Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Male Misuse of Power for Sexual Exploitation: Surprising Findings

There are still more than a few good men. The focus lately, however, is not on them. It is on the growing number of known, talented, and in some cases respected men who have been accused of sexual harassment, coercion, and rape.

Are these men really different from men who would never do this? Maybe.

An important study by Williams & Gruenfeld, reported in the February 2017 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, sheds light on those who cross the line to sexual aggression and violation when they are in powerful situations.

What these researchers found was that it is not just being in a position of power that makes a man exploitative and sexually aggressive, it is when a man who has a chronic sense of powerlessness is given an acute increase in power that we see an increase in sexual aggression.

Definition of a Personal Sense of Power

  • The researchers here defined chronic power as the subjective sense of one’s overall power and influence in life. They used the “Sense of Power Scale” developed across nine different samples and 1,141 participants by Cameron Anderson, John Oliver and Dacher Keltner (2012).
  • This scale defines chronic power not simply as a function of control of resources or assigned social position, but as a more persisting personality trait – the perception of one’s capacity to influence others. As such, when someone has a sense of power, it is coherent within social contexts and across salient relationships. This sense of power is not correlated with Machiavellian manipulative, deceptive behavior or with traits like exploitativeness or entitlement.
  • The chronic sense of power defined here is correlated with leadership, superiority, self- admiration, openness to experience, altruism, generosity, and positive locus of control. A chronic sense of power does not correlate with power for power sake.

Research Findings

  • Drawing upon five studies, the researchers found that chronically low-power men placed in a high-power role showed the most hostility in response to a denied opportunity with an attractive woman (Studies 1 and 2).
  • Both chronically low-power men and women given power were the most likely to report that they would inappropriately pursue an unrequited workplace attraction (Studies 3 and 4).
  • Having power over an attractive woman increased harassment behavior among men with chronic low power but not men with chronic high power (Study 5).

The researchers’ overall finding is that based on these studies we see evidence that men (and in one study women) with chronic low power appear to have a stronger desire to feel powerful and are more likely to use sexual aggression toward that end.

Are the line-up of men who have been accused of misusing power for sexual exploitative behavior actually men who have never felt powerful. Are they men who in the face of increased power, misuse it to bolster a well-hidden but less positive feeling of self? Do they have difficulty not only regulating sexual impulse but also a positive sense of self and power?

People are complex. The inside negative story a person carries is often, as Dr. Joe Burgo describes for the person with a Narcissistic Personality, a story of hidden shame – even from self. Sadly it is often a secret revealed in their use of others as disposable objects, their rage at being rebuffed, and their definition of power as sexual exploitation.

There are still more than a few good men who have a personal sense of power.

For More Information: Listen in to Dr. Joseph Burgo discuss ” The Narcissist You Know” or Dacher Keltner discuss ” The Power Paradox” on Psych Up Live.