I’ve noticed that when news commentators discuss cases of sexual harassment that are popping up with regularity, they usually assert that “power” is the primary motivation behind harassment actions. That is, perpetrators act to remind their victims (and, I might add, themselves!) which party is dominant in their interactions.

True enough, but from a psychological perspective I think we need to add two additional elements to the equation, elements usually overlooked, but important on several levels. First of all, they give us additional insights into the motives behind molesters. Secondly, they help us better understand the power motive referred to earlier. Finally, they provide us with coping lessons that apply to virtually any social situation.

The first element is pretty simple: Many molesters, for reasons owing to their upbringing, view victims as sex objects. For instance, a man who repeatedly gropes, tickles, squeezes, etc. women, sees them primarily as objects for him to “play with.” This perception, of course, is immature and narcissistic, and betrays in the perpetrator not only feelings of dominance, but also a sense of entitlement. Whether the relationship is professional, family, friendship, or romantic, this man’s arrested psychological growth renders him largely incapable of maintaining social interactions based on acceptance, equality, and respectful partnership.

The second element involves competition. For whatever reason, and probably at a sub-conscious level, molesters see themselves in competition with their victims, and suffer intense unconscious anxiety over it because their insecurities and weak self-esteem produce fear that the victim will win. Again, in the case of a man showing a pattern of harassing women, at some level he feels he must compete with women because they are a threat to his already feeble self-esteem.  Deep in the valleys of his insecure, immature mind, he has this viral fear of losing to a superior opponent. These anxieties motivate him to compete (metaphorically) and demonstrate his power over women. How? Well, because he sees women as sex objects, the competition is expressed in molesting actions that dehumanize them and allow him to proclaim to himself, “I WIN!”

OK, let’s discard the sexual harassment context and look at any of your relationships that are presenting you with coping challenges. Again, forget the harassment issue and focus on a relationship that is causing you difficulty and anxiety. The problem could be with a friend, co-worker, spouse, parent, child, or whomever. As a first step in helping you begin to attack the coping challenge and find actions that might help you move toward a resolution of the conflict, use the comments above to guide you toward some specific questions. As always, focus on the issue at hand and keep your questions within the basic boundaries of, “What parts of this situation are under my control?”

Ask yourself: How do I really see this person? Do I feel in competition with him or her? Do I feel I will lose the competition? Does the person arouse anxiety and insecurities in me? Am I behaving in childish ways toward the person? (If you can’t relate to “childish” simply ask yourself if you deal with the person like you’re on the playground during recess in the third grade.)

What I’m saying here is that some of the dynamics of the molester (that is, insecurity, immaturity, narcissism, anxiety, fear of competition and losing that competition) are at work in your troubling relationships. If you ask yourself some brutally frank questions about your possible motives and insecurities, and work hard to confront your fears with some honest answers, you are well on the way to more effective coping.

Whether we’re talking about the sexual molesters in the news, or your everyday rocky relationships with family or colleagues or friends, the fundamental problem boils down to what Schnarch, a social psychologist, calls differentiation.

Simply put, if you are a differentiated person, you are able to maintain your individuality, your sense of self, in your relationships with others. You can share, cooperate, compromise, respect those who disagree with you, and even admit you’re wrong. But through it all you remain yourself. You do not subjugate yourself to the will of the other, nor do you feel compelled to assert power and dominance over the other. You can work with others from a context of personal stability and self-assurance, not from a context of weakness, insecurity, and dependency. In short, you are “secure in your own skin.”

On the other hand, those low in differentiation might constantly look for attention and approval from the other person. Is that you? Do you suffocate others with demands, possessiveness, and jealousy, forcing them to meet your wants and needs? Those low in differentiation might also be narcissistic “me” oriented people who deny responsibility for any problems in a relationship, and simply see others as objects to manipulate for self-glorification. Is that you? Do you see others as opponents to defeat and belittle so you can see yourself as dominant? Do you regularly and hypocritically cast blame on others while never considering your own role in causing problems?

Think about these comments as you pose to yourself the questions above. If you’re honest with yourself you can greatly improve your self-understanding, your everyday coping skills, and the quality of your interactions with others. You may even realize that those low in differentiation, a personality and behavior profile that includes molesters, are a truly pathetic lot who may deserve counseling, but not our sympathy.

4 thoughts on “”

  1. When I read this: “molesters see themselves in competition with their victims, and suffer intense unconscious anxiety over it because their insecurities and weak self-esteem produce fear that victims will win.” I think about Maslow’s holistic-dynamic theory. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, molesters struggle between safety needs and love/belonging needs. They unconsciously feel insecure but want to pretend he/she is fine. Threats to one’s safety lead to fear, insecurity, and dread. Deeply in their mind, I believe that there is a weak creature inside crying and looking for safety (Harry Potter movie’s character Voldemort in the train station).

    However, I agree that: molesters deserve counseling but not sympathy. There are many ways to overcome the insecure and anxiety, but sexual harassment definitely is not one of them.


  2. This article reminded me of Klein’s Object Relations theory. Although Klein theory focuses primarily on the development of babies and toddlers, its framework can be used to shed light on understanding adults who seem to lack social and emotional maturity. Sexual molesters are a primary example of people who lack social and emotional maturity. As stated in this article, “many molesters, for reasons owing to their upbringing, view victims as sex objects. For instance, a man who repeatedly gropes, tickles, squeezes, etc. women, sees them primarily as objects for him to ‘play with’ “. When sexual molesters view their victims as objects, they embody the same characteristics as a young baby who views his/her mother as an “object” to satisfy his/ her needs.


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