Why Do Powerful Men Do Such Demeaning Things to Women?

 By Lynne Revo-Cohen

In coffee shops across America, women are asking each other, “seriously, what the hell is up with these men?”


Every day we hear about powerful men who could have sex with willing partners ‘8 days of the week,’ as the Beatles song goes, so why do these men impose their will on people who would run the other way if they could?


The answers are complicated, as many psychologists will tell you. However, it mostly boils down to one thing; sexual misbehavior is about power, not sex. It’s about power to show dominance, and power to hopelessly fill an empty space in the soul. Like bullies everywhere, this power play makes them feel better about themselves. Sexual dominance of women, for these men, whether it’s sexist jokes, demeaning behavior, or unwanted physical contact makes them feel whole for the moment, only to watch it ebb away when they come to realize they are still not good enough. Then they will look for the next opportunity to prove it ain’t so.


According to Dr. Chris Kilmartin, a Professor Emeritus in Psychology at Mary Washington University, cultural messaging for boys and young men growing up has an impact on how men see themselves and see women. Kilmartin writes that most men are taught from day one to be strong, to be a man, not to show emotion or weakness, not to be submissive to anyone, especially to women. As boys, the worst thing they can hear is “You throw like, you run like, you hit like a girl.” These teasing comments are humiliating. With good parenting, most boys survive these cultural messages and grow up equipped to have healthy relationships with women.

But some men don’t. They become wounded emotionally, become narcissistic…dead inside, no ability to have empathy for anyone, with a need to bully others to feel better about themselves. It’s all about them, Kilmartin believes, all the time, filling that hole by getting others to subordinate to them, to be dominated. For some men, bullying will suffice. However, there are men who get empowered using sexual harassment or sexual violence to give them the power pill they crave. It’s never enough, however. There’s always the next time, the next woman. It’s no accident, they are smart about how to target their victims. These are the serial harassers.


On the surface, it may appear that serial harassers do this to impress women. That’s not the case. They do it to impress other men, that’s the aphrodisiac…they get their kicks by showing other men how they dominate women.


The question for many of us, is when is it going to stop?  It will stop when the good men step up. When they have the courage to say to each other, “that’s not cool,” “that’s ridiculous,” “that’s not how we treat women!” This is the essential message for leaders, that harassment at any level will not be tolerated, and it is up to everyone, men and women alike, who bear witness to do something about it….to speak up.


It is natural to ask whether serial harassers can be treated and transformed? In some situations, serial harassers can indeed be trained, especially if companies show they take sexual harassment seriously. They’ll do this by using training, progressive discipline, and if necessary, termination. Responsible leaders know termination is crucial for egregious sexual harassment, quid pro quo, or repeat offenders of problematic behaviors, especially after being put on notice. Nobody, even the ‘top gun’ gets a pass. Powerful leaders also learn that they have to ‘amplify the healthy voices’ in the room. They know that they need to honor and reward the men and women who step up to STOP harassment.”


Understanding what propels a man to become a serial harasser and understanding who does the harassing is the first step; but, the next step for leaders is to learn how to empower male and female allies with the skills and courage they need to stop the harassment “in the moment.” A well-communicated norm that “if you see something, say something” will help. But most importantly, nothing helps if leaders don’t step up, hold people accountable, and be the change they want to see. Everything they say and do matters to the people who watch their every move, so they need to drive this change. Creating a culture of respect starts with them.


Lynne Revo-Cohen is a founding partner of NewPoint Strategies LLC. She has a thirty-year track record providing management consulting to organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad.