How to combat Power Abuse

Power abuse is the talk of the town since Hollywood crucified Harvey Weinstein for misusing his position as career gatekeeper. With Bill Cosby sentenced and late-night hosts reacting to the irony with more irony, what will actually change. Well, Hollywood’s response thus far to power related sexism is to hire more women. But will more women in power stop power malfeasance? To answer this let’s take a closer look at power abuse.

So how does someone force others to submit to their will? Forcing submission can be physical or psychological. The most extreme form of physical abuse is sexual violence, like harassment, assault, incest and rape. These clear-cut criminal cases are embedded in law and retribution should be found in a court of law. Unfortunately, victims find themselves unheard or disbelieved. Take the disturbing Jimmy Savile case. He assaulted more than 450 victims over a period of four decades without being prosecuted, despite multiple reports to as many as 28 police forces.

Less straight forward are the many ways to sexually intimidate. Typical examples are joyfully groping genitals at a party, the casual rub of the neck, pinching a behind, smelling someone’s hair or the lingering touch on a thigh, arm or shoulder. These bodily infringements should be directly met with a clear order to stop and firm reprimand to refrain from doing if deemed abusive. Because after getting away with their first infraction, abusers’ audacity generally grows. So why is abuse not nipped in the bud?

Many abuse victims find it is not easy to stand up to sexual violence and intimidation. They fear reprisal or loss of respect, are anxious that they will not be believed, feel ashamed of being violated, sense guilt for sending mixed messages or experience a lack of social support. Any of these beliefs renders the abused powerless to come forward and speak out, let alone start criminal proceedings. Knowing this only makes abusers feel even more invincible and untouchable.

In some cases it’s plainly pointless to come forward and open up, like the Jimmy Savile case painfully shows. But it happens in companies too. Take confidants instated to deal confidentially with transgressions in the workplace. They find that power wielders do not shy away from exerting pressure to keep transgressions under wraps. Confidants even get laid off when they take the side of the abused. 

Now not all power abuse is physical. It can also be forced psychologically. Sexual manipulation is generally implicit and more subtle than physical abuse. Abusers not often resort to outright demanding sexual favors under threat of career destruction or public shaming. They tend to follow a different pattern whereby targets are slowly groomed to become victimized. First abusers carefully select their prey based on vulnerability, dependency, low self-esteem and easily manipulable. Abusers have a dominant preference for the weaker minded. Then the grooming starts with gaining trust to make sure their prey lets their guard down, followed by handing out favors to create a debt. Once potential victims are in debt, abusers hint at sexual favors as repayment. A classic hook, line and sinker approach.

So is all power abuse actually abuse? No, clearly not. There is another side to it. That is the side where a potential victim is not powerless or unwilling, making them the actual abuser. For power attracts and can be a strong aphrodisiac, making someone more willing to be lured into sexual favors as counter leverage. Blackmail is not unheard off by feasting on the fear that authority figures have of getting their public image tarnished and their character assassinated. It can also be out of personal interest to share the bed of authority figures to get special treatment, better known as sleeping your way to the top. And even some just fake being abused when turned down by crying wolf and play-acting.

All these abuse examples predominantly take place in the privacy of trailers, homes, backrooms and hotel chambers. This raises the question what signal someone is giving when accepting an invitation to meet at someone’s home or to come up to a hotel room for a nightcap. No, this is not victim blaming. But abuse victims do play a part in getting themselves caught in secluded places away from public eyes and camera’s.

So back to Hollywood’s answer to power abuse. Will it be a showcase solution for all industries? I seriously doubt it. There is nothing wrong with reigniting women emancipation in a male dominant industry, but not for the wrong reason. For it might well backfire. Putting more women in power to balance the power equation legitimizes power usage to get even. And that is folly. More to the point, dealing with inequality in no way addresses female perpetrators. Yes, there are women that force men to have nonconsensual sex. Neither does it stop child sex offenders like Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris. Nor will it prevent the Kevin Spacey’s of this world to assault men. And its one-sided focus on sexism in no way counters misuse of power to cover up theft, fraud, discrimination or other infringements. In other words, we need a coherent solution to hold transgressive behavior more at bay, irrespective of age and gender. This entails a radical change in our social fabric. Here are some of its parts:

Define the rules

Part of the problem of transgressive behavior is where to draw the line. When does courting, flirting and fooling around turn into power abuse? It’s ill-defined. To make this clearer we need to determine unambiguous interaction rules highlighting both abuser and abused roles and responsibilities. Rules like no touching without asking permission and demanding unjust favors results in predefined penalties. On top of that more legislation might well be needed to protect those that come forward and to prosecute abusers presently outside the law.

Regulate retribution

Having rules without retribution and enforcement is pointless. There must be some way to guard the line and penalize those stepping over it. This could be organized at industry or sector level. So why are Hollywood and other industries not stepping into this void? For what are the consequences of intimidation and unethical manipulation? Is it a slap on the wrist and some public shaming? Do abusers have to pay punitive damages? Are they stripped of power and do they lose their job? Are they banished from holding a power position? It’s unclear and unregulated. This plays directly into the hands of abusers. In fact it is not uncommon in power circles to applaud transgressors. Risk taking by crossing ethical boundaries is seen as a sign of strength, not of unethical behavior.

So it is high time to better regulate the repercussions, forcing offenders to think twice about transgressing. And not just abusers need to face the music. Also those that protect abusers and deny wrong-doing must be held accountable. Clear case for this is the church that kept molesting priests under wraps for god knows how long, making the church accessory during and after the fact. In principle anyone covering up is culpable. As are those that falsely accuse others. Retribution is a double-edged sword.

Expose abusers

Abuse resides in secrecy. Therefore, unmasking perpetrators is a highly effective countermeasure and deterrent. So what is needed to make going public more easy and effective? The Me-Too campaign is ample proof that social platforms work to rally the abused. United together, victims feel less afraid to give voice to their experiences. However, at the moment the outcry is just anarchic venting. Disorganized as it is little effect can be gained from catching abusers with their pants down. For that we need to organize a professional form of (web) exposure.

Besides social infrastructure, we need to lift taboos on whistle blowing, child abuse and aggressive female abusers. Victimization by women is generally disbelieved and victims get told no harm was done.

Help stand up

Misconduct needs to be confronted or it will reign unchecked. So why not prepare young adolescents to stand up to indecent proposals and say no to unwanted requests? Help them recognize the pattern of power abuse and the weapons of influence used to victimize. Learn them to understand concepts like authority obedience and how to mindfully resist. And of course not to accept power-related invitations to meet in private or secluded place.

Effective anti-bullying programs show that role-playing real life scenes builds control and resilience. Play-acting improves the odds that someone will say no, walk away or shout for help when in a pickle. In other words, enacting events is a great way to develop not only a stronger will, but also to become comfortable with effectively responding to power misuse. Furthermore, children need to learn how to reframe fallacies that prevent anyone from coming forward. Misconceptions like who will believe me, everyone will blame me, I do not stand a chance or I will get fired. These fallacies prevent someone from standing up to power. Something that should be taught early on in childhood.

Collect proof

Proof is essential to substantiate allegations of power misconduct. So we need to make it common practice to record the facts. Nowadays this is a piece of cake for everyone caries a smartphone. Just follow the example given by Michael Douglas in the film Disclosure. He showed how effective recording is after Demi Moore forced herself aggressively on him.

Sadly, it’s hardly second nature to collect facts and note all the details. So presence of mind must be learned by practicing realistic situations and collecting evidence. Not only will this benefit the abused. Making it normal to record transgressions on video or audio also prevents unjust entrapment of authority figures. Factfinding works both ways. And fostering a culture to give irrefutable testimony will also reduce the serious issue of victim blaming.

Independent reporting

The police should properly deal with unlawful transgressions. But do they? No, not really. Resource constraints, not caring enough and lack of priority ensures that many reports get filed away. So power abuse deserves more attention and a prominent place on any political agenda. And what to do with the lawful transgressions? Where to file a complaint or report minor infringements? Not to confidants in corporations. That does not work due to the inherent conflict of interest. What we need are independent agencies and arbitration boards.

Is this all we need to counter power abuse? Obviously not, but it is a better starting point than Hollywood’s folly. Additional safeguards are introducing certificates of proper conduct, integrity statements, moral pledges, regular reviews and better character screenings for key power positions. These measures are of a more psychological nature. Let’s not forget that power abuse is simply unacceptable human behaviour.

Now, where do we go from here? The tide has turned on uncaring, covering up and keeping silent. But is congruent and coherent action taken to hold power abuse at bay? Hardly. And why not? It takes power to check power. A catch-22. To banish power abuse takes leadership and initiative. Only then can #MeToo become #MeNoMore.

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