The recent spate of disclosures of abusive sexual misconduct of women by men needs deeper exploration than the tabloid news coverage has provided to date. And as I attempt herein to study the issue, let me start with full disclosure: I’m a guy of the heterosexual variety. In my younger days, my libido was the driving force behind more than a few intimate relationships with women who were willing partners. To my knowledge, I never forced my desires on any of them. And yet, even as I write that sentence, I’m struck with the thought that it’s all relative when it comes to sexual aggressiveness.
At the least, however, I can definitively state that I never stripped naked and masturbated in front of a woman (or a pair of women, as the comic Louis C.K. has now admitted he did). And, boring as I probably am in matters of sexual fantasies, I will also say that I’ve never had the urge to do so. But I am not naïve to the way sexual fantasies can obsess the male consciousness, nor am I lacking in fantasies that I would not be proud of if they were ever revealed or discovered.
And because I have had and do have thoughts that at least objectify women, I think I can understand how others of my gender can have more graphic and fetishistic fantasies and even how those fantasies can become so all-consuming that some of those fantasies might get acted out, in abusive fashion, on women.
Before I go any further, however, I need to clarify why I’m addressing this topic. What I am not doing, or attempting to do, is to offer excuses for the growing list of outed men who have abused women sexually. (I am not a sociologist or a psychologist, and I claim no expertise other than that which comes from living and observing. The thoughts I have may be unsupported by scientific research. Make of them what you will.) To offer an excuse is to deny personal responsibility, and all of these men who are now being accused of abusive sexual conduct need to take responsibility for what they have done as a first step to apologizing and atoning for their actions and for the pain they have caused. (To date, only Mr. C.K. and Senator Franken have done so.)
Rather than offer excuses (for there really are none), I’m going to try to explain how men become sexual abusers. Explanations acknowledge responsibility. They say, in effect, I did something I should not have done; here is my way of understanding what led me down that path. In religious terms, offering an explanation is a way of acknowledging the sin. In psychiatric therapy, explaining one’s actions is the first step to combating the neurosis. In criminal law, explanations are often nothing more than motives, but if a guilty criminal can understand his (or her) motivation for the crime, he is one step closer to avoiding recidivism.
In any event, I do think I understand the motivation for sexual abuse. It comes from the combination of power and libido. The cartoon depiction of the Neanderthal male (frequently a subject of Playboy magazine drawings), clutching a heavy club in one hand, while dragging a woman by her hair with the other, epitomizes the rawest, most uncivilized form of the syndrome. In it, the male asserts his power through his physical strength and domineering persona, and he accommodates his libido by abducting the captured woman who, presumably, will shortly be satisfying his sexual appetite.
He’s a brute, that cartoon Neanderthal, and to a greater or lesser extent, he resides in all of us of the male persuasion. Call it hormonal (testosterone-driven) if that explanation works for you. Or maybe it’s the “Men Are from Mars” thing that John Gray popularized twenty-five years ago. Machismo is another way to describe it. Dictionary.com defines machismo as “a strong or exaggerated sense of manliness; an assumptive attitude that virility, courage, strength and entitlement to dominate are attributes or concomitants of masculinity; a strong or exaggerated sense of power or the right to dominate” (emphasis added).
However you identify this driving force, whether it has existed since the Stone Age or is of more recent development in our species’ evolution, it explains the impetus to act out sexual fantasies by abusing women. But most men do not succumb to the machismo-driven impulses. It takes an added element to become a Harvey Weinstein or a Bill O’Reilly or a Bill Clinton or a Donald Trump. And that added element is the sense that, simply stated, you are the king.
Being the king is what brings out the worst in men. Or, stated more accurately, believing you are the king brings out the worst in men. A man who thinks he is the king, of whatever domain (industry, political realm, work place, or even home) happens to be his kingdom, will experience a boost to his ego that makes him think he can realize his fantasies.
To test my hypothesis, just look at the list of outed sex abusers from the last few weeks. Weinstein was the head of his movie studio; Roy Moore (the Republican Senate candidate from Alabama) was a District Attorney when he “allegedly” forced himself on a 14-year-old girl; Louis C.K. was a star comedian when he enticed two young hopeful comediennes to his hotel room and did his thing in front of them. The others (really too numerous to mention since the floodgates have opened on reporting their past transgressions) are all leaders in industry, politics or the entertainment world. In each instance, the pattern is similar: a male in a superior position forcing his particular fetish/perversion/sexual fantasy on an unwitting or ill-prepared or unsuspecting female who then feels shamed or afraid and so suffers in silence.
And, thus, the male is all powerful in two distinct ways: first in forcing himself on the woman, and second in assuming that the woman will know not to ever report the man to anyone.
Susan Brownmiller, in her 1975 breakthrough book, “Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape,” defined rape, specifically, as an act of power, not sex. While that thesis discounts excessively the role that sex plays in the abusive conduct of women that men engage in, it is accurate in explaining the dominant role that power (the sense of it and the desire for it) have in abusive male conduct. The need to dominate, to exert power, is evident in most cases of spousal abuse, where men who have failed to achieve dominance in the workplace seek dominance in their marriage. Add alcohol to the mix, and you have spousal abuse.
No alcohol is needed in the workplace, where the king-in-the-kingdom theory is the prime motivator. Even in instances of a work shift supervisor engaging in sexual harassment of women on his shift, the supervisor envisions himself as entitled by the dominance of his position. In politics and government offices, the same calculus exists. Whether John F. Kennedy abused women (Bill Clinton almost certainly did), he certainly made use of his office to engage in the sexual liaisons he presumably had with the likes of Marilyn Monroe (who, let’s recall, committed suicide while Kennedy was president).
God, in his infinite wisdom, may have had good reasons for imbuing the male of the species with a sex drive that far exceeds what most women experience at any time in their lives. For most guys, sex and thoughts of sex are omnipresent. From puberty on, the sense of sexual desire and the desire for sexual release are a constant. Love, and the need for it, is a modifying force, to be sure (and here I speak as one who has been faithfully married for 39 years), but the urge, the implicit need, really never goes away.
Similarly, the thirst for power seems to be another of God’s curious decisions in the creation of Adam and his progeny. Men are inherently driven by the need to feel powerful. It’s in their DNA. Some men learn to control the impulse or have it driven into latency in childhood, but for most the need is still there, and it can be awakened with just a small taste of it.
Sex and power: the need for both is at the heart of the abusive sexual conduct in which men engage. As to where the particular fetishes come from, that I leave for others to explore.