Sexual Harassment and the Abuse of Power

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James K. Beggan puts forward a novel approach to understanding sexual harassment by high value superstars in the workplace.

I recently published a book called Sexual Harassment, the Abuse of Power and the Crisis of Leadership. Although the book focused on the problem of sexual harassment, the analysis I presented can also extend to criminal sexual behaviour of the type allegedly committed by Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier who in 2008 was convicted of procuring for prostitution a girl under the age of 18. Subsequently, in 2019, he was charged with child sex trafficking and most recently is alleged to have committed suicide on August 10, 2019 while in a Manhattan jail.

Central to my argument is what I termed the sexual approach model which adopts a utility perspective to understand how men seek out sexual opportunities. (Because the great majority of sexual harassment is committed by men against women, I am intentionally making my argument using gendered pronouns). From the perspective of the sexual approach model, the tendency to approach a woman is based on the perceived value of sexual activity with her as well as the likelihood that she would be willing to have sex with him. Thus, an important element of the sexual approach model concerns how men deal with the likelihood component. In other words, how do men deal with risk? What is their tolerance for uncertain future events?

In thinking about how men deal with risk, I suggested that men do more than merely try to estimate likelihood; they also try to influence likelihood by demonstrating their value as a possible sex partner, which they do by highlighting their achievements and the resources that they control. I situate this tendency within both socially constructed scripts for sexuality as well as evolutionary pressures.

The problem with the tendency for men to influence likelihood estimates by emphasising their accomplishments is that in the modern world, these behaviours represent sexual harassment. In other words, I present sexual harassment as the result of a mismatch between evolved effective strategies of seeking sexual opportunities and modern demands on both male and female employees and employers.

One difference between sexual harassment and the behaviour of sexual predators is the clear illegality of the latter. With sexual harassment it is possible to argue that in some cases what can be defined as sexual harassment by the woman might be intended as sexual interest by the man. With sexual assault and other forms of sexual predatory behaviour, no such ambiguity is possible. Some of the women targeted by Jeffrey Epstein were well below the age of legal consent; as such, his behaviour represented statutory rape.

Given the illicit nature of any sexual relationship between Jeffrey Epstein – as an adult – and at least some of the women who have accused him (i.e., those under the age of consent), a subsequent question to ask is why he would have engaged in such behaviour, given the risk he was taking of being arrested. I suggest it is possible to understand his reasoning again thinking about the problem in terms of likelihood judgments. In this case, however, the judgment is not about the likelihood that the target woman is willing to have sex; instead, the judgment is about the possibility that he will be accused of impropriety and the likelihood that such accusations would be believed.

Part of what Jeffrey Epstein did to protect himself was to create an insulating network, to reduce the likelihood that he would either be accused or that any accusations would be believed. This network included other young women who would indoctrinate new girls into how to deal with Epstein’s desires. Their complicity helped normalise what would otherwise be considered aberrant behaviour. He also cultivated a huge circle of influential friends and a reputation as a genius. However, the picture of Jeffrey Epstein as a businessman seems to keep changing. Was he a financial wizard who was also a genius patron of science? Or was he a fraud and scam artist who made his money by blackmailing his wealthy clients because of their sexual tastes in underage girls? Finally, Epstein also employed a team of high powered lawyers to aid him in the event he was found out (which is in fact what happened). It was only the fact that a reporter for the Miami Herald named Julie Brown kept working on the story that the extent of his crimes became known. She found over 60 women who were willing to talk to her about their experiences of abuse. As part of her expose, she revealed details of the sweetheart deal worked out between Epstein’s high powered team of attorneys and Alexander Acosta, at the time the South Florida U.S. Attorney. The fallout from her stories in the Miami Herald led to Epstein’s arrest in New York state on charges of sex trafficking and to Alexander Acosta’s resignation as U.S. Secretary of Labor.

“I won’t take no for an answer”

One element of my book – which can be extended to understand the behaviour of men like Jeffrey Epstein – has to do with the concept of a superstar, which I define as a high value employee who produces at a high level and who also demands a high level of compensation. I suggested that men – especially those who are high value superstars – may have a high tolerance for risk which can subsequently make them more likely to engage in sexual harassment, or, by extension, predatory behaviour. Further, men with power tend to be surrounded by people who reinforce their world view. Finally, traits that tend to make someone an ambitious superstar may work against them when interacting with subordinates, especially in a way that is related to sexual behaviour. Consider, for example, the executive who says, “I won’t take no for an answer”. In a strictly business context, this man is someone you want on your team: a hard negotiator who gets the job done. Obviously, the same sentiment, if it were applied to romantic or sexual interactions can easily become sexual harassment, date rape, or sexual assault. Researchers have identified a dark triad of personality traits – narcissism (egotism and lack of empathy), Machiavellianism (manipulation and exploitation of others), and psychopathy (antisocial behaviour and selfishness) – that can, at a low level, make someone a more ambitious, achieving superstar. Unfortunately, at higher levels, these same traits can make someone dangerous and destructive. As the case of Jeffrey Epstein clearly shows, there can be a high cost of being a superstar.


James K. Beggan is Professor of Sociology at the University of Louisville, US.



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Sexual Harassment, the Abuse of Power and the Crisis of Leadership: “Superstar” Harassers and how to Stop Them by James K. Beggan is out now

Read chapter one free on Elgaronline now

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