Powerful Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein has been accused of sexual misbehavior spanning, quite literally, decades. I am not breaking fresh news with this statement. Even the New York Times “breaking story” published earlier this week was, in a way, old news, as there were whispered rumors about Weinstein’s boorish behavior for years, much as there were with Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and countless others—likely with the same types of paying people off, ignoring it, and sweeping it under the rug. Again, this is not news. What is news to many is the fact that sexual harassment as practiced by these men, if the allegations are true, also qualifies, from a clinical perspective, as sexual offending.
Think of it this way. Our legal definitions of sexual offending vary from state to state and nation to nation. Behavior that is a crime in one place is often perfectly legal in another. For instance, the age of consent varies throughout the U.S. (and other countries). What is consistent from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, however, is that laws about sexual offending tend to be, at least in part, based on the clinical definition of sexual offending, which is sexual activity that occurs without the consent of all parties.
With sexual offending, consent is the defining factor. If someone climbed a tree outside your bedroom window to watch you undress before bed and you didn’t consent to this, that person would be guilty of sexually offending. If, however, that same person had your permission to do this because the two of you felt this would be a turn on for both of you, your peeper would not be guilty of sexually offending. It’s the same behavior, but the level of consent (or lack thereof) creates a very different outcome.
How Power Changes Consent
This brings us to the murky issue of power. It is difficult to give rational, informed consent when power enters the equation. A person’s ability to consent diminishes when another person holds some type of power over them. This is why we don’t allow doctors or lawyers, for example, to engage in sex with their clients. If you see a doctor as holding power over your life and health or an attorney holding power over your divorce settlement, you are incapable of openly and fully consenting. And lack of consent equates with offending. If someone is not old enough to consent, not sober enough to consent, not healthy enough to consent, or disempowered in a way that prevents them from withholding consent and the sexual behavior ensues anyway, that is offending.
A profoundly influential Hollywood executive holds power over an aspiring actress or writer in the same basic ways as a doctor or lawyer. Especially if the executive either overtly states or covertly implies, as part of his sexual overture, “If you don’t do this with me, not only will I not hire you, I’ll make sure no one else does.” So, regardless of the laws in a particular jurisdiction, the sexual harassment allegedly engaged in by Harvey Weinstein qualifies clinically as sexual offending.
Notably, in power-based relationships, it’s not just threats to physical safety that create a lack of consent, it’s threats to career, financial well-being, the ability to work in one’s chosen field, etc. Moreover, threats can be made via promises. When a person in power (like Harvey Weinstein) says, “If you do this for me, I’ll do that for you,” he might think that when he gets what he wants, it’s because you consented. However, the implicit message of his statement—that if you don’t do what he wants, your choice will be held against you in deeply damaging ways—diminishes your ability to consent. The imbalance of power changes the relationship to the point where you may no longer have the ability to withhold consent.
So Much to Lose
At this point, you might be asking why a guy like Harvey Weinstein would engage in this type of behavior. Did he not understand what he might lose if his actions came to light? Did he not think that his wife and the mother of his children might file for divorce, or that his own company might choose to fire him, or that his reputation would be so badly tarnished that his constant threats of “you’ll never work in this industry again” might boomerang on him? And if he wasn’t thinking about these possibilities, what was he thinking?
Well, after almost three decades as a therapist specializing in sexual infidelity, addiction, harassment, and offending, I can tell you that in the heat of the moment power-fueled men like Harvey Weinstein (and Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Anthony Weiner, Bill Cosby, Tiger Woods, Josh Duggar, Jared Fogle, Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, David Petraeus, Bill Clinton, and the list goes on and on) are absolutely not thinking about the possibility of their behavior being used against them. Even if their rational mind knows that what they’re doing is wrong and might come to light in ways that damage them, their narcissism (“I can do what I want, when I want, and nobody can stop me!”) takes over when opportunity knocks at the door of their hotel room. And this occurs even when the object of their ardor is decidedly not interested. Thus, they sexually offend by pushing the other person into doing what they want, and they do this without a second thought.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is a digital-age intimacy and relationships expert specializing in infidelity and addictions. He is the author of several highly regarded books. Currently, he is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction treatment programs for more than a dozen treatment facilities. For more information please visit his website, robertweissmsw.com, or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.