Why Powerful Men Sexually Harass Women

a businessman with his hand on a female co-worker
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We know from recent studies that half the workforce in the US is female. And we're also well aware that though the numbers may be equal, the power distribution isn't. Only 15 women served as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in 2009. Even at the upper and middle levels of management and leadership, men predominate. And with power comes abuse.

When a woman files a sexual harassment complaint, it's rarely about a co-worker harassing her. It's usually a boss, supervisor, or someone higher up the food chain. Anecdotal evidence suggests that for some men, power provides opportunities and access.

Many perpetrators dangle potential jobs, pay raises, or promotions in front of women with the implication that "if you're nice to me, I'll be nice to you." But is sexual harassment about sex and lust, or control and domination? Is power the catalyst that flips the off switch into an on position for some men who would otherwise not behave this way if they weren't in charge?

Those who study human behavior tend to agree that powerful men sexually harass women more than men on equal footing with their female co-workers, but what triggers that is up for debate. Most, however, agree that sexual harassment is not about desire but domination.

Noted legal scholar Catharine A. MacKinnon specializes in sex equality issues under constitutional and international law. In her book Directions in Sexual Harassment Law co-written with Reva B. Siegel, MacKinnon states:

...[S]exual harassment is...the expression, in sexual terms, of power, privilege, or dominance....
To understand sexual harassment primarily in terms of misplaced sexual desire is wrong for many of the same reasons that it is a mistake to understand rape as primarily a crime of passion or lust.
  • acceptance of interpersonal violence
  • the desire to dominate women
  • high authoritarianism
  • difficulty seeing others’ perspectives (difficulty being empathetic)
  • belief in sex-role stereotypes
  • endorsement of stereotypic views of male sex-role norms

While the tendency is to link the above traits to male behavior, it might be more accurate to blame hormones -- specifically an overabundance of testosterone.

Widely recognized as a major factor in dominant behavior, testosterone also impacts men in other ways (and can similarly influence women with elevated levels in their own bodies).

Writing about "The Testosterone Curse" for Psychology Today, Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. notes the many traits associated with high-T (high testosterone) males:

...[D]ominant individuals also tend to be extremely competitive, and are frequently "endowed" with what's commonly known as the "killer instinct." ....[I]n cutthroat businesses, it's undeniably an asset....[but] a driving need to compete with others undermines the empathy, understanding, tolerance, and compassion necessary to sustain close, caring relationships.
At its worst, high-T dominance and competitiveness can involve brute force, violence, and fighting behavior of all kinds....Their more tender feelings literally "blunted" by elevated testosterone levels, they tend not to be particularly concerned about--or, for that matter, interested in--the feelings of others....
Sadly, there's seems to be something about high testosterone levels that contributes to an almost predatory frame of mind....
Complementing this tendency to be imprudent, rash, or even reckless, are a variety of research findings indicating that high-testosterone males are more likely to be impulsive, impatient, unreliable....

According to anthropologist and historian Laura Betzig, "the point of politics is sex." She cites rulers throughout history who routinely engaged in sexual harassment and sexual assault, adding:

Why is every man with a big harem a despot? Because collecting women–like tribute, like labor, like homage–tends to require force. People...tend to cede favors on two accounts. One is, they get a favor back; the other is, they get beat up if they don't. There are, in short, positive and negative sanctions.

because they can

Powerful men have a both an overactive libido as compared to 'normal' men, but they are also more willing to gamble that they can get away with their sexual activities....[I]n my opinion, it is the position of power itself that makes men arrogant, narcissistic, egocentric, oversexed, paranoid, despotic, and craving even more power, though there are exceptions to this rule. Powerful men generally have a keen eye for female beauty and attractiveness....Every "willing" woman confirms the power of the powerful man....
It is not too speculative to think that powerful men live in a sexualized or eroticized world. Not only do they expect to have sex whenever they fancy, but they also expect that every woman is always willing to provide this service, and enjoy it. They are...opportunistic and just take what they want. It probably comes as a complete surprise when somebody does not comply. The forbiddenness, and the awareness of transgression, makes the sex even more attractive...

Betzig, Laura. Sex in History." Michigan Today, michigantoday.umich.edu. March 1994.
MacKinnon, Catharine A. and Reva B. Siegel. Directions in Sexual Harassment Law. p. 174. Yale University Press. 2004
Seltzer, Leon F., Ph.D. "The Testosterone Curse (Part 2)." PsychologyToday.com. 6 May 2009.
"Sex and Power: 'Powerful Men Have an Overactive Libido.'" Spiegel Online. 27 May 2011.