Is Power the Motivation for Sexual Harassment?

New York, NY-The news over the past two weeks has been dominated by stories of two politicians who can’t seem to control their sexual impulses. You have New York City Mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner sending pictures of his penis to numerous women over the internet. Then there is San Diego’s Mayor Bob Filner sexually harassing at least nine women during his term. It leaves you to wonder why these prominent political figures would risk their careers to engage in this inappropriate sexual contact.

News casters argue that Weiner and Filner may have sexual addictions and explore every psychological aspect of their inappropriate sexual behavior. This may or may not be true, but if we put the deep psychological workings aside, they share something in common; political power.

We all know that power in the wrong hands can be dangerous, but in the workplace it can lead to hostile work environment. On any given day, from political offices, law enforcement agencies to factories and fast food restaurants, thousands of workers are subjected to bullying, racial discrimination and sexual harassment at the hands of their superiors.

A 2007 study, conducted by Debbie Dougherty, assistant professor of communication in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri-Columbia, questioned 11 women and 12 men about what they believed to be the motive behind sexual harassment in the workplace.

“Power,” said researcher Dougherty, “It was the common answer. It came up repeatedly. However, what I found were multiple definitions of power.”

The differing definitions of power were divided along gender lines.

The men who participated in the study believed power comes from formal authority. They perceived sexual harassment as behavior that mostly managers and supervisors engage in. The men generally viewed sexual harassment among peers as a “misunderstanding.”

In contrast, the women had a much more complex view of power in workplace. Women saw power as a “negotiated process between the harasser and harassed.” Dougherty said women saw all men in the workplace as potential harassers.

“The fact that men and women were using the same word to describe different behaviors may contribute to the continued existence of sexual harassment,” Dougherty explained to Science Daily. “So if a man thinks that sexual harassment only comes from a supervisor, he may feel free to make sexual comments to a female coworker. The female coworker is likely to see the sexual comments as a quest for power and label it as sexual harassment.”

A simple online search will yield numerous stories of men and women in positions of power who subject their subordinates to sexual harassment. It happens all the time; last year alone the EEOC received over 30,000 sexual harassment complaints.

In Mayor Bob Filner’s case, he chocked his harassment up to being a friendly guy who is a self-professed “hugger.” Though Filner has admitted his behavior is wrong, he has fallen short of admitting that he subjected numerous women to sexual harassment, and claims it was a lack to training that led him to act the way he did. But could the real reason be because he knew he held an esteemed position and abused the power he had?