Power and sexual harrassment

Under the headline “The Role Power Plays in Sexual Harassment” (Tuesday, Feb. 6, page A13) Elizabeth Bernstein of the Wall Street Journal reports on a series of five studies published in 2017 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Bernstein also interviews a number of psychologists to explore the question: What makes some men abuse their positions of power to sexually harass women?

According to Bernstein, psychologists are finding that men who exploit their power to harass women “typically share specific personality traits. Their power amplifies proclivities they already have.” Those traits include:
— men who felt powerless in the past are “most likely to pursue an inappropriate workplace attraction or exhibit harassment behavior”
— men who have so-called “hostile masculinity” tend to “find power over women to be a turn-on”; these men are often narcissists
— men with what’s known as “impersonal sexuality prefer sex without intimacy or close connection”; these men often have multiple sex partners; their lack of intimacy with sexual partners may go back to experiences of abuse as children
— men with sexist attitudes are also likely to harass or assault women

Bernstein quotes Dr. Neil Malamuth, professor of psychology and communication at the University of California, Los Angeles: “It’s not automatic; it’s not that power corrupts. It’s a certain type of man who uses his power in this way.”

From my perspective, it’s both interesting and not surprising that men who abuse power to sexually harass women share certain personality traits (and I wouldn’t want to limit this to men: there are also women who abuse their power by becoming sexual predators). In my work cleaning up congregations after sexual misconduct by religious leaders, I have sensed shared personality traits in those leaders who abuse their authority. But I’ve never had enough distance from the problem to be able to adequately articulate what those personality traits are, so this is a helpful list of personality traits to look for.

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