Why Do Powerful Men Sexually Harass at Work?

Four Psychologists Take On the Question No One's Answered

By Merle Ginsberg ·
NBC / Contributor

What’s the price of groping these now? Or exposing oneself? What about masturbating in front of unfamiliar company? Whatever it used to be, it’s higher today. Just ask Matt Lauer. Or Harvey Weinstein. Charlie Rose. Mark Halperin. Louie C.K. etc., etc. Acting out sexually can now cost you your whole career. Your spouse. The respect of your kids, the industry—of the entire world.

There have been a lot of hows and whens reported regarding sexual abuse in the last two months, but not many whys. The celebrity identities drive the intrigue, but the why may ultimately be the most important question. What on earth compels men who have so much, and so much to lose, to just cup a boob, or whip it out in the workplace? Doesn’t the risk way outweigh the payoff?

What's it all about, alphas? We put this question to several leading female psychologists/psychiatrists in an attempt to understand. According to Manhattan psychiatrist Dr. Marianne Gillow, “There’s no 'one side fits all' explanation here. Sexual harassers are a heterogeneous group. There are more types than you can shake a stick at.” But here are some examples of what drives them:

Narcissism/Deep Inferiority Complexes, aka: "Don Draper Syndrome"

“Men suffering from these feelings are more seeking validation than sex,” says Dr. Courtney Karp, a clinical licensed psychologist in Santa Monica. “Narcissists often have high positions as a defense from feelings of inadequacy. When acting abusively, they’re split off—not thinking of consequences. Only of getting their needs met. They’ve got endless, bottomless pits of need, like babies. They can’t regulate their urges. À la Don Draper, they’re good looking, on top of the world, and tortured.”  

An Uncontrollable Desire to Manipulate    

“It’s the humiliation they get off on,” explains Dr. Marsha Norman, a prominent therapist based in central Florida. “Not the groping or exposing or masturbating. Humiliating inferiors raises them up. They think it makes them powerful. Entitlement makes them act out.”

Shame and Inadequacy

“Men rejected as boys build up a sense of unbearable inadequacy,” says Dr. Fran Bernfield, a Manhattan-based psychoanalyst. “I’m convinced Harvey Weinstein spent years being rejected by girls and women. No one would touch him without his wealth and power. He must hate women for the early humiliations he suffered. He wants us to suffer now. These men have a desire to shame or humiliate women; it’s a projection of their own shame.”

Genetic Novelty-Seeking

“Alpha males have a genetic tendency toward novelty-seeking,” says Dr. Gillow. “Animal research backs it up. Some males with high novelty-seeking are thought leaders, risk takers or athletes. If you have any tendency toward destructive behavior, you can flame out. But if the novelty you’re seeking is for teenage women, there’s a very high cost to that. Novelty-seeking is absolutely genetic—you can see it in alphas in the same families.”

Victim Mentality

“These kinds of men often have this,” says Dr. Norman. “If you accuse them, they find a way to make you feel guilty. They blame their victims; it’s never their fault. They manipulate—never answer a straight question. They go around in circles. They know how to cause you to be defensive. They’re toxic. And they’re never wrong.”

Emotional Need Overwhelms Logical Thinking

“They’re functioning on a purely emotional level, not a logical one,” says Dr. Norman. “They need constant reminders of their potency,” says Dr. Bernfield.


“Paraphelia” is doctor-speak for perversion; i.e., atypical sexual behavior. “Louis CK: chances are he has a peraphilia for exposing himself,” explains Dr. Gillow. “In that cases when your young sexual energy can get attached to unusual things or actions. Or they can be victims of sexual abuse themselves.”

General Naughtiness 

“They like to be naughty little boys,” says Dr. Rebecca Roy, a major Hollywood industry psychotherapist. “It’s more exciting—even thrilling. Little boys love to be bad and get away with something. Keeping secrets empowers them. And if they’re naughty and get away with it – it’s a double pay off! That’s why we like gangsters. They break the law and flaunt it in our face. Other men admire their fearlessness.”


“Alphas must fight to the top of the pack,” says Dr. Roy. “Whether they’re dogs, lions or human males, they’re compelled to dominate and conquer. It’s prestige. Watch other men’s reactions to alpha males—they show deference to someone like a Frank Sinatra. Males are all about power and control. They want to make other men jealous—'look what I got!' Narcissists are takers. They dominate inferiors just because they can. It’s about the forbidden. What’s available to them isn’t exciting. They need to overpower. But risk takers have a tendency to self sabotage."

Still, each of our experts agrees, as public reaction has borne out, none of these psychological disorders is really an excuse. “Look,” notes Dr. Gillow; “just because you’re an alpha and have high novelty-seeking, you don’t have to be a predatory asshole.”


Merle Ginsberg

Merle Ginsberg is an overeducated pop culture critic/writer who likes to think she’s an intellectual—except she lives in L.A. and watches way too much TV and reads too many fashion magazines.

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