The recent firestorm of allegations made by several female actors of unwanted sexual advances and rape seems to have exposed yet another powerful man, Harvey Weinstein, as an apparent sexual predator. Like that of his counterpart Anthony Weiner (and the alleged conduct of Bill Cosby), Weinstein’s alleged predation appears to have been fully calculated. Different than the garden-variety rapist who looks for opportunity in the moment, then lunges in an adrenaline high at his victim, such men in power deliberately orchestrate a scenario forcing their prey to service their deepest, darkest perversions and to remain silent.
These men have ample opportunity to groom the innocent by garnering their trust, seducing them with false promises, and banking that their terror of exposure will keep the victims from exposing the perpetrator. The predator, of course, knows that where he leads, the vulnerable prey must follow because they want or need something from him. When the predator finally strikes, the victim becomes disorientated — a trusted, admired other has violated her. Sexual acts happen swiftly, sending the victim into a haze of confusion or freezing her ability to move or to determine what’s okay and what’s not in that one moment.
Purposely evoking shock and fear in another is an act of violence. And masturbating or showering in front of a female who doesn’t want to watch exemplifies that act. Wielding enormous power, such a perpetrator controls his victim in a cat-and-mouse dynamic that, to his sadistic delight and sexual arousal, psychologically tortures her. The more she begs him to stop or exhibits humiliation, the more aroused he gets.
Scholar Robert Stoller (1986) called perversion “an erotic form of hatred,” and deconstructed the cocktail of forces driving it: the senses of sexual inadequacy, of shame, and of entitlement. For who else but a man who feels profoundly (if unconsciously) inadequate would find nonconsensual, non-connective acts arousing, and would indulge in them?
Almost universally, such perpetrators have suffered grave verbal, emotional, or physical abuse as children. They have a shame-based personality that manifests itself in a shame-based sexuality. When a male in power “acts out” his sexuality, it means just that: He is regulating his long-buried emotions via rage (generally at the offending gender) by acting it out in the mime language of sex. Patrick Carnes (2001) called this phenomenon “eroticized rage,” pointing to the disowned, but carried, anger and panic that distort trauma survivors’ sexuality. And sex fused with aggression powerfully activates the reward system of the brain, fueling the suppressed abusive memories to be enacted and re-enacted in real time.
When early hostile revenge fantasies become forged with danger, revenge and orgasm swirl together to create an overwhelming internal “high” for the perpetrator. These hateful sexual acts reduce another human being to body parts to be used for personal gratification and strip away any empathy for the other. This “erotic form of hatred” marries the desire to harm with rule-breaking sexual behaviors that the offender boasts to himself is admirable “risk-taking.” He misinterprets as sexual excitement the intense pulsing fear of being caught, combined with the unconscious hope of ultimate triumph over his long-buried trauma.
Anger propels predatory sexual behavior, which feeds on resentment, the justification of revenge, and a willingness to break rules. In other words, the predator utilizes his correct sense that he’s been wronged and that life is unfair to prove his incorrect entitlement to take what he wants, when he wants it. Childhood abuse is the richest soil for such resentments, nourishing the view that the world is unresponsive to his needs and that he will always be betrayed. His perception of having been victimized sets the stage for the development of both an inadequate sense of self and a sense of entitlement, priming and justifying acting out his pain sexually. Unable or afraid to be vulnerable, he can barely tend to his most basic affective needs. Thus he’s left emotionally cut-off, and engages in outrageous behaviors, believing that he deserves his pleasures and that he will never be caught. While this level of risk-taking demonstrates an irrational sense of invincibility, the predator’s arousal depends on increasingly hazardous behaviors, like victimizing others. Profoundly wounded in childhood and wholly defended against it, he dismisses any value in openness to others. In fact, others’ vulnerability marks them as prey because his own vulnerability feels shameful and loathsome.
The proverbial casting couch has been around at least since the inception of moving pictures. Patriarchal views embed sexism, not just in Hollywood but in all industries and in domestic spheres. Whether powerful or not, men perpetrate sexual crimes against less-powerful women in and out of the workplace every day, sometimes for sport, sometimes to knock them down a notch. Some forms of sexual harassment take cover in subtlety: inappropriately sexualized humor and conversation, unsolicited judgment of someone’s appearance or demeanor, unwelcome touch.
More often than not, when women report sexual harassment in the workplace, others (including women) doubt them, creating a secondary victimization. In fact, as a culture we’ve become so inured to inappropriate sexual advances toward women that we think staring at their breasts or remarking on their attractiveness is the norm and shouldn’t be made into a “big deal.”
Perhaps the Weinstein case will prove to be a tipping point for women and for men who see them as human beings rather than as body parts or targets for conquest or exploitation. When women in the workplace compete with each other less and support and believe one another more, they will start talking candidly and listening closely. Rejecting a divide-and-conquer culture, women (and men who honor them) can stand together in solidarity to speak their truth against micro-aggressions and egregious behaviors. Then, maybe, a more egalitarian, respectful world will start to emerge.