Who Becomes a Sexual Harasser?

There is something in the news almost every day about sexual harassment and sexual assault. These subjects have also come up in every social gathering I’ve been part of in recent weeks, whether the groups are all women or mixed gender groups of friends and colleagues. It is easy to grasp how powerful men like Bill O’Reilly of Fox News; Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer; and Bill Cosby, the entertainer, could get away with harassing and assaulting young women for decades by paying them millions of dollars to keep silent when they complained. It is also easy to understand the power that these men wielded over the careers of young women, power that may have fed a narcissistic predatory tendency (remember the Access Hollywood tape?). What is not as easy to understand is how some people can become sexual harassers or abusers when they are not rich and famous. How does this behavior begin and develop?

First, let’s review the statistics reflecting how widespread this problem is. It is not just a few high-profile people (mostly men, but a few women) who are sexually harassing and assaulting others. Charles Blow of the New York Times recently reported these current statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center:

  • One in five women will be raped at some point in their lives.
  • One in five women are sexually assaulted while in college.
  • Ninety-one percent of the victims of rape and sexual assault in the United States are female.
  • Eight percent of rapes occur while the victim is at work.
  • Rape is the most underreported crime; 63 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.
  • More than 90 percent of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault.
  • The prevalence of false reporting is between 2 percent and 10 percent.

Blow also stated that a 2015 Cosmopolitan magazine survey of more than 2,234 female employees between eighteen and thirty-four found that roughly one in three said they had been sexually harassed at work. Seventy-one percent never reported the harassment, and of the 29 percent who did report it, only 15 percent felt the report was handled fairly.

Who becomes a sexual harasser or predator? David Brooks of the New York Times offers a helpful framework, using the metaphor of “rooms,” for explaining how this evolution can occur.

  • Room #1: The room of love. Brooks explains that most men, when they are children, are raised to think about sex as “something special you do with the person you love.”
  • Room #2: The room of the prospector. Brooks explains that in adolescence “a strange thing happens,” and the room of love “drops from common culture” in societal messages about how boys should behave. Boys learn that “sex is a gold nugget” and that they should prospect for gold. If you are a straight man, then you’ll be on the prowl for women who can give you what you want — sex for pleasure. Hunting for sex at college parties or clubs becomes a transaction for which you can rack up conquests and victories. Too often, part of the hunt involves getting a young woman to drink a lot of alcohol to make her easier prey for sexual conquest and to be able to blame her later for being drunk. The sense of entitlement to sexual pleasure that young men learn in this process can stay with them after college when they move on to the workplace.
  • Room #3: The room of the predator. Brooks notes that a small percentage of men cross over from the prospector to the predator room and mix the pleasures of sex with the pleasures of power. Brooks goes on to state that the most extreme form of sexual harassment is “not just sex and it’s not just power; it’s a wicked mixture of the two. Harassers possess what psychologists call hostile masculinity; they apparently get pleasure from punishing the women who arouse them.” They take pleasure in frightening, intimidating, and overpowering women with their sexual behavior.

Brooks notes that predators do seem to start young, “often beginning their predatory behavior in college.” For this reason, the recent rollback of Obama-era guidelines by Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, for how colleges should be survivor-centered and hold predators accountable is a step backward. Campus sexual violence researchers Nicole Bedera and Miriam Gleckman-Krut in the New York Times report that the changes by DeVos will discourage survivors from coming forward and will ensure that more prospectors evolve into predators.

The impact of sexual harassment and assault can be severe, including depression, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts. At the very least, it is a civil rights violation. Our institutions must stop enabling and protecting prospectors and perpetrators. We need to embrace and teach a definition of masculinity that includes accountability for respectful behavior toward girls and women.

Anne Litwin, Ph.D. is an Organizational Development and Human Resources Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.’

Originally published at www.annelitwin.com on December 11, 2017.