Harassment: Lust or Power Dynamics?

Why Can’t We Come To Consensus?

“group of men standing in hallway” by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

While seeking sexual gratification in combination with power has been shown to predict sexual harassment (Kunstman and Maner, 2011), it is not the only factor. When sexual harassment is used to demand sexual favors in return for a material benefit (e.g., sexual favors in exchange for getting a promotion), sexual gratification may be a stronger factor. However, in many cases, sexual desire is relatively insignificant, as power motives, personality, and aggression play a larger role. In fact, sexual desire may be wholly absent, in spite of the sexual element, when sex is used solely for the purposes of humiliation and abuse.

The above findings are completely intuitive to me, perhaps because I’ve been on the receiving end of harassment that felt much more like bullying that like sexual attraction. Sex and power are two topics that definitely have a lot of overlap, and no doubt there are people who find dominating or bullying others erotic in and of itself. But some people are still not convinced and want to continue to characterize sexual harassment as primarily about uncontrolled lust or attraction. As far as I can tell, most of these people are male. Why don’t they resonate with an explanation that feels completely plausible to me?

There also seems to be a idea that a lot of this behavior is consciously done, and perhaps that is why the notion of sexual attraction makes sense to some men. That’s an impulse that they know and understand about themselves and it happens, if not completely within their control, at least within their awareness. However, women have sexual impulses as well and I believe that very few people (male or female) go about their lives particularly consciously. In fact, I agree with my friend Elle Beau, who has written about this, that the more cut off you are from your emotions, the more likely they are to be running the show from behind the scenes, leading to a lot of unconscious behavior, much of which is not very savory.

Most men have been socialized to believe that it’s desirable to be cut off from their emotions. From the stereotype of the strong, silent, type to the admonition to boys not to cry, men are discouraged from a young age from accessing and understanding their emotions. It’s my contention that when you combine that with social programming about who and how women ought to be as well as the hierarchical nature of our society (particularly for men), it’s actually not that surprising that sexual harassment is an epidemic.

More than 12 million people (some of whom were men) responded to #MeToo in the first 24 hours on Facebook alone. A new study indicates that 81% of women have experienced some type of sexual harassment. That’s what #MeToo truly revealed — that nearly every woman you know has had some experience of this type of harassment. Women in traditionally male dominated industries and fields of study experience higher levels of harassment. Women in low wage positions are disproportionately targets of sexual harassment. Hotel housekeepers, who have about a 51% harassment rate, have begun demanding that panic buttons be installed in hotel rooms.

We’re either a nation of monsters or we’re a nation that is still acting out old gender roles and expectations through the lens of the patriarchal dominance hierarchy. In fact, if this extreme level of harassment is indeed purely sexually motivated, perhaps we ought to either lock up or chemically castrate most men, for their own good and for the good of society. If that number of males really can’t control themselves, I think that’s a much worse issue than one where men are simply acting out detrimental socialized behaviors.

Fortunately, I really don’t think that’s the case. Elle Beau, with whom I’ve talked about this topic quite a bit, has written about her experiences going to a swinger’s club, where half naked women are nearly always treated with respect and there are rarely any issues. If men can be around naked and nearly naked women in a place where people are dancing and drinking alcohol, there doesn’t seem to be any reason that they can’t manage to do that sober, in an office or street setting. The difference between the club and the office is around what expectations have been set out and how those expectations are supported and enforced.

The culture divide between the club and the office is, I think, that we are really still dealing with a world where too many men feel that women aren’t quite exactly people. They feel (either overtly or subonconsciously) that women’s purpose is to caretake, soothe, support, be smiling, look pretty, be an object of sexual focus and enjoyment, etc. I recently had a male friend tell me that he was out of college before he understood that sex wasn’t something you tried to do to women; tried to get from them. It wasn’t until he was older that he understood that sex could actually be something that people did together for mutual enjoyment. It’s this kind of mindset that underlies sexual harassment.

And on the surface that might sound like harassment is indeed sexual behavior, but what’s really underneath is that women in the workplace are not confining themselves to their perceived roles, and because that feels threatening (either directly — a woman might get my job or assignment, I might have to answer to a female, etc., or indirectly — women just aren’t behaving the way that they are supposed to) then the way to put them back in their place is by reminding them that they are sex objects and not people. This often takes place in very subtle, non-overt ways that the perpetrator doesn’t even realize are in play.

Let’s not forget that until 50 years ago, women could not attend Ivy League colleges; they couldn’t get a home or even a credit card in their own name. Women could be fired for being pregnant and struck from a jury simply for being female. It wasn’t until 1993 that all US states recognized that it was possible for a man to rape his wife. Before that, a wife’s body was considered the property of her husband. Just because these laws have changed, it doesn’t mean that all of the sentiments that go with them have evaporated. Despite recent progress, we still have deep seated ideas about the proper roles and behavior for both men and women. One of the main roles for women is to be decorative, which is why it gets included in behavior intended to marginalize and undermine women as authority figures or equals.

The intended purpose of sexual harassment may be largely or even wholly subconscious, and sexual conduct is often the weapon, but ultimately I believe most harassment is about trying to remind women of their place and to put them back in it. That’s about dominance and power. And since we live in a society that demands that men, in particular, routinely demonstrate their fitness for their place in a hierarchy, they are constantly pressured to show dominance over others. Sexual harassment is one of the ways to do that.

It’s not at all surprising that rape, which is a common weapon of war, has many of these same characteristics.

By using gang rape during armed conflict, militia group members:

  1. Prompt feelings of power and achievement
  2. Establish status and a reputation for aggressiveness
  3. Create an enhanced feeling of masculinity through bonding and bragging
  4. Demonstrate dedication to the group and a willingness to take risks

While war rape may not be an apparent tool or weapon of war, it does serve as a primary tool to create a cohesive military group.[14]

In light of all of this, I believe that there is overwhelming support to explain sexual harassment as not being primarily about attraction or lust. There is always an element of domination, bullying and power in play, even if there is an overt sexual component, particularly since some sexual harassment has no overt sexual interest component at all. I don’t think we are going to be able to adequately address this epidemic issue until we can reach a better consensus about what we are actually dealing with.

*Thanks to Elle Beau for providing supporting articles and discussion.

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