Why Do Men Sexually Harass/Assault Women? Because They Can: A Psychotherapist’s View

             Another day, another claim of sexual harassment and/or assault by a public figure. A few weeks ago, a single name was thrust into view: Harvey Weinstein.  There was appropriate shock and horror expressed as more and more alleged victims came forward to charge the entertainment executive with unspeakable acts.  Then, disgust as it was revealed that his acts were “common knowledge” among the In crowd.  Now, with the firing of Matt Lauer, there are too many men to list off the top of our collective heads.  Each day brings a new expose.

            Who is not surprised by the smarmy information? Women.  Women aren’t shocked because women experience sexually harassing behavior on the part of men who may be complete strangers on at least a weekly basis.  Men who comment on our body parts, men who touch our body without invitation, men who leer at us, men who ask us sexually provocative questions.  It is not coincidence that the #MeToo movement has been so vigorous.  And it isn’t serendipity if you gather a group of women in a room and each one either tearfully or matter-of-factly tells story after story of her humiliation or terror by a man or men. 

            The truth is: women walk through each day cautious of men, not knowing when or how a man will strike but girding ourselves against a possible assault.

            Why do so many men exhibit sexually inappropriate behavior? Because they can and because society does nothing to stop them.  Men have been given the directive that it’s okay to objectify women.  There are many long discussions to be had about the ways in which boys are raised to feel this way and how the messaging for little boys and girls are clearly different. 

                              But know this: sexual harassment and assault is abuse of power, pure and simple.  All types of abuse—physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, financial, elder or child abuse—is about power and control.  Who controls the power in the relationship and how s/he exhibits control over the other person. 

             Men who harass or assault women feel entitled to their behavior.  There is a clear sense of arrogance and denial when confronted.  There may be victim-blaming or victim-shaming or a pattern of hostilely turning the allegation back onto the one bringing it to their attention.  It’s dismissed as “nothing’, “Not a big deal”, “What are you talking about”, “Oh come on, women love it”, “I was giving her a compliment”, “Don’t be such a baby”, “Typical women’s lib bs”, and on and on.  Anything to distract and justify their behavior and, quite handily, blame others.  This is all stereotypical abusive behavior: entitlement, arrogance, lack of accountability, blaming the victim, and hostility.

            When will this change?  That’s a big question for another day and another article but clearly, messaging to men must be different.  The payoff of silence and loyalty—by both men and women—to men who abuse must stop.  The idea that “Boys will be boys” or “It’s just locker room talk” or “He didn’t mean anything by it” has to be challenged.  It will take Good Men and Strong Women, it will take Good Fathers teaching their sons to respect little girls, it will take fearless workplaces with a true zero tolerance of inappropriate behavior, and it will take all of us standing up and speaking up against reprehensible behavior.