What Drives a Serial Sexual Harasser?
Few Americans outside of Southern California had heard of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner until one woman after another came forward with accusations of sexual harassment. With Anthony Weiner’s sexploits still making headlines, and Eliot Spitzer running for office again in New York City, issues associated with men in high positions repeatedly taking liberties with women are once again news.
Serial sexual harassers seem to be driven by some unspoken force. The behavior may be nothing new, but with a 24-hour news cycle and hyperactive social media, it is certainly becoming harder to get away with it.
“For thousands of years, we as a people have given sexual privilege to men in power,” said David Ley, Ph.D., author of “The Myth of Sex Addiction.”
“We excused and permitted them to engage in sexual behaviors that we don’t commonly allow the rest of society,” Ley said. “For instance, human societies by and large got rid of polygamy maybe thousands of years ago, but tacit polygamy was still allowed in our male leaders. JFK is a great example. He had mistresses around the world. Media knew and didn’t care and society let it go.”
The driving forces, according to Ley, are egotism and arrogance.
“They have a sense of being Teflon," Ley said. "This stuff just doesn’t stick to men in power.”
That is, until it does stick. Ten women have now accused Filner, 70, of sexual harassment, and this week he began two weeks of behavioral therapy that many are labeling a manipulative PR move aimed at garnering sympathy. Politicians and legislators from Sen. Diane Feinstein to Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz have called for Filner to resign, but to no avail.
What is commonly referred to as a “sex scandal” may actually not be about sex at all, according to clinical psychologist David Wexler, Ph.D., executive director of The Relationship Training Institute in San Diego.
Mayor Bob Filner of San Diego speaks at a press conference announcing his intention to seek professional help for sexual harassent issues on July 26, 2013 in San Diego.Bill Wechter/Getty Images
“Sex is the currency, the way of expressing something, but it’s not about sex,” said Wexler, author of “When Good Men Behave Badly.” Most men who get in trouble for something about their sexuality have needs that are much more about attention, a sense of entitlement, a need to feel powerful or valued in some way.”
Still, many people are left to wonder why the Mayor of San Diego would risk engaging in the type of behavior that is alleged by his accusers.
“It is irrational behavior,” said Wexler. “When somebody keeps doing something that is leading them into trouble or putting them at great risk, the only way to make sense out of it psychologically is to see that whatever need the person is trying to fulfill by that behavior transcends their rational brain. We could be talking about gambling, drugs, alcohol, overeating, anything that people do that is not in their best interest.”
Almost lost in all of the news coverage of Filner’s behavior are the victims themselves. According to Ley, the women Filner harassed are most likely victims of his narcissism.
“These guys feel superior to pretty much everybody,” Ley said. “One of Tiger Woods’ biographers, his former coach, said Tiger was acting selfishly toward everybody in his life, and that sex and women were just the thing you heard about. I can almost guarantee you that this guy is having problems with everybody, not just these women.”
Meanwhile, Filner is out of sight now that he has entered treatment at an undisclosed location. Many have expressed skepticism about the short duration of his therapy, but Wexler says there could be hope for him to positively adjust his behavior.
“There are plenty of cases of people who looked like they were done, athletes who got busted for steroids, or politicians like Bill Clinton, who ended up weathering the storm,” Wexler said. The fact that so often disgraced politicians and others in powerful positions don’t resign in these situations points to their drive and determination, and that can be a good thing. The problem is that it can also be exactly what leads them to denial of the reality of their situation.”