Violence is difficult to carry out. This is the main finding of research on what happens when humans find themselves in situations threatening violence. It runs contrary to our cultural beliefs, and the way violence is depicted in the news and entertainment media. But the news reports violence that happens, not fights that abort, angry quarrels that fritter out, or guns that are pointed but not fired, or fired but miss. Films and TV shows make violence look dramatic, but if they showed what it actually looks like no one would want to watch it.
Does this pattern fit sexual aggression? We may think sexual aggression is easy and automatic, a product of male hormones or domineering male culture. But our evidence is mostly sampling on the dependent variable, and lumping different kinds of sexual advances together. Attempted rapes often fail, and many kinds of sexual advances do not get very far.
This, I suggest, is good news. It means there are micro-interactional conditions by which sexual aggression can be deterred-- locally, on the spot, by participants themselves. The question is whether the micro-processes that make physical violence succeed, also apply to sexual aggression. This is a genuine question; there is little systematic research on it yet. But sifting through ethnographic evidence plus news reports -- which since the last quarter of 2017 have been suddenly full of graphic detail-- gives an indication of whether the micro-sociology of violence also explains when and how sexual aggression fails. Just asking the question points the way to better research on the turning points of sexual violence.
Parallels between homicide and rape
Homicides divide into the following categories (which are also causal pathways):
-- murders among family members, friends and acquaintances (the most frequent kind of homicide);
-- murders by strangers, including:
-- serial killers -- the rarest kind of murder, although the most highly publicized;
-- murder in the course of a property crime such as burglary or robbery;
-- political murders including assassination, terrorism, and war atrocities;
-- vendettas, the traditional pre-modern form of violent politics, and its contemporary equivalent, gang wars.
-- violence in carousing zones.
The same set of causal pathways apply to lesser forms of violence, ranging from minor battery to felonious assault (where someone is severely wounded).
Rape divides into the same categories and causal paths:
-- acquaintance rape, the most frequent type of sexual coercion, AKA date rape.
-- stranger rape and its sub-types:
-- serial rapists-- comparatively rare, but highly publicized. These have a similar pattern as serial killers, an ostensibly ordinary individual with a clandestine life of carefully selecting victims and planning attacks. Serial killers are often serial rapists.
-- rape in the course of robbery or burglary, especially when a home intruder finds an easy sexual victim. These rapes are impulsive rather than planned.
-- political rapes, including revenge rapes in societies with traditional vendettas; ethnic cleansing rapes during genocides; mass rapes in highly ideological wars and civil wars. These are gang rapes rather than individual.
-- party rapes and carousing zone rapes. These are the sexual equivalent of fights at parties.
Micro-dynamics of violent conflict
The triggers-- and inhibitors-- of violence are in the emotional details of human interaction. The following summarizes evidence from my 2008 book, Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory, and subsequent research using video and other data.
Confrontational tension and fear: In situations threatening violence, participants may start out with angry bluster, loud voices, and menacing gesture. But when it comes to bodily attack on their opponent, even the most aggressive show tension and fear on their faces. This tension makes most violence incompetent. Soldiers and cops who are proficient on a firing range often miss when their target is a live human being; gang-bangers are even more incompetent, firing wildly and quickly running or driving away.
Micro-sociology triggers physiology, and bodily reactions get in the way of conscious intentions. Face-to-face confrontations are socially tense, pumping adrenaline, the flight-or-fight hormone, an undifferentiated arousal that can go either way. Many soldiers in combat do not fire their guns. Like cops in shoot-outs, those who do fire often have perceptual distortions, time slowing to dream-like or speeding up to a blur, a sound-proof tunnel where shooters can’t hear their own guns. Some freeze; some hit their own side in friendly fire; some go into a frenzy where they can’t stop firing in an overkill of bullets until they have emptied their magazine. The same applies to fists, kicks, or knife-stabs. The common denominator is high adrenaline levels, which mobilize the large muscles of the body but desensitize fine motor control of hands and fingers.
What happens in a confrontation depends on the relative levels of adrenaline on both sides. If one side can stay in the zone of medium arousal while the other loses bodily control, the more competent performer at violence will beat the incompetent performer. Not that the better fighter at the moment has to be really competent, just less incompetent than the other. At the extreme, one side becomes paralyzed at very high adrenaline levels, making an easy target for the opponent still capable of attacking.
To be skilled in violence is to keep your own adrenaline level down to medium levels, while driving up your opponent’s to high levels that make them incompetent. On the other hand, if adrenaline levels are equal, neither side performs worse than the other, and the confrontation stalls out, the fight aborting or winding down by losing momentum. We see this also in sexual aggression.
Attacking the weak: Confrontational tension and fear (ct/f ) is a barrier that aggressors have to overcome if they are to deliver any violence. There are several ways around this barrier. The most common pattern is attacking a weak victim: someone who is physically much weaker; someone who is unarmed when you are armed; someone who is running away. Outnumbering the opponent is a major confidence-booster. In photos of riots and brawls, the most common pattern is a group of between 3 and 6 attackers hitting and kicking an isolated individual. Without this advantage, evenly matched fights usually are stalemates, coming to nothing or quickly aborting; Having even one supporter on the weaker side shifts the emotional balance.
The advantage is not so much physical but emotional domination. Robbers with guns are nevertheless wary of hold-ups where one is a lone individual outnumbered by victims and bystanders; most successful robberies consist of 2 or 3 robbers against an isolated shop-keeper. Back-up in robberies is confidence-building, and a way to establish emotional dominance over the victim. Even police act this way; the more police on the scene, the more likely they are to commit extensive violence in making arrests. Successful violence comes from establishing the mood and rhythm from the outset, driving the opponent into passivity.
Confrontation-minimizing tactics: Another way around the barrier of ct/f is to avoid the main source of tension: threatening the other person face-to-face. Eye contact makes the encounter tense. Robbers and muggers find it easiest to attack from behind, where the two sides cannot see each other’s eyes. Wearing masks and hoods emboldens the attacker and disconcerts victims by making the attacker appear un-human. And in the modern high-tech world, cyber attacks are psychologically easy, since they involve no human confrontation at all.
Audience support: Onlookers who encourage a fight help overcome ct/f and enable fighters to carry on much longer than they would if there were no one watching. How long and severe the fight is depends on the size and attitude of the audience: most destructive where a large audience is unified in cheering on a fight; shorter and less harmful when the audience is divided or unsure; when bystanders ignore a fight it soon peters out.
Violence as fun and entertainment: Fights are particularly likely on occasions of leisure and fun: parties, drinking places, holidays, crowds at games and concerts. These are carousing zones where normal routines are suspended and special excitement is expected. Violence on these occasions still requires overcoming ct/f, finding emotional domination over weak victims, and/or support of an audience.
Do the conditions for successful violence apply also to sexual violence?
Sexual confrontation/fear. Like all aggression, sexual arousal pumps adrenaline. Sexual advances which are risky and uncertain generate the excitement-equivalent of the flight-or-fight arousal that can go either way. We would expect to find some jittery rapists, and other sexual aggressors who lose their nerve.
We lack systematic evidence on most of these points, so the generalizations here are hypothetical. But I will cite research where available, and supply illustrations from news accounts and from my own interviews.
[interview:] A young man in his late teens followed an attractive middle-aged woman into her apartment building, by hurrying through the security door behind her. No one else is in the lobby. In the elevator he pulls a knife and threatens to rape her. Although a small woman (5 foot 2 inches), she is a top executive in a non-profit organization, used to exercising authority. She says disapprovingly, what would your mother think if she knew what you are doing? When the elevator door opened, he runs off.
[interview:] A tall (5 foot 9 inches), attractive woman in her mid-20s is running in an open area, when a man about her age runs up behind her and grabs her. She turns around and swings at him, knocking off his glasses and breaking them. (What did he look like?) About six feet tall, long hair and mustache, medium build. He immediately starts apologizing. She steps on his glasses, and glares at him as he retreats.
The tables turned when the rapist fails to establish emotional domination. In the previous case, the attacker has a knife, but as in hold-ups, a weapon is not enough to be successful unless the victim is intimidated.
Short of rape, milder forms of sexual aggression often fail, perhaps most of the time. David Grazian’s research on night clubs found that male patrons often engage in “the girl hunt,” seeking pickups. But these young men did more talking among themselves about the women they saw than actually making contact with them. Generally they lowered their sights to getting phone numbers, not too successfully at that; and groups of young women who went to clubs together often gave them fake numbers. In other words, even in venues explicitly themed for sexual encounters, most of the “girl hunters” stayed on the sidelines, did not approach aggressively, and were rarely successful.
Is this true across the spectrum of sexual aggression? Accounts in the news media focus on aggressions that succeed, but even here we find most aggressors do not get far.
A distant-to-close scale of sexual violations:
[a] sex talk: including talk about sex in general; talking about one’s own sexual experiences and thoughts; talking about sex in regard to the listener on the spot.
[b] sexual exhibition: from the most distant to the most personal, this would include showing pornography; sending or showing nude photos of oneself; exhibiting oneself in front of someone else; at its most extreme, performing sex acts like masturbation in front of someone else.
[c] sexual touching: ranging from any body contact at all; to touching bare skin; touching that approaches genitals and breasts; actual groping. Also along this continuum are various kinds of kissing, from air kisses to mouth kisses to tongue kissing. Hugging is also a continuum depending on what kind of body contact and how forceful.
[d] coerced sex acts: including vaginal, oral, and anal.
Narratives of sexual aggression often claim this set of behaviors is a progression, aggressors trying out [a], [b] and [c] as precursors to [d]. Let us see what the evidence is.
Attacking the weak: Sheer size and muscular domination sometimes shows up in the accounts of sexual harassment.
A hip-hop record producer (Russell Simmons) offered a young screenwriter a ride home from a restaurant. The car doors were locked and he told the driver to go to his apartment. “I desperately wanted to keep the situation from escalating. I wanted you to feel I was not going to be difficult. I wanted to stay as contained as I could.... he did not punch me, drag me, or verbally threaten me. (But when they got to his building, he) ... used (his) size to maneuver me quickly into the elevator.” In the apartment, he moved her into a bedroom and did not stop when she said ‘wait.’ “At that point, I simply did what I was told.”
Here physical pressure without actual violence produces emotional domination. But sometimes overt force fails: The leader of a labor coalition [Mickey Kasparian], talking to a county employee in his office, pinned her down on a sofa and lay on top of her. “I felt like I was being raped,” she said. But the attempt failed. On another occasion, he asked her to participate in group sex with himself and two other women; she successfully declined, although she did visit his hotel room where he had just finished sex with another woman. Four more advances happened over 3 or 4 years, including touching her breasts and genital areas through her clothes in a parked car. She had initially approached him online because she liked his pro-family labor policies and wanted to pursue a career in labor politics; she regarded him as her mentor, and saw him frequently at union-related meetings and social events. This woman eventually sued him. Another woman who worked for him had a long-term sexual relationship with him-- although he was married-- from the time she was hired in 2001 until she retired in 2016. She eventually joined the round of law suits in 2017.
The chief creative officer of a New York advertising agency, while on a business trip to France in the 1990s with a senior art director, pushed her onto a hotel room bed and tried to kiss her. She pushed him off. Several months later she complained to the agency President. Six months later she was fired, as “not the right fit for the agency.”
At the NFL Network, a wardrobe stylist charged a former football star with pinning her against a wall, demanding oral sex and pulling his pants down. She accused an executive of sending nude photos of himself, rubbing against her, and trying to coerce her into having sex with him. Two other former football players at the NFL Network sent nude photos or videos of themselves and propositioned her on multiple occasions. All these approaches failed. When the sex scandals broke out in October 2017, she filed suit for wrongful termination.
Another successful rape was again by the hip-hop producer, when he took a 17-year-old model to his hotel room and tried to force her to have intercourse. “I fought wildly,” she said later. Eventually he relented, when she agreed to perform oral sex on him. “I guess I just acquiesced.” Feeling disgust, she took a shower, when he walked up behind her in the shower and briefly penetrated her. She jerked away, and he left.
All of the news reports are about acquaintance rape attempts; on the whole, they do not rely on attackers outnumbering the victim. Stranger rapes are more violent, especially when they are solo. Solo rapists frequently operate in teams; this is always the case in political rapes, where the teams are very large. Serial rapists are loners, hence they are generally armed (the Boston Strangler, however, was a large muscular man who approached housewives during the daytime posing as a repair man).
Not all violent rapes succeed. [interview:] a medium size, attractive woman was attacked in her bedroom by a burglar; a trial lawyer, she was able to talk him out of raping her. Thereafter she always slept with a pistol at her bedside.
In high-profile sexual harassment cases, strength and weakness is mainly through rank and prestige. Aggressors are film producers and directors, famous actors, successful politicians, orchestra and opera conductors, advertising agency executives, newscasters and TV personalities. Victims/targets are generally their employees, lower staffers, young interns or career-seekers.
[interview:] In the 1970s, a woman holding high rank in a state government heard from her young female interns that when they carried reports to a high-ranking legislator, he would stick his hands up their mini-skirts. Furious at this treatment of her protégés, she barged into the legislator’s office-- past his protective secretary-- and angrily denounced him: “Next time, pick on someone your own rank!” He was cowed, and desisted-- no public charges being thinkable at that time, when women were just entering politics. Like an experiment, the case shows equality of rank makes a difference.
[interview:] An attractive woman hospital chain executive, very talkative and friendly, attended a conference of professional peers. After a convivial dinner, she went to her hotel room where she found one of the men from the dinner had gotten inside with a key he picked up from the desk. Although he was large and intoxicated, she locked herself in the bathroom and called security to get him out. (This was her main example when asked if she had ever been sexually harassed.)
But not just rank difference alone is operative; reported incidents show a pattern of times and places that favor the aggressor and weaken the victim.
Home turf advantage: Sexual aggressions happen especially where an important person works at home, surrounded by female assistants; or where they put in very long hours at the office, into the small hours of the morning when no one else is around.
Independent news interviewer/producer Charlie Rose worked mainly out of his estate 60 miles from New York, with a personal assistant and young interns. A 21-year-old assistant recalled a dozen instances when he emerged from the shower and walked nude in front of her; he also telephoned her repeatedly to describe his fantasies of her swimming nude in the mansion pool. In the most serious charge, a young job applicant was invited to his estate, where he told her he needed to change clothes after getting his pants wet in the pool. He returned in a bathrobe open at the front, and tried to put his hand down her pants. Later she called it “the most humiliating experience of my life.” A total of 8 women accused him of unwanted advances and trying to kiss them without permission. Other staffers said he was “often flirtatious, but never inappropriate”-- possibly those who did not work at his home.
Hollywood producer Brett Ratner had a mansion where he and his friends would invite aspiring models and actresses for screen tests and film viewings. In this backstage atmosphere, she would be isolated from any companions, locked in a bedroom. One director [James Toback] asked a women he had approached for a tryout to show him how she masturbated. “I was afraid that if I didn’t do what he said, it would get worse,” one said later. “I felt frozen.” Finally he humped her leg and ejaculated. In another instance, Ratner groped a young actress in the bedroom. “I was saying, ‘No, stop, I don’t want to.’ And he took his pants off and he was trying to grab my hand, and put it on him-- ‘Just touch it, just touch it, come on.” When she refused, he masturbated and ejaculated. In both instances, the attackers settled for sexual exhibition and masturbation when rape failed.
Federal Court of Appeals Judge Kozinski demanded a strenuous work pace from his young law clerks, often extending past midnight. By December 2017, 15 women accused him of misconduct, mostly making sexual comments, but including 4 who said he touched or kissed them inappropriately. One woman said that on at least 3 occasions he called her into his office to show her pornographic pictures on his computer, asking if she thought it was digitally altered and if it aroused her sexually. (Three other clerks told similar stories of being shown pornography in his office.) He also showed her a chart of the number of women he and his college classmates had sex with. Kozinski had been appointed as a very high-ranking judge in 1985 at the age of 33; apparently he regarded himself as continuing the life of a fraternity boy.
As recently as a dinner in 2017, Kozinski sat next to a woman law professor, told her that he had just had sex, pinched her leg above the knee, and tried to feed her with his fork. This was apparently his idea of recreation, a jokey-silly good timer.
As a high-prestige person, he showed off before audiences. Another woman, who clerked for a different judge, described a luncheon break where court staff were discussing workouts; Kozinski suggested she should exercise naked, and when the group tried to change the topic, kept coming back to it: “It wasn’t just he was imagining me naked, but trying to invite other professional colleagues to do so as well. That was what was humiliating about it.”
Audience support: The last is an instance where someone uses an audience to support verbal aggression. In these celebrity cases, audience support for violent sexual assault is rare; one reported instance is when hip-hop mogul Simmons attempted to rape a 17-year-old model in his hotel room while his then-young protégé, Ratner, stood by and watched, adding to her feeling of being outnumbered. When relying on sheer rank and prestige, celebrities generally preferred privacy to audience support.
The pattern differs in the case of fraternity party rapes and coerced sex, where audiences are of the essence. [Sanday, Armstrong/Hamilton, Moffatt] Anthropologist Peggy Sanday goes so far as to call these homosocial bonding rituals: the frat brothers not only talk at length about who managed to score at a party, but would barge into a room where they were having sex, or view through a window. Although fraternities may tout their reputation as places where there is a lot of action, only an elite minority of their members get sex at any given party. Most of the girls who came with companions leave before their number dwindles-- i.e. they use their audience support to protect themselves from going too far even when they are drinking. Conversely, towards the end, the audience becomes overwhelmingly the drunken bros, who may even dance in a circle around the few isolated women who are left. Adding to the pattern, women party-goers are ranked in prestige: high status goes to women who are engaged or girlfriends of fraternity members, and who only have sex privately. Low status are girls from off campus, and from a lower social class; these are the ones who stay until they are the only females left. This is the pattern for fraternity gang rapes, serial sex “trains,” and the sex-on-display-for-the-bros scenes described above.
Confrontation minimizing: It might seem sexual assault is not possible without body contact. Stranger rapists, like armed robbers, prefer to attack suddenly and from behind. Back in the era when women wore long skirts, a typical move was to pull her skirt up over her head before raping her (Hemingway reports this for World War I and subsequent civil wars). This eliminated face-to-face contact, creating both greater helplessness on the victim side and greater confidence for the attacker.
The cyber era has made possible new form of long-distance sexual advances. Letters and phone calls, in the past, also served this purpose, but sending nude photos of oneself makes it more graphic. From the number of scandals of this sort, apparently it is more frequent, although perhaps just easier to document.
At NFL Network, a wardrobe stylist (i.e. she dressed on-screen speakers) reported at least three former players and executives sent her nude photos of themselves, one of them a video of himself masturbating in a shower. Sending nude selfies was a fad, probably regarded as cool and edgy, in the period when cellphone cameras and email photo attachments were becoming common. Rep. Anthony Weiner (married to Hillary Clinton’s aide) got into repeated scandals when he sent nude photos of himself to several young women. Rep. Joe Barton got in trouble when nude photos he had exchanged with a woman who approached him on-line were publicized after their affair broke up. This case had no allegation of sexual aggression, but in the atmosphere of spreading scandal in autumn 2017, all sex scandals were lumped together. Women staffers for Rep. Blake Farenthold routinely discussed male lobbyists who sent pictures of their genitals. In this office, men and women chatted about strip clubs and whether newscasters had breast implants. Here nude photos were not regarded as a threat (perhaps because they came from low-ranking persons); also because the office atmosphere included much sexual banter and “off-color jokes.” A press secretary said the “workplace culture was more like a frat house than a congressional office.”
It appears that sending nude photos of oneself was rarely taken as a serious offense by recipients, unless it went along with in-person physical advances. By itself, nude photos over the Internet were unsuccessful in getting sex.
Travels away from home base: Trips to exotic places give a sense of freedom from normal constraints. Above all, this is a network effect; sexual aggressors are less concerned about their reputation; sexual targets are away from their social support.
The chief creative officer of a major New York advertising agency began advances on a female copy-editor accompanying him on assignment in L.A. in 2011 to shoot a commercial. She rejected his advances, but days later he invited her to his hotel room to discuss business. After a short conversation, he got naked, got into bed, and said “You decide what you want to do.” She gave in, saying later she felt she had no choice. On a 2012 trip to Cannes, an executive producer at his agency reported, he offered her a key to his hotel room, but she rejected his advances.
NBC host Matt Lauer began an affair with a co-worker covering the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, continuing after they returned to New York. She made a public complaint in Nov. 2017, leading to other complaints and his rapid dismissal from his high-profile TV show.
Many of the political scandals over sexual harassment take place because elected officials work in a national or state capital, away from their home, and where there is a constant round of quasi-official socializing. Rep. Farenthold drank heavily, and aides accompanying him to Capitol Hill social functions joked about having to keep him from getting in trouble with attractive women. This is the context for news revelations of female Members of Congress and staffers “groped from behind” by Congressmen, who “grinded up against her and stuck his tongue in her ear.” Rep. Bob Filner, who was forced out as Mayor of San Diego in 2013 after his staff sued him for aggressive hugging and kissing, was known in Congress as someone female members of Congress would avoid getting into an elevator with.
Special events among politicians are especially likely venues for sexual advances. Rep. John Conyers invited the head of his Michigan office (57 years old at the time) to a 3-day Congressional Black Caucus event in Washington D.C. in 1997. She said she “felt honored to attend.” He came to her hotel bedroom, called room service, and ordered sandwiches. “I had my nightclothes on. I was scared to death. He sat in the bedroom taking his clothes off. I didn’t say anything and he didn’t say anything.” Nothing happened. “He didn’t go naked. He was down to his skivvies. He sat there eating sandwiches and then he stormed out and slammed the door. I was so embarassed and ashamed of myself for being so stupid. I needed a job. He didn’t put his hand on me, but the message was loud and clear.” She said incidents of unwanted touching happened the following year, when he was driving a car on a road trip.
Another former aide said Conyers invited her to his Chicago hotel room to discuss business. “He pointed to the... genital area of his body and asked me, you know, touch it.” Apparently she refused.
The case of Senator Al Franken, one of the sensational news stories of November-December 2017, combines elements of these situations. In 2006, as a famous TV comedian, he was on a USO Christmas tour entertaining troops in Afghanistan. He wrote a skit in which he would kiss a young radio broadcaster (30 years younger than himself). Although she explicitly planned to turn her head and not be kissed on the mouth, during rehearsal “he mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth.” *
*Rehearsals in professional entertainment appear to be a favorable site for sexual touching by high-status persons. New York Metropolitan Opera director James Levine was accused of several homosexual advances over several decades in such venues; London orchestra conductor Charles Dutoit was accused of groping and kissing singers and musicians. The situation combines the ritual veneration given to musical maestros, with a backstage, out-of-sight atmosphere, and performers who spend most of their time practicing alone, thus are socially weak and isolated targets. And elite musicians are often on the road.
What happened next sounds like escalation against her resistance. On a military plane flying out, Franken had his picture taken with his hands on her breasts-- she is asleep, wearing a flak jacket and helmet, safety precautions in the combat zone-- while he turns to the camera with a comic leer. After the trip she was given a copy of the photo along with other mementos of the trip, apparently all to be taken in good humor. This good humor broke down 11 years later, in the midst of the spreading scandal about producer Harvey Weinstein’s casting couch. It also happened at a time of intense political maneuvering over tax reform, when Republicans held a slim majority in the Senate; and coincided with a scandal about Alabama Republican Senatorial candidate Roy Moore dating and kissing teen-age girls 40 years earlier. It was a perfect storm for Senator Franken, deserted and pressured to resign by most of his liberal friends without going through an official hearing. Franken was the poster child of the sex scandals, above all because the embarrassing photo was circulated so widely. It might well be called, “what we did on vacation.”
Sexual aggression as fun and entertainment: It is striking how many scenes of sexual aggression are times of sociability and carousing. This is especially true for lesser aggressions, verbal and touching, rarely forceful rape. Self-regarding cut-ups and party animals (Judge Kozinski, Rep. Farenthold) mostly operate in this zone.
A top executive for Visa credit cards, regarded as a rainmaker and ace negotiator of crucial deals, was reprimanded and then fired in Dec. 2017 for having consensual relationships with mid-level employees. He ran a high-profile division, with a “work hard, play hard atmosphere.” “To be in the inner circle, you needed to party with the inner circle, going out for drinks. Most of the women who joined the circle were go-getters. They wanted face time with people who make decisions. To spend time with those men is to be looked upon as a rising star.”
Rosabeth Kanter’s Men and Women of the Corporation (1977) describes the era when women were just becoming accepted into management, mainly by helping their husband’s career through sociable contacts, but sometimes by loyalty to a boss who pulled her along with him. Joining the coattails of a ‘water-walker’ was how men advanced, too, getting highly visible assignments and building their corporate resumé. Zooming back to the present, adding a sexual element, plus a work-hard-play-hard atmosphere, makes a volatile mix.
Jobs that involve a lot of hanging around in bars create opportunities for sexual fun, sometimes leading to serious public trouble.
New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush was accused and fired at the height of the fall 2017 scandals for: while in a bar hangout of news employees, putting his hand on a woman’s thigh and kissing her; kissing a female colleague on the street after leaving a bar; surprising another colleague with an unexpected kiss.
More serious sexual advances have gone unpunished. A 23-year-old lobbyist in a state capital (in 2005, as she recounted it in 2017), was drinking with an important legislator, then he masturbated in front of her in the bar bathroom. She never revealed his identity, for fear of retaliation; she is still a lobbyist.
Social greeting ritual: Finally, we should add a category that has no counterpart in the sociology of violence, unwanted hugging or touching. Ostentatious full-body greetings that came into style among the fashionable elite from the 1980s onwards, and have become more or less obligatory in such circles, gave opportunity as well as excuse for this kind of sexual touching.
John Lasseter, creative chief at Disney Animation, went on leave at the height of the controversy in November 2017. He was known for prolonged hugging, both in public and privately. Some former employees said “it made people feel awkward or uncomfortable.” Because hugging was a central part of his public persona, employees felt “it would be difficult to ask him not to do it.” One employee said he would hold her arm in public without asking permission, and hug her for extended periods of time that made her uncomfortable. She also said that several years ago during a meeting he put his hand on her thigh underneath the table.
A week later, comedian Garrison Keillor was banned by Minnesota Public Radio, for an incident in which: “I put my hand on a woman’s bare back. I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness. Her shirt was open and my hand went up it about 6 inches. She recoiled. I apologized. I sent her an email of apology and she replied she had forgiven me and not to think about it.” Keillor says he is not a person who follows the hugging style. Her accusation came out during the rush of #MeToo charges. MPR subsequently announced that one female colleague had accused him of multiple verbal incidents and touching.
Success rate of sexual aggressions
Taking together all the high-profile cases reported in the news during fall 2017, and listing the types of sexual aggressions charged: a total of 76 specific accusers charged 36 perpetrators with 44 instances of sexual talk; 77 instances of touching, 25 of sexual exhibition, and 12 coerced sex acts or rapes.
The proportion of sexual aggressions that led to coerced sex was 12/76, or 16%. If we exclude the 4 homosexual rapes (all by one man), 8/72 sexually harassed women were raped (11%).
Since the cases I have tallied are an incomplete sample, coming from news and on-line reports biased towards celebrity, the exact numbers can only be taken as an indication. The surprising result is that only a small proportion of sexual harassments result in rape. If we expand the definition of coerced sex to include being forced to witness or perform masturbation, the figure rises to 18%. There is some good news in this figure: the large majority of women experiencing sexual harassment have managed to escape.
If the celebrity figures are not representative of the population, in which direction is the statistical bias? Elites in entertainment and politics have usually good opportunities for sexual harassment. The rates of sexual aggression are likely to be lower, perhaps much lower, in other occupations. This is an empirical question; it needs research, asking about specific kinds of aggressions and particular occasions.
The summary just given does not include Harvey Weinstein, the subject of lengthy news reports starting Oct. 5, 2017, which set off the cascade of accusations against others. Is his pattern representative, or an outlier?
A total of 85 women accused Weinstein of sexual aggressions: 56 instances of sex talk, 62 of touching, 32 of sexual exhibition, and 19 of coerced sex acts. If Weinstein was looking for sex with each of these beautiful actresses and assistants, his success rate was 22%. In detailed scenarios, it appears he settled for making them watch him masturbate when he wasn’t successful, as a sort of consolation prize for himself. If we include witnessing masturbation, his success rate rises to 31/85 or 36%. Weinstein was the most powerful sexual predator, able to offer elite career opportunities, and supported by his wealth and organization. Even so, most of the time he failed. *
* Is the sample biased, perhaps because women who gave in to him were ashamed to come forward when others did? To raise his 22% success rate above 50%, another 50 women would have to come forward with rape charges, and no further women charge anything less than rape. To get his success rate to 80%, 250 more raped women would have to make accusations. These numbers are implausible.
So is Weinstein typical of the elite? He made explicit sexual propositions in 52% of the cases, as compared to celebrities in 14%; he used physical restraint or violence in 32%, celebrities in 16%; his rape rate was twice as high, 22% to 11%. Harvey Weinstein is not the tip of the iceberg, but more like an iceberg himself.
Details: Celebrity perpetrators
number of perpetrators: 36
number of victims/accusers: 76 (plus multiple others mentioned in news reports with similar experience)
* each tally sums the number of distinct incidents, or series of events with a particular perpetrator as told by one victim; i.e. some stories covered a period of time, without distinguishing particular encounters.
1. Sex talk
-- in general 3
-- about self 6
-- about target 17
-- proposition 11
-- “sexual harassment/advances” (not explained) 7
-- anywhere on body (not elsewhere classified) 2
-- hugging 2
-- kissing (or attempt) 12
-- legs, buttocks 12
-- grope breast or genitals 18
-- forced to touch man’s genitals 2
-- physically restrained, manhandled, grabbed 12
-- humped, grinded body against 5
-- unwanted or “inappropriate” touching (not explained) 13
-- “sexual assault” (not explained) 4
3. Sexual exhibition
-- pornography 9
-- nude selfie 4
-- appear naked or partly 8
-- forced to witness masturbation 4 (includes 1 described over phone)
-- victim forced to masturbate 1
4. Coerced sex acts
-- intercourse; “rape” (not explained) 5
-- cunnilingus 1
-- fellatio 1
-- homosexual rape 4
total: 8 heterosexual, 4 homosexual
-- consensual sex affair in inappropriate rank relationship 3
-- offering alcohol to minor 1
Harvey Weinstein’s record
number of victims/accusers: 86
1. Sex talk
-- about self 4
-- about target 2
-- proposition 44
-- “sexual harassment/advances” (not explained) 6
-- anywhere on body (not elsewhere classified) 4
-- hugging 1
-- kissing (or attempt) 8
-- legs, buttocks 2
-- grope breast or genitals 10
-- forced to touch man’s genitals 3
-- physically restrained, manhandled, grabbed 27
-- unwanted “inappropriate” touching (not explained) 4
-- “sexual assault” (not explained) 3
3. Sexual exhibition
-- appear naked or partly 20
-- forced to witness masturbation 12
4. Coerced sex acts
-- intercourse; “rape” (not explained) 11
-- cunnilingus 6
-- fellatio 2
-- offering alcohol to minor 1
Emotional domination as turning point
In sexual aggression as in other violence, there is usually a micro-turning point: whether emotional domination is established or not.
Aspiring actress asked by a movie director to show him how she masturbated: “I was afraid that if I didn’t do what he said, it would get worse. I felt frozen.”
A job applicant approached by a celebrity TV producer, naked beneath an open robe, who put a hand down her pants: “Why didn’t I hit him? Why didn’t I run inside? I was completely wracked with guilt and self-hatred.” Humiliation at the very moment made her passive. The underlying process is like soldiers who are massacred after they get tangled up trying to find cover on the battlefield; they become paralyzed with fear, which is what happens at very high surges of adrenaline, in a situation where one is unable to decide which way to move.
A law clerk shown pornography by Federal Judge: “I felt like a prey animal-- as if I had to make myself small. If I did, if I never admitted to having any emotion at all, I’d get through it.”
A staffer for a high-ranking member of Congress: “I was scared to death. I didn’t say anything and he didn’t say anything... He didn’t go naked... He sat there eating sandwiches and then he stormed out and slammed the door.”
-- This is similar to how threatened fights peter out: by keeping the action stalled (typically this happens by repeating the same insults over and over until it winds down from boredom) and slamming the door.
From Weinstein files:
Successful rapes via emotional domination:
A college student, approached by Weinstein at a New York club and asked to his office for a casting meeting. He both flattered her and recommended she lose weight to be on his reality show [an emotional put-down]. “After that is when he assaulted me. He forced me to perform oral sex on him. I said, over and over, ‘I don’t want to do this, stop, don’t.’ “He’s a big guy. He overpowered me. I just sort of gave up. That’s the most horrible part of it, and that’s why he’s been able to do this for so long to so many women: people give up, and then they feel it’s their fault.” “The kind of control he exerted, it was very real. Even just his presence was intimidating.”
After being cast as lead in a major movie, 22-year-old called to his hotel suite, where he placed his hands on her and suggested massages: “I was a kid, I was signed up, I was petrified.” --- This is probably literally true, paralyzed by fear and the sense of no way out.
French actress, invited to Cannes hotel room. He went into bathroom, and she heard the shower being turned on. He came out with an erection and demanded she lie on the bed. ‘It was like a hunter with a wild animal. The fear turns him on.’ -- Like successful armed robbers and bullies, attacker battening on fear.
Rapes by sheer physical power:
Former Miramax employee, raped by Weinstein in basement of his London office: “He grabbed me and he was so big and powerful. He just ripped my clothes away and pushed me, threw me down.”
Italian actress left alone with him in French Riviera hotel room; reluctantly agreed to give him massage, then he raped her. “[He] terrified me, and he was so big. It wouldn’t stop. It was a nightmare.” “If I were a strong woman, I would have kicked him in the balls and run away. But I didn’t. And so I felt responsible.”
Even so, some were without fear, and overcame physical power with psychological preparedness:
French actress invited to his hotel room for drink: “We were talking on the sofa when he suddenly jumped on me and tried to kiss me. I had to defend myself. He’s big and fat, so I had to be forceful to resist him. I left his room, thoroughly disgusted. I wasn’t afraid of him, though. Because I knew what kind of man he was all along.”
Targets who eventually achieved a turning point:
Actress/producer, at Sundance Film Festival, invited to his hotel room to review script she had written: Half an hour later, he went to bathroom and emerged wearing only a bathrobe open at front. He insisted on listening to her pitch in his hot tub, then asked her to watch him masturbate. When she said was leaving, he grabbed her arm, pulled her into the bathroom and told her he could green-light her script -- if she watched him. “I was on the verge of tears but I pulled it together and quickly exited.”
Swedish actress: “I sat in that chair paralyzed by mounting fear when he suggested we shower together. What could I do? How not to offend this man, this gatekeeper, who could anoint or destroy me?” After realizing there was no way he would settle for anything but “an erotic exchange,” she managed to get out of the room. “Later I sat in my hotel room and wept.”
Model brought to his hotel room in the south of France, where he emerged naked and asked for massage: “I did not want to do that and he asked if he could give me a massage... I didn’t know what to do and I felt that letting him maybe touch me a little big might placate him enough to get me out of there somehow.” Before long, she bolted into bathroom. He banged on the door with his fists before eventually retreating, putting on a dressing gown and starting to cry.
-- in these last two incidents, someone ends up crying uncontrollably. The escaped victim has a belated adrenaline discharge, similar to what happens after one leaves an angry situation where you couldn’t express yourself. And the frustrated rapist melts down, too, in frustration, suggesting that for all the bluster he was a nervous rapist.
Successful resistance throughout the encounter:
TV actress invited to his room to show her a script, told him: “I’m not interested in anything other than work, please don’t think I got in here with you for any other reason.” He was “furious” and walked her back to the elevator, holding her “tightly” by the arm. The encounter “left her in tears and feeling completely powerless.” -- again, tears once safety is reached.
British singer and TV-host, propositioned by Weinstein during lunch at Cannes Film Festival, told him “(expletive) off” and left the meeting “disgusted and angry.”
Some blithely avoided emotional dominance, and being caught:
Actress, then 17 and unknown: “I was incredibly naive and young and it did not cross my mind that this older, unattractive man would expect me to have any sexual interest in him. After declining alcohol and announcing I had school in the morning I left, uneasy but unscathed.”
Waitress and aspiring actress, lured to hotel, where he waited in a bathrobe in front of what he said were contracts for his next three films-- but only if she would have three-way sex with him. She laughed, assuming he was joking. Weinstein grew angry: “You’ll never make it in this business. This is how the business works.” She fled.
Temporary front desk assistant at his company, said she had to refuse his advances “at least a dozen times.” Nothing happened between her and Weinstein -- but only because she “escaped five times.” (These numbers are presumably rhetorical.) “All I remember was I ducked, dived and ultimately got out of there without getting slobbered over. Well, just a bit.”
Successfully de-escalating violence
Recent micro-sociological researchers have uncovered some of the conditions by which participants themselves, on the spot, control whether threatened violence will happen or not.
Research on when political demonstrations turn violent or stay peaceful, by Anne Nassauer (on U.S. and Germany) and Isabel Bramsen (on Arab Spring demos), have zoomed in on turning points. Using videos as well as interviews with protestors and police, Nassauer found that demos that announce they are going to use violence, nevertheless may remain peaceful, just because the militant protestors do not find an opportune moment for breaking into violence. That moment happens when there is a two-part sequence of heightened tension (which can be documented in the shift from loose to tense body postures), followed by a sudden shift to emotional domination-- among the protestors or police locally on the spot, which unleashes them against a temporarily off-balance opponent.
There is also an optimistic side: at such moments of tension, and even when a local cascade of violence is unleashed, participants can cool their opponents down, or at least provide immunity for oneself. Protestors (or cops) can achieve this by directly facing the opponent (not turning one’s back, which creates a weak target inviting attack), and calling out in a strong, clear voice, such a message as: “We are peaceful, what about you?” There is a crucial detail here. Screaming the same message hysterically, with an expression of terror or rage, has no effect in deterring violence. It has to be done with voice, face, and body postures strong and calm.
But although this may happen in the relatively civil protest traditions and policing tactics of contemporary Western democracies: what about in societies where demonstrators aim for maximal disruption, and regime forces brook no defiance and are authorized to use maximal force? Surprisingly, Bramsen shows that even here, local conditions of time and emotional mood determine when and how much violence will occur on either side. Although the spectrum is shifted towards more violence overall, nevertheless there are moments of emotional equilibrium when demonstrators and regime forces (e.g. in Syria or Bahrain) let each other go through ritualized displays without using violence; and times when tension rises uncontrollably into situations of local advantage and hence violence. Many of the demonstrators in Bramsen’s analysis are women cloaked in traditional Arab dress, who nevertheless sometimes stand off against Arab men; and conversely, women in German and American protests can confront the police successfully, or give the wrong micro-signals and get beaten up.
All this suggests there is a gender-transcending process of conflictual interaction, and it contains turning points that stymie violence, including sexual violence. Extending the argument, there are micro-turning points that deter rapes, as well as less intense forms of sexual aggression.
Further clues come from research on conflicts in public places, bars, and entertainment venues. Threatened fights and actual scuffles peter out when they remain in emotional equilibrium, each side mirroring the other and no one getting an advantage (Collins; Jackson-Jacobs). When bystanders intervene to break up such fights, they almost always succeed (Levine et al.). The importance of keeping the emotional equilibrium comes out even when the belligerents are armed. Joe Krupnick’s research on veteran gang members, passing by rivals on Chicago streets, shows the existence of an etiquette for getting through dangerous situations: notice the presence of your enemy with a slight gesture or casual word; do not stare or a take guarded stance, since this suggests wariness that can precipitate an attack; do not look back; keep studied indifference while listening to music or beat-boxing. Violation of these manners is called “slipping” and will get the offender beaten up, if not shot. Keeping the common rhythm is keeping the peace, even when it isn’t friendly.
Nassauer’s research on videos of robberies recorded on CCTV shows, conversely, that successful robbers establish the rhythm of interaction, getting the store clerk to immediately fall into passively doing what the robber demands. This is not merely a matter of verbal commands, but of a visible rhythm of body movements and reciprocal postures. But store clerks do not always fall into the robber’s rhythm; it can be disrupted, for instance, if a robber trips in vaulting the counter, or if the clerk ignores them or laughs at them, or grabs a broom and starts swinging at them. Once again, we find that holding superior weapons is not a guarantee of compliance, and armed robbers can also lose their nerve and retreat. This appears to be a gender-transcending pattern. Women are among the clerks who deter robbers by not falling into their rhythm. At the same time, as video research at the Sociology Department, University of Copenhagen shows, resisting a robbery increases the chance of being injured, while it reduces the robbers’ chances of success. There are probably yet more detailed micro-processes that are fateful in these kinds of encounters.
Bottom line: the micro-sociology of violence in general suggests there are pathways by which women can deter sexual aggression. Perhaps surprisingly, such micro-deterence may be more successful in preventing the extreme forms of sexual violence-- bodily rape, than lesser forms like verbal aggression. But we just don’t know, since we have so little evidence covering situations where women silence men verbally. The common denominators are, extrapolating from violence generally: keep facing your opponent; looking him in the face, head up, as directly as possible; keep calm and strong-voiced as possible; repeat-repeat-repeat to the point of boredom.* Even the arch casting-couch rapist, Weinstein, failed in the majority of his documented attempts; and this is consistent with other evidence.
* These tactics are less likely to work when rapists operate in groups against isolated victims; but that is the ratio in which other kinds of violence are most successful too.
Even without a survey of successes and failures of deterring sexual advances, it is striking that so many of the detailed instances I have assembled show extreme sexual aggression is unsuccessful. News reports and accusations are motivated to publicize the most atrocious instances, but even here, most of what they report fits the pattern that sexual aggression is not easy and is often deterred.
How often do women pay the price for resisting sexual advances?
But if women are often successful in resisting, aren’t they trapped by retaliation in the form of losing their job or career opportunities?
There are some data on this, in the charges reported by Weinstein’s 86 accusers. He was successful in raping 19 women, and forced another 12 into witnessing him masturbate. Of this total of 31 victims, 10 had successful careers in the entertainment world.
Another 55 women successfully resisted or evaded his aggression. Of these, 37 had successful entertainment careers, including 8 who became big stars.
Surprisingly, women who resisted were more likely to have career success (67%) than those who were unable to resist (32%). This is not enough data to generalize from with confidence, but it does come from the biggest sexual predator of contemporary times, a man who was famous for threatening his victims’ careers. We have seen this pattern before, in the realm of violence, where bluster and bluff is common before a fight but doesn’t carry over into winning the fight, unless the recipient believes the bluster.
None the less, a third of the resisters did have mediocre or failed careers. Without indepth research, it is difficult to judge how many of them were never on a career track or had few prospects, and how many were destroyed by Weinstein’s retaliation. In the business world, we have instances where women who complained lost their jobs.
Where anti-harassment laws and procedures come in
Research by Justine Tinker, Shannon Rawski, and others has shown that sexual harassment training in workplaces is ineffective. It tends to reinforce gender stereotypes-- men as strong and aggressive, women as weak victims; men who like their masculine identity feel motivated to be more aggressive; many regard the described offenses as trivial and the whole procedure as bureaucratic wheel-spinning. And many women are unwilling to punish co-workers with being fired for what they too regard as small offenses.
I argue that instead of relying on top-down training and reporting programs, women are able to take action on the spot, making the micro-moves that prevent emotional domination and deterring most serious sexual aggression. Where official procedures can be most useful is protecting women who successfully resist from retaliation against their jobs and careers.
Appendix: research needed on experiences of deterring sexual aggression
This is a make-shift analysis. We still need well-balanced surveys, systematically asking the right questions:
-- In your experience, how many instances can you recall where you were subjected to unwanted sexual advances?
-- What did the aggressor do? Check all the relevant categories of sexual talk, touching, exhibition, and coerced sex acts.
-- Were you successful in resisting these advances? What did you do?
Ask about surrounding circumstances:
-- was the attacker bigger and stronger? did he have a weapon? was he of higher rank?
-- how many other persons were present: your companions; attackers and their companions? if an audience was present, what did they do?
-- what were your emotions at the time, and those expressed by the attacker and others? did you have a pounding heart beat, shortness of breath, time distortions? did youi have a period of feeling paralyzed?
-- what kind of location? was it an entertainment venue, social event, ceremonial gathering, dinner or party, bar, street? what time of day was it? how long did it go on? was there a home turf advantage? was it a location away from your usual home base?
-- above all: who got emotional domination and how did they get it? were there any turning points and what were the details of how dominance shifted?
Randall Collins, 2008. Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory
Jack Katz, 1988. Seductions of Crime.
Eric Hickey. 2002. Serial Murderers and their Victims.
Curtis Jackson-Jacobs. 2013. "Constructing Physical Fights: An Interactionist Analysis of Violence Among Affluent Suburban Youth." Qualitative Sociology 36: 23-52.
Edward O. Laumann et al. 1994. The Social Organization of Sexuality. pp.333-339 “Forced/coerced sex in adulthood.”
Cheryl Brown Travis (ed.), 2003. Evolution, Gender and Rape.
Lee Ellis. 1989. Theories of Rape.
Rosabeth Kanter. 1977. Men and Women of the Corporation.
Michael Moffatt, 1989. Coming of Age in New Jersey.
Peggy Reeves Sanday, 2007. Fraternity Gang Rape..
Jody Miller, 2008. Getting Played.
David Grazian, 2008. On the Make.
Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, 2013. Paying for the Party
Mary Kaldor, 1999. New and Old Wars.
NPR, Oct. 20, 2009. “Guinea shaken by wave of rapes duwing crackdown.”
Nicole Rafter. 2016. The Crime of All Crimes. Towards a Criminology of Genocide.
sources for Weinstein accusers: USA Today Oct. 27, 2017; Washington Post Oct. 5, 2017; BBC 20 Dec. 2017; Wikipedia.
news sources for celebrity scandals Oct.-Dec. 2017: New York Times; Los Angeles Times; Washington Post; San Diego Union-Tribune; AP news service.
A full search of all charges in the news or online is beyond the scope of this article.
Anne Nassauer, 2013. Violence in demonstrations. PhD dissertation, Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences.
Anne Nassauer, 2017. "Failed interaction rituals: armed store robberies gone wrong." Special Issue: “Crime Caught on Camera.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.
Isabel Bramsen, 2017. Route Causes of Conflict: Trajectories of violent and non-violent conflict intensification. (PhD Dissertation) University of Copenhagen.
Joseph Krupnick and Christopher Winship, 2015. "Keeping Up the Front: How Black Youth Avoid Street Violence in the Inner City" in Orlando Patterson and Ethan Fosse (eds.), The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth.
Mark Levine at al. 2011.
"Third parties, violence, and conflict resolution." Psychological Science 22: 406-412.
Justine Tinkler. 2012. “Resisting the enforcement of sexual harassment law.” Law and Social Inquiry 37: 1.24.
Justine Tinkler. 2013. “How do sexual harassment policies shape gender beliefs?” Social
Science Research 42: 1269-1283.
Shannon Rawski. 2017. “The effects of identity threat reactions to sexual harassment on training outcomes.” Academy of Management Proceedings.