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ARTICLE: Why some men harass women
by Naomi Shragai
What motivates a man to risk his career and reputation by harming a colleague for a momentary sexual thrill? Is it, as many believe, a drive for power and domination, or are such men simply opportunistic?
Every individual will have his own reasons, but a common underlying theme is often an attempt to alleviate insecurities, distract from painful experiences and manage anxieties.
Michael Bader, a California-
As a result, men’s sexual acting-
Having a powerful social and economic position — think of the Hollywood abuse scandals — has the advantage of reducing the risk of sexual rejection and humiliation, which damps down arousal and crushes a man’s masculinity. Even if a woman were to say “no” to her boss’s advances, it is likely she would let him off gently.
As one man expressed it to me: “I didn’t want to avoid the arousing, I wanted to avoid the rejection.”
Dr Bader describes Louis CK, the US comedian who admitted to setting up scenarios in which women watched him masturbate, as someone who feels insecure about his masculinity and whether it is admirable to women.
“I’m quite sure that in Louis CK’s mind, these women were enjoying the sight! Thus, he was reassured and his excitement resulted. The fact that they were not enjoying it was invisible to him because of his social position and the cultural trappings of power. But the underlying motivation is not about power, but about overcoming his insecurities.”
When men act out their sexual fantasies, normal concerns — about the woman’s feelings and the possibility of being caught — are pushed out of their minds: the underlying anxiety is intense enough to impair judgment. Compulsive behaviour is often an unconscious attempt to convert painful feelings into excitement, thereby lessening anxiety and easing traumatised memories.
Dr Bader believes that to understand what underlies the harasser’s behaviour, one needs to consider the roots of male misogyny. In order to separate from their mothers, boys and then men need to renounce their dependency not just on their mothers, but on all things feminine. A part of them comes to resent, and even despise feminine qualities, which conflicts with their emotional and sexual needs. Dr Bader explains that sexual coercion is a safety strategy for many men: they remain in a superior position while having their need for female attention satisfied and at the same time alleviating their fear of being too dependent on women.
“Getting a woman who is ‘under you’ to service you sexually is a way of getting female attention and admiration without having to expose yourself to any risk,” Dr Bader says. That is why harassers attempt to “medicate” their anxieties with the sexual charge they gain from women who work for them. “The apparent availability of women over whom you have power makes enacting your sexual fantasies possible and safe. To the extent that male sexual fantasies are attempts to deal with anxiety, then you have the classic formula for addiction — namely, activity that is designed to eliminate or reduce uncomfortable feelings.”
Using harassment and coercion is the extreme end of something quite common: I often see examples of how men use sex to alleviate anxieties in my practice. One middle-
During the course of psychotherapy, he recognised that his compulsive behaviour was rooted in an inner insecurity resulting from his relationship with his mother, in which he felt unloved, unlovable and unable to solve her problems. This later translated into his inability to connect with women and create meaningful relationships.
“I was terrified of being rejected, and of confronting feeling so appalling about myself,” he says now. “Fear of humiliation — in my mistaken reflection — was life threatening. Somehow my life would be at stake by allowing this degree of vulnerability in the hands of another person. The safe option, emotionally, was pornography.
“I was also fearful of what would happen to me and the woman if we were trying to create a relationship. I didn’t feel emotionally adept — it felt a mountain too high for me.”
He convinced himself, unconsciously, that acting out his sexual impulses would fill his emotional voids for love and connection. Ultimately, however, it only deepened the emptiness he felt inside, and led him to eroticise his feelings even more, reinforcing a masochistic cycle. He says: “It’s dead easy in that eroticisation to lose the sense of the other person’s wellbeing. You become very selfish — whether it’s a woman on the street or a porn movie — it is just an object to satisfy something that’s very compulsive and very compelling.”
Now happily married, this man knows that his new life is dependent on his capacity to refrain from acting-
These explanations of sexual harassment are by no means a “get out of jail” card — understanding motivation does not exonerate bad behaviour. On the contrary, harassers have to take responsibility by confronting their demons and face up to the harm they have caused. This is a difficult issue to balance, for the men and those around them: judgmental condemnation may well leave men paranoid or too ashamed to talk — and an opportunity to comprehend, and help them to change their behaviour is lost.