Beyond Abusive Compensations of Power, Addressing Sexual Harrassment

By Paul Dunion | December 19, 2017

I am encouraged by Stephen Marche’s New York Times article, “The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido”.  Mr. Marche appropriately invites men to take their masculinity seriously: “… let’s start with a basic understanding that masculinity is a subject worth thinking about”. It is an extremely worthwhile summons that has been duly ignored since Herb Goldberg first issued such an invitation in his 1978 seminal work, The Hazards of Being Male.  “Our culture is saturated with successful male zombies, businessmen zombies, gold zombies, sports care zombies, playboy zombies, etc. They are playing by the rules of the male game plan. They have lost touch with, or are running away from their feelings, and awareness of themselves as people. They have confused their social masks for their essence and they are destroying themselves while fulfilling the traditional definitions of masculine-appropriate behavior”.


Who listened when Goldberg suggested that our masculinity was a subject worth thinking about? Who listened when John Lee and Robert Bly, leaders in the Men’s Movement, gathered men for the purpose of giving voice to their losses and learning to welcome the accompanying grief?  Numerous folks came to my office completely oblivious about the existence of the Men’s Movement in the 90’s.  It would appear that very few of us are interested in understanding that masculinity is a subject worth thinking about. Is it possible that we resist thinking about that which we’re hesitant to change?  My best understanding coming from working with hundreds of men over the past 35 years, is that the place to begin understanding and interrupting sexual harassment is not simply focusing on the male libido, but what happens when feeling powerless is labeled taboo for men.


The defining cultural mandate for manhood is: Any expression of impotency (powerlessness and vulnerability) must be avoided at all costs. Any interruption of this imperative places a male’s manhood in serious jeopardy.  An ancient definition of the word power is “able to”.  A serious problem begins when we insist that there should be no limit to what a real man can do. Such an edict places an understanding of manhood upon a precarious precipice, easily toppled over by a myriad of life’s slings and arrows.  We will become lost and confused about what our lives really mean. We will experience failure, rejection, defeat, and be forgotten. We will witness loved ones choose a path we cannot endorse. People whom we love will face a crisis, fall ill and die. Our own bodies will weaken, refusing our best efforts to rapidly restore their efficacy. We will eventually die.


The emotional intelligence of men is seriously compromised when we are not allowed to experience inevitable powerlessness resulting from an encounter with life’s immensity. We simply do not know how to creatively and compassionately respond to what is out of our control. The result is that men are confused about how to genuinely learn from their life experiences.


A man’s scramble to retrieve some semblance of power easily morphs into compensations of power when faced with feeling helpless.  To compensate for holding real power means becoming overly corrective, moving into distortions and abuses of power, all in the name of securing an understanding of manhood that is unraveling.


Mr. Marche takes issue with the Guardian’s  view that sexual harassment is about power and not sex by writing: “How naïve must you be not to understand that sex itself is about power every bit as much as it’s about pleasure?”  The ego does not limit its gratification to the erotic. The ego thoroughly takes Epicurean delight in any abuse of power that allegedly supports its sovereignty.  Let’s look more closely at abusive compensations of power that are woven into the fabric of  “masculine-appropriate behavior”.


There are at least 4 distortions or abusive compensations of power that are culturally sanctioned building blocks of the male identity: Domination, Deceit, Neglect and Violation.

*Domination.  An old definition of the word domination is “to rule”.  Males have been given the entitlement to dominate females physically, socio-economically and politically for centuries.  With women remaining at home with children, it became quite easy for men to dominate or to rule in industry, business, politics and education.  Thanks to the work of many women in the Feminist Movement of the 70’s, domination by men has gradually lessened in these areas and needs to continue to diminish.

* Deceit. Deceit is another abusive compensation that appears to be increasingly popular.  Its current manifestation appears to be the lack of transparency and accountability. Deceit is no longer something happening in a back-room board meeting. It is occurring in living color at our nation’s capital.  The mode of contact suggests that men should dominate whenever possible and be deceitful in order to keep it going.

* Neglect. When men cling to domination, especially coupled with deceit, they can no longer take authentic stewardship for their families, their neighborhoods, and their communities.  Duty, integrity and honor become lost, or reduced to looking-good language, not meant to denote any action that could possibly be devotional.

* Violation. The word violation comes from the word violence meaning “to use force in order to harm or frighten”.  Sexual harassment can be defined as a violation of physical and emotional boundaries.  When women are the victims of sexual harassment their bodily boundaries are invaded and their emotional boundaries supporting privacy and protection are encroached upon.


Mr. Marche concludes his article: “I’m not asking for male consciousness-raising groups; let’s start with a basic understanding that masculinity is a subject worth thinking about. That alone would be an immense step forward. If you want to be a civilized man, you have to consider what you are.” Of course, a prevailing issue will be whether or not being a “civilized man” in any way threatens an internalized understanding of “traditional masculine appropriate behavior”, or what it means to be a real man.  Certainly, thinking about how we carry power is an important starting place. We may be able to step a bit further into what it might mean to bring some semblance of healing to the problem of sexual harassment.


Healing Sexual Harassment

Recently, my wife and I were dining with another couple. The woman asked her male friend and I what it was like to for us to witness a man sexually harassing a woman. Both he and I paused and replied, “I can’t ever remember seeing sexual harassment take place”. I proceeded to ask a number of men if they had witnessed women being sexually harassed by men. No one could remember having such an experience.  I concluded that what I was hearing from men either reflected some level of denial or sexual harassment typically happens in a private setting.  I decided that both might be operating.  However, even if sexual harassment is a private event, it would still benefit men to raise their consciousness about the ways they carry power.  Let’s look more closely how to support the healing of sexual harassment, by starting with a genuine moral inventory.


  • Pursuing a thorough moral inventory related to abuses of power. Men simply reflecting upon the nature of their masculinity run the risk of getting lost amongst a myriad of interesting abstract concepts. It is key that men focus on possible abuses of power. I suggest it is impossible for men and women to carry power without blemish. Such an inventory is not meant to be an inquisition, but rather an opportunity to heighten our sensibilities regarding how we have abused power and how we might want to carry it in the future. Here are some helpful questions: Under what circumstances and with whom, have I exercised undue domination? What emotions tend to elicit my need to dominate? Do I employ deceit as a way to cope?  Do I hold secrets when it is unnecessary? When is holding a secret appropriate? Do I employ deceit in lieu of being accountable for my behavior? Do I know how to be shamelessly accountable? Am I prone to neglecting the needs of family members, friends or co-workers? Do I neglect my own physical and emotional needs?  When have I violated either the physical or sexual boundaries of someone? Do I understand what it means to live with good boundaries? Were my boundaries ever violated? Lastly, am I ready to make an amends to anyone I have dominated, deceived, neglected or violated? Am I willing to take a regular inventory regarding how I employ power?


  • We need other men. Whether you are a male who strives to avoid abusive compensations of power or a man who has been succumbing to regular expressions of abuse, we need one another. The former group needs to affirm their capacity to be sensitive, able to be empathic and collaborative. They also need to examine how they have likely abdicated holding power in order to avoid being abusive. The latter group needs the help of older men who have worked on disassembling abusive patterns aimed at affirming their manhood.  Younger men can benefit by witnessing older men who are comfortable with their manhood while committed to avoiding abusive compensations of power.


  • Women can help. Just as women have needed men to acknowledge how they were not helping to empower women in the workplace, men need women to help craft new visions of manhood. As a culture, we seem able to acknowledge that fathers can be abusive and neglectful. We do not appear to be ready to accept the imperfection of mothering. It may even benefit mothers as well as adult sons, for mothers to acknowledge their imperfections. They can humbly explore with their sons, how they may have hurt them.  A man who has permission to acknowledge being wounded by his mother runs a greater likelihood not to wound women and girls. The second way women can help themselves and the men in their lives, is to expect to be loved by men. When women are only too willing to be needed by a significant male, they collude with keeping males emotionally immature. It is such a stint on maturity that breeds confusion and ignorance pertaining to power.


  • The healing of men. We expect men to act civilized and give them no permission to heal. Acknowledging the need for healing presupposes in someway that the male is wounded, and powerless to have been able to prevent the injury. Healing, by definition, is antithetical to cultural definitions of being a man. However, men can only interrupt being perpetrators of violence when given the right to have been victims as boys, and deserving of healing.


I am thankful to men like Stephen Marche who call men “to take their masculinity seriously”. One way to take our masculinity seriously is to ask if our lived masculinity reflects compliance to some cultural imperative or is a deep expression of our personal values.  We may need to summon enough courage to allow the uniqueness of our own intuitive sense of what truly matters about masculinity to shine through.  From that orientation, we may be able to grant other men the right to find the truth about their own masculinity, without calling them to something that agrees with our self-perceptions.  My hope is that this might be a time of listening  – a time to hear women giving a voice to the sexual harassment they have endured.  May we, as men, hear that voice calling us to ourselves, earnestly caring about how to bring compassion to our feelings of powerlessness.



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