Politics & Media
Feb 11, 2019, 05:57AM

Sexual Abuse and Political Power

Every hierarchy of power is dangerous.

Jfk john f kennedy cigar whitehouse sex.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

I'd like you to entertain a speculation with me. If you find it plausible, I'll invite or perhaps demand that you draw some radical conclusions.

What if it were true that sexual predators are over-represented near and at the top of every hierarchy? Let's say studies (admittedly these are going to be hard to perform) show that people who seek and people who achieve political power, for example, are rapists, abusers, and harassers at a significantly higher rate than the general population. If so, what solutions might we assay?

#MeToo has brought down many powerful men, from Harvey Weinstein to (any minute now) Virginia Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, as well as a few women. But its own advocates focus perhaps too much on the “men” part and too little on the “power” bit. Yes, #MeToo is bringing down men. But it’s also bringing down the powerful. It’d be rational to be suspicious of men. It’d be rational to be suspicious, too, of people with power. That provides the actual lever, the mechanism, the atmosphere, by which sexual harassment becomes possible, and in which someone might get away or hope to get away with a lifetime of sexual assaults. Picture Harvey Weinstein as a camera guy rather than a producer. He could still be a sexual abuser, of course. But he couldn’t possibly have had the sort of abuse career that he actually had. He wouldn’t have had the leverage. And he wouldn’t have had the decades of impunity.

I think this speculation is plausible. The people who rise to positions of power, on a grand or petty scale, are very likely to be the people who pursue that power, people who focus their lives on achieving it. That is, for the most part, the people with the most power are the people who wanted it most, who chased it hardest, who were most industrious and ingenious in its pursuit. By and large, I speculate, the people who rise to the top of any given hierarchy are people who want and enjoy having power over other people. That is, also, a good way to start to describe a sexual predator. Indeed, feminists for a long time argued that rape wasn’t about sex, but power. But even if that isn't exactly right, rape is certainly, centrally, a direct assertion of power. And power always holds within it the possibility of rape. The basic needs and consequent skill sets of a corporate titan or a president of the United States coincide very closely to those of a rapist.

There’s a science to making one's rise through a hierarchy not seem self-seeking. Every Senator and even CEO describes his own motivations as purely selfless, as devotion to public service or the people in his organization. And the people they're leading, or in general people who want very much to be led, are likely to enthusiastically reiterate their leaders' self-presentations. But watching politicians jockey right now for the 2020 Democratic nomination, for example, it might strike you that they’re driven in large part by personal ambition. One of these ambitions is to have the power and prestige that lets you control people around you. This may be an expression of your sexuality, or perhaps your sexuality an expression of it.

A version of this is found in Trump's delight, as represented on the "Access Hollywood" tape, that his celebrity allows him to sexually assault women with impunity. That perhaps constitutes the actual motivation of the whole career: all that cash, all those gold-colored towers. I'm not as confident describing the motives of the political career of Justin Fairfax, because I haven't been closely observing his behavior for years on end. But if he sought power to get sex, or if one of the forms of power he sought along with political power was power to do what he pleased to women, that wouldn’t be surprising. The higher up the people you’re dealing with are, in any hierarchy, the more likely you are to stumble onto a predator, or the more likely someone is to grab you and push you into the broom closet (the tried-and-true technique of Sen. Strom Thurmond).

The more extreme the power inequality, the more severe the abuse. Totalitarian regimes and warlords have been known to use rape not only as a means of personal expression, but also as a tool of state. The hierarchy of the Catholic priesthood is infested with sexual abusers, and they've focused on children, because powerless people make the best victims. American slavery was, among other things, a sort of Gulag of rape; it thoroughly explored every possible variety of sexual abuse, for centuries. The explanation for that is simple: the power differential between a master and an enslaved person is as total as it can be among human beings. The conclusion I'd draw is that rape is proportionate to inequalities of power.

Unbelievably, slave masters presented themselves as public-spirited do-gooders. They were raping you for your own good, and benevolently caring for their inferiors on happy plantations all over the South. Returning to contemporary politics, I’m not saying that a selfless devotion to public service is impossible, though it’s obviously far more rare than the yip-yap would lead you to believe. On the other hand, as politicians run through their little scripts, it's hard to tell the public servants from the private predators. We've been grappling with the question for a long time, and I do think that John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, for example, did it all for the poontang. This may, for all I know, have led to events that particular women found dehumanizing.

The prudent move when dealing with powerful people in any walk of life is to cock an eyebrow, and take any measures necessary not to be caught with them alone in a hotel room.

If you’re finding this speculation strangely plausible, I invite you to join me in some radical conclusions. Every hierarchy of power is dangerous; it carries with it the possibility of rape and perhaps uses that possibility to maintain itself. The only way to significantly reduce sexual abuse would be to collapse power structures. Sexual abuse is a symptom and a cause of political power. Governments and public servants are not going to save you from it, overall; they’re going to inflict it upon you. Let's set out together to dismantle these hierarchies so we can begin to treat each other decently.

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell

  • Hard to imagine Kennedy and Clinton went to all that trouble just to score poontang. Money alone could supply that. I will wait a few decades to see if more women rise to power, and then see what they do with it.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment