Ask Gloria: Why Do Men Sexually Exploit Women?

Trigger warning to abuse survivors: I talk about the real stuff here.


No matter where you surf these days, you are bound to find fierce discussions about male sexual harassment and molestation. Since the #MeToo movement exploded on social media, the public is finally catching up on the facts. Stranger danger (an assault by someone you don’t know) is not nearly as common as someone in your circles of trust being a sexual predator, whether at the workplace, at school, at a place of worship or in your own family.

 Insider danger is the danger to fear.

The person most likely to commit sexual assault, in fact, is often someone you believed was above it — people you looked up to, people you believed were your protectors or allies, and just too intelligent to turn into ugly lustmonsters. Like my client Z. who was raped by her older brother, who she thought was her strong protector until she hit her teens and he became her predator instead. Or my client N., whose sister-in-law grabbed his genitals when his wife was out of the room and propositioned him. Or the client whose uncle convinced him to let him show him how to jerk off when he was twelve. Insider danger is the danger to fear.

You’ll hear how predators groom their victims, making them believe they are their best friends and convincing them they are the only authentic authorities. If the predator is already an insider, they don’t even have to groom you. You are pre-groomed by the whole family structure. You already know, as a child, to respect your elders and follow their rules even when they don’t make sense. You already trust that older relatives know what they are doing when they make you do things that don’t feel right to you. It is precisely that pre-existing subservience that allows evil adults to prey on their own families. Nobody wants to admit there’s something creepy about Auntie Beth or Uncle Bob. Not out loud. Not unless the child reports it. Which most children never do unless they are fully educated by sex-positive parents about the importance of reporting such crimes.

The older you get, the wider your circle of trust grows. By puberty, it extends to your teachers, coaches, and spiritual leaders. If you are an adult, the field of trusted insiders expands to the communities where you reside, work, and worship. You tend to affiliate with and trust co-workers, colleagues, and neighbors once you’ve socialized with them.

The problem, of course, is that all communities have bad apples, and some have more than others. If you work in an industry where men hold all the power (i.e., most industries), you are doubly screwed by the corporate power your predator may hold over you. Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose and the list goes on — all of them wealthy established men who believed that their position entitled them to victimize people with less power. This attitude doesn’t just victimize women or the male victims of gay predators like Spacey. It also victimizes all the actors who rebuffed them and lost career opportunities.

But why do men do it in the first place? Why do so many men — powerful and not powerful alike — target women sexually and try to get over on them? There has been a lot of finger-pointing. Some blame the culture, some blame religion, while still others are treading into the debatable and speculative territory of how male hormones predispose men to violence.

Most of the chatter ignores some basic truths. First, that toxic male culture hurts men as much as it hurts women, even it if expresses itself in differently hateful ways. A friend of mine frequently bemoans how culture restricts what men are allowed to wear in public. He means cis-men, which is how he identifies, and how they don’t dare wear stockings or a skirt in public because of the criticism and mockery they’d face. It’s undeniably true: men who are cis-men are simply not allowed to wear all the styles, colors and fabrics someone decided women can wear.

We should call the Old Boys Network what it really is: The Old Balls Network.

Men hurt men just as much as they hurt women. Never forget that. All humans suffer for the sins of predatory men and the social constructs (like corporations, for only one example) which promulgate their privilege. We should call the Old Boys Network what it really is: The Old Balls Network. It is a genital culture. It’s a boys’ club which fosters the belief that their genitals grant them the social entitlement to attack women and to beat men with lesser balls into submission.

For all that, there are more good men than bad ones, more women who were not abused than who were, more decent, loving husbands than abusive ones, and lots of successful people who never compromised their fundamental morality. Considering how mean and disturbing some religious teachings are, and how criminal and unsympathetic some governments are, it’s a triumph for humanity’s fundamental spiritual goodness that most of us do indeed rise above the savagery of sexual exploiters.

When people are, however, infected by ignorance or tribalism and strive to become predators, there are usually several narratives at work. There is no single explanation for this global social malaise except, perhaps, the most basic and animalistic one: men hurt women because they can.

(Important note: men also hurt men, women also hurt men, women also hurt women, transmen and transwomen may also commit domestic violence, and so on. Domestic violence is not gendered. But since each of those are separate issues I’ll now stick uniquely to the problem of men who hurt women.)


Why Do Men Sexually Exploit Women?


I’m boiling it down to basic generalization and trends based on my clinical observations from working with victims and with sexual predators for the past 20 years. Some people have a cluster of the reasons listed, others may only have one or two.


Their Biology.

Some people (male, female and trans alike) are born to be more aggressive than others. It is likely an inherited trait. The answer will, one day, probably come from combined medical research on hormones (in the field of Endocrinology), genomes (Genetics), and brain structure (Neurology and Brain Science). Right now, we don’t know for sure why it is, we just know that it is. We also know that biology is not destiny and that most people who are born to be aggressive channel it in healthy ways. That said, if you put a naturally aggressive person in a world which rewards aggression (the military and professional sports are two examples), you stimulate their potential for further aggression.


Predators don’t know how to love themselves so they depend on women to feed their egos.  This is usually a Mommy issue, stemming from being raised by emotionally limited or withholding mothers who made their sons hate themselves for needing more love than Mom had to give. They re-enact their early dramas throughout adulthood. They need women to feel whole and they resent their own emotional dependency. If women refuse to grant them gratification, they may snap in rage. Their egos are too fragile to handle rejection.


They think life screwed them. More often than not, this is a Daddy issue. Many male predators have carried a grudge since childhood that life never treats them fairly, and that people are trying to steal their privileges and rights away from them. It may reflect an emotionally absent father who never gave them a sound role model for masculinity or it may come from being the son of an angry father who infects his son with his negativity under the guise of “toughening him up” to “make him a man.” Angry fathers breed angry sons. That anger may turn against anyone (including long-time former allies) who they perceive as threats to their entitlements as men. A woman who shows any kind of power, superiority, or resistance is likely the first person they will lash out against.


They have an undiagnosed mental illness.  I’d bet dollars to donuts that a competent psychiatrist would diagnose many abusers as people who are masking mental illness. Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Schizoaffective Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are frequent culprits in the emotional lives of predators. All of these mental health issues can significantly alter human sexual behavior, usually for the deeply troubling worse. Sociopathy in general – the inability to feel empathy for others – is a key feature of a predator’s mentality. They may literally not understand the harm they cause — or they may understand but grandiosely believe their own pleasures trump another’s pain. Unmedicated, undiagnosed mental disorders are the leading causes of violence and other anti-social behaviors.


They think women owe them sex as their natural-born inferiors. So-called “traditional” culture in general treats women as second-class citizens. All genders are taught to commodify women’s bodies as vehicles of pleasure. We are raised in a culture where a virgin has a higher social and marriage value than women who aren’t virgins. We are raised to believe that it’s a woman’s job to cook and clean and sexually service men. We are raised to believe male voices are more credible and authoritative. We are even raised to believe men are smarter than women. Wherever those toxic social constructs are maintained rigidly in place, male predation is a feature, not a bug.


They’re struggling with their sexual identity. There are an awful lot of heterosexual-identifying men out there who are, or would be, functionally bisexual or gay if they could freely choose. They don’t feel they can choose at all. They are terrified of being exposed for who they are. They already know they are queer, but they have invested their entire professional and family lives to maintaining a squeaky-clean straight reputation. They aren’t straight but they are ANGRY. Very angry, very torn, very confused and very likely to take it out on women and children (including same-sex ones) close to them. It’s one thing to feel LGBT/queer sex doesn’t follow your belief systems, but when you begin raging about gay people venomously, it’s probably because you cannot deal with the conflict in your own soul and are punishing the world for your unresolved problems.


Sexual predation may be widespread but it isn’t normal. It is the very definition of anti-social behavior. Sex crimes are abnormal. Our brains know better: that’s why our brains get so damaged and traumatized by crimes against our sexual and gender identity. Harm and abuse are not what God or biology intended. The Talmud put it succinctly: if a man hurts a woman, God will count her tears.

If psychiatrists had the nerve to do it, they should revise their thinking to line up with the sexual science as follows:

  1. All consenting sexual activities among adults that cause no deliberate harm and leave all sides happy is NORMAL!
  2. All non-consenting sexual contact of any kind (to other adults, children, elders) is ABNORMAL. It should be diagnosed, treated or, if violence occurred, trigger a stiff legal penalty.