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Chronic Feelings of Powerlessness Spur Men to Engage in Sexual Harassment

Research finds men who feel metaphorically impotent, and then assume a position of authority, are more likely to sexually harass subordinates.
Louis C.K.

Louis C.K.

While sexual harassment is clearly not confined to any single occupation, social class, or political ideology, there is a common thread among the recently accused: They all held positions of power. This raises a troubling question: Is there something about being in a position of authority that prompts men to unleash their worst selves?

Recently published research suggests it isn't that simple. It finds the proclivity toward sexual harassment is greater in a specific type of man: One who feels chronically powerless, and then finds himself in a position of authority.

"People who see themselves as chronically denied power appear to have a stronger desire to feel powerful, and are more likely to use sexual aggression toward that end," writes a research team led by psychologist Melissa Williams of Emory University. "Power can indeed create opportunities for sexual aggression, but it is those who chronically experience low power who will choose to exploit such opportunities."

Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers describe five experiments that provide evidence of this dynamic. One of them featured 195 straight males recruited online, who signed up to participate in a "learning and memory" study.

All completed one survey measuring their personal sense of power, and another measuring their desire for more power. They did so by expressing their level of agreement with statements such as "I can get others to listen to what I say" (in the first survey), and "I don't have as much power as I deserve" (in the second).

Half of the participants were "asked to recall a time in which they felt power," and told "they would play the role of supervisor" in an online conversation with an opposite-sex partner. The others were asked to recall a recent trip to the grocery store.

All were then instructed to engage in virtual conversation with their partner by sending her one of three pre-selected text messages. In 16 of the 20 trials, one of the three messages was unambiguously offensive. These included "What are you doing tonight, except me?" and "If you look that good in clothes, you must look even better out of them."

The researchers found "being given power of their partner, in that they played a supervisor role to their worker role ... tended to increase harassment behaviors among men with chronic low power." However, this effect was not found for men who felt reasonably powerful going into the experiment.

"Men who were low in chronic power sought more power," they write, "and this relationship accounted for their tendency to respond to acute power with sexually aggressive, boundary-violating behavior."

On the surface, these findings may not align with the current crop of alleged abusers, many of whom have held considerable power for years, if not decades. But consider two things.

First, power in politics and entertainment is granted at the whim of the public (that is, the viewers, or voters). It is easy to fall from grace, and a visceral understanding of that could engender continued feelings of insecurity.

Also, Williams and her colleagues note they are measuring men's perceptions of their strength and authority. "A subjective sense of one's own power may not necessarily correspond tightly to typical objective measures," they write.

Perhaps, in spite of their power, men like Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. feel like weak little boys at heart. If at a deep level you feel—let's just say it—impotent, you may feel compelled to assert your manliness in disturbing, harmful ways.