were induced to suddenly feel more powerful, they tended to respond with increased hostile sexism toward a rejecting target woman. Acute increases in a sense of power among men who were already confident about being of genuine high power, in fact, lead to decreased hostile sexism towards women.

A recent study using a male-dominated video game found female players were more likely to be harassed by male players whose recent performance had been weak rather than strong, suggesting insecurity about their status as players underpinned the abuse.

Another study found that men lower in social power were more hostile to immigrant men.

Psychologists argue that a subjective sense of one’s own power may not necessarily correspond to objective reality. Some hold positions of power yet may still be feeling inadequate or insecure, or perhaps the trappings of power did not deliver the real authority they had been hoping for.

The study found that acute increases in power decreased sexually aggressive tendencies among those who had experienced high power for an extended period before.

Why, then, psychologically, do people pursue influence?

Is it an unequivocally attractive prospect for self-promotion? Maybe the more responsible power-seeker sees it as less pleasant and more of a burden, an obligation to consider the effects of one’s behavior on others?

The authors of the study conclude there may be a difference between seeing power as an opportunity to do as one wishes versus a responsibility to look out for others.

Don’t get into the lift with anyone who seems to be especially relishing their recent elevation.


Sexual aggression when power is new: Effects of acute high power on chronically low-power individuals.

Williams MJ, Gruenfeld DH, Guillory LE J Pers Soc Psychol. 2017 Feb;112(2):201-223.