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17 November 2017

Structure and Sexual Misconduct

We appear to be in a watershed moment. The floodgates have been opened to a seemingly endless cascade of sexual misconduct claims, ranging from the rape of minors to inappropriate and undesired language. One reaction I have heard is lament: "When will the accusations end?" This is understandable. However, I tend to see things much more optimistically: This is what social change looks like. It's uncomfortable and ugly and disappointing but good, good because it signals a change in norms. We are together affirmatively stating that such behavior is no longer acceptable; moreover, such behavior will be sanctioned. In a way, a desire to "make it all go away" is a wish to return to a time when our silence tacitly approved of such behavior and, thus, allowed it to continue unabated. As disquieting as it is, this is progress.

What's more, I think we can start to talk about the social structure and culture that has possibly and ironically elevated those among us who are more likely to do such deviance to positions of power, authority, and celebrity. Think about the presidency as an example. It takes a special--and not in a good way--person to consider him- or herself qualified to be the most powerful person in the world. To look at the impossibility of that political office, at the crushing and awesome responsibility it affords, and to say, "Sure, I could do that!" is the height of hubris. Not to mention the gauntlet one must travail to ascend to the catbird seat. We should not be surprised that virtually all candidates for president are, to some degree, clinical narcissists. We should recognize that it is a system of our own design that elevates people with these characteristics (and indeed perhaps even engenders these attributes) and that these very characteristics are what make such people feel entitled to act as they please without fear of consequences. Think Nixon and Watergate or Kennedy and Clinton and their sexual dalliances. Narcissism is not so much a personality disorder as it is an inevitable result of our way of doing social order. It is more bad society than bad actors.

This line of thinking can easily be translated to the systems that elevate movie stars, musicians, comedians, Senators, and CEO's. All require and encourage antisociality. This isn't to say that such behavior is confined to these fields. We ordinary folks are not immune. It is, however, an empirical question worth investigation: do people in positions of power, authority, and celebrity do sexual misconduct at a disproportionate rate?

An even more uncomfortable question to ask is, inasmuch as these elites, whom we've elevated, embody our ideals, what does this say about us?

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