Men In Positions Of Power Abusing Women Is Endemic, But Not Incurable

November 8, 2017

From Hollywood all the way to the White House, something is really wrong here. 

It feels like every time I unlock my phone, turn on a TV or glance at a newspaper headline, another powerful man is accused of sexually assaulting someone.

From Hollywood executives and prominent entertainment personalities, all the way to the goddamn White House, men are abusing their positions of power and prestige to get sexual gratification from women.

In the entertainment industry, we’ve had Harvey Weinstein accused of rampant sexual harassment, assault and even rape by, at time of publishing, over 100 different women. He used his position as a powerful Hollywood executive to exploit actresses, telling them he could make or break their careers, depending on what they could do for him.

Bill Cosby has gone to trial over drugging and assaulting a woman, and more than 60 other’s have come forward and accused him of abusing them as well. Bill O’Reilly, a former host of Fox News, has settled over six different sexual assault allegations. More than five women have accused Mark Halperin, a political journalist from ABC News, of sexually harassing them, including grabbing their breasts and pushing his erect penis on them from behind.

Politicians are constantly battling claims of sexual misconduct. In the United Kingdom, there is a spreadsheet which includes the names of over 35 members of parliament, including the defense secretary, who have committed some form of sexually inappropriate behavior to their staff members.

Former President George HW Bush has admitted to ‘patting women’s rears’ after making a joke about his favorite magician being “David Cop-a-feel”, in what he intended to be a ‘good-natured manner’. Former President Bill Clinton has been accused multiple times of sexual misconduct and rape, and currently sitting in the White House is a man who is accused of touching or kissing more than 10 women without their consent – an accusation he himself bragged about in the infamous ‘grab them by the pussy’ Access Hollywood tape – as well as the rape of a 12 year-old girl.

And it isn’t just women being abused by men in positions of power. Actor Kevin Spacey is the latest in a string of prominent male figures to gain extra publicity for all the wrong reasons. The American Beauty star has been accused of sexually propositioning young men, while actor Terry Crews has admitted he, too, has been the victim of sexual assault at the hands of a Hollywood executive.

I could continue to list men who have used their power to sexually abuse people for pages and pages, because it’s an issue which has existed for decades. It happens in Hollywood, the church, the military, sporting organizations, politics, fraternities, the media and absolutely every context imaginable. It doesn’t shock or surprise anyone anymore. Powerful men groping, grabbing, preying on and propositioning people is not news to womankind, who have had to deal with unwelcome sexual advances and conduct for almost our entire lives. It’s becoming an uncomfortable new norm.

You only have to look at the recent #MeToo campaign to see the sheer number of women who have been on the receiving end of some kind of sexual harassment or assault to see there is a deeply-rooted, insidious and systemic sexist issue here.

Maybe it’s because men who climb to the top and into positions of great power generally have similar traits. They’ll do anything to get to where they want to go. If a man is in charge, gives demands and takes control, people describe him as a strong leader. Pushing his own agenda, and knowing how to manipulate a situation is valued in a man, and we reward this professional masculinity with success and praise.

But take these traits out of a professional context and into a sexual one, and the whole situation becomes much darker. After all, he knows how to manipulate a situation and person to do what he wants, he makes demands, he takes control.

Maybe it’s because once a man is successful enough, he feels like he deserves the admiration and adoration of everyone, particularly women. Maybe they think their power means they are entitled to sex. Maybe their power makes them think they will escape punishment.

Studies show powerful men overestimate the level of sexual interest women have in them.

It’s well documented in numerous studies that power changes how people behave – the Stanford Prison experiment had normal college kids abusing their peers within days of giving them simulated power. Social scientists have found that when people obtain power, they are more prone to two different responses; they lose empathy and become less able to read other peoples emotions, and begin behaving more impulsively.

Other studies show as well as lacking empathy and gaining impulsivity, powerful men overestimate the level of sexual interest people have in them, believing the women around them are more attracted to them than they really are. They also tend to sexualize their work and seek out opportunities for sexual affairs. University of California psychology professor, Dacher Keltner says all of these factors manifest until these men “leer inappropriately, stand too close, and touch for too long on a daily basis, thus crossing the lines of decorum.”

On top of this, the people who work with and around powerful men often become complicit in behavior they would normally never accept. An experiment conducted by Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram, aimed to understand how ‘normal citizens’ could have engaged in acts which helped Nazi Germany rise to power and claim they were just following orders. These experiments found that a high number of people would obey an authority figure to do something which went against their moral conscious. So while the fact that many people in Hollywood knew of Weinstein’s sexual misconduct but covered it up or ignored it is shocking and uncomfortable, it’s backed up by social science.

These studies and experiments do not excuse the actions of any man who uses his position of power to abuse someone less powerful than himself, nor does it excuse the people who do nothing to stop the abuse, but they do help to explain why this disgusting behavior is so prominent and prevalent in almost every industry, organization and context around the globe.

It’s an epidemic. And it needs to change.

This change won’t come easily, quickly, or without pain. When a problem is systemic and part of the foundation of so many industries, change will never be swift. But continuing to speak up about the abuse and wrongdoing of men in power and demanding justice will, slowly but surely, bring about social change. Talking about injustice is how any change happens.

For example, African American men have been unfairly targeted by police for decades, but since the Black Lives Matter movement and more people bringing this deadly racism into the spotlight, attacks on black males by police don’t go un-scrutinized. In the same vein, people talking about the mistreatment of slaves is a massive part of what started the momentum which led to the civil war and abolishment of slavery.

So why not sexual assault? If we keep talking about it, if the issue doesn’t go away and if people can’t just sweep allegations under the rug and move on anymore, change will inevitably follow, even if it’s a slow process. The safety and respect of women is worth it.

Secondly, if more women start to rise to higher positions in these industries, the balance of power would shift to be more equal. In Hollywood, only four percent of directors are women, but if more women enter the ranks, there will be less abuse. Studies show that having greater balance between different groups of people reduces the level of abuses of power. More female directors, producers, and executives ultimately mean more women looking out for each other and looking for signs of men using their power to abuse other women.

It’s easy to believe the system is too far gone to be brought back under control and things are never going to change because this is just ‘the way things are’. But the situation is already changing.

Gone are the days when a man would emerge from sexual assault claims completely unscathed. Weinstein was removed from his own company a week after the allegations against him started to come to light and Bill O’Reily was fired from Fox News, a position he’d held for 20 years. While not all abusers are facing consequences for their actions (just look at the orange buffoon currently sitting in the Oval Office), there have been some positive changes in attitudes towards sexual assault allegations in the recent years, and even a minor step in the right direction is a good thing.

We’re sitting at a tipping point for fighting the epidemic of systemic sexual assault. Women feel safer than ever to come forward and talk about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment. The ignorant ‘boys will be boys’ excuse doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s 2017, and we know groping, harassing and raping women is not an excusable behavior on account of the fact someone is a man.

Things are still far away from being fixed, and there’s a hell of a fight ahead of us. But I feel a shift happening among women and men, and I feel like we’re taking baby-steps in the right direction. It’s about time.

Images via shutterstock.com.

Comment: Do you think there is a shift to fix the epidemic of sexual assault by powerful men? 

Want More?

Have our best reads delivered straight to your inbox every week by subscribing to our newsletter.



You Said