How Men Are Like Chimps

Sexual harassment revolves around power, not sex. We can see these dynamics at work among chimps as well.

The recent controversies surrounding sexual harassment, especially (but not exclusively) targeted towards women, got me thinking of a classic experiment about the social dynamics in chimpanzee society. Primatologist Frans de Waal has noted that the ability to form social connections and be diplomatic is a better predictor of who will dominate the group, and not the size and strength of male chimps. Power, then, can be redefined as the capacity to influence another person’s circumstances or mental state by providing or denying resources (such as food, funds, facts, and fondness), or dispensing punishments (including, but not limited to physical or emotional maltreatment and ostracism). That is, an individual who has the ability to impact others (positively or negatively) is often more powerful than one who might be physically strong and mighty.

This was, of course, how male chimpanzees behave with other male chimpanzees and (unlike bonobos) chimpanzee society is shaped by patriarchal structures, wherein males herd the pack, so to say. How is this related to sexual harassment? Social hierarchies in humans work in exactly the same ways. The power to inflict harm on others is often in the hands of very few men. But these very few men can influence a large proportion of people at large, including women. Sexual harassment is, as has often been argued, not just about sex, but also about power.

Hostile masculinity (a personality profile that includes hostile attitudes and emotions, especially towards women, and a desire to control and dominate women, not exclusively sexually) and positive attitudes towards aggression against women were predictive of sexual aggression. This is consistent with the position that controlling a woman non-sexually through physical aggression or domination may positively affect the likelihood of being able to control her sexually. Thus, for some men, sexual aggression may be generalized to the use of force and physical control over women more generally.

Men who are in powerful positions often have the capacity to provide for and to punish their targets. In chimpanzee society, those who abuse their power have the fear of retaliation and eventual ostracism from other chimps. In human societies, on the other hand, women may, at the surface, be considered equal to men. The reality, however, is far from that. When men abuse their power against women, they may not fear retaliation or ostracism (by their social circle, as well as by the society at large), because they are cognizant of the power they have over women. This is evident in the way abuse of power is not punished appropriately.

This has been corroborated by several data sources, which indicate that when fear of punishment is reduced, many men do rape, as is particularly evident in times of war. What’s even more horrific is that at least one-third of males acknowledge that they have sexually coerced someone, if they are guaranteed free reign from negative consequences. (This was in the 1980s, and these are men who have admitted to assault; the real numbers may be even more appalling.) In fact, many of them continue to garner more power, suggesting that it is easy to get away untarnished.

In this context, the abuse of power by those who have it is a reflection of what has historically been granted to those with influence: think of emperors and kings with hundreds of wives and mistresses. Of course, back in the day, they were sold and bought like property to consolidate the sovereignty of the empire. Often, the more powerful you were, the more wives and/or mistresses you had. Genghis Khan, the Mongol emperor, famously had over 500 ‘secondary’ wives (whatever that implies). Besides, more power also implies you have more jurisdiction to police and enforce certain practices. For example, those at the executive levels of management in corporations have the power to make crucial decisions, such as who gets promoted, what kind of leaves are permissible, and whose voice matters and is worth hearing.

Moreover, men may also have a sense of entitlement that they are owed this kind of power. The Cornell philosopher Kate Manne posits that power is a masculine-coded good that is often in short supply (even if it is not zero-sum). When women compete for these sort of advantages, it seems encroaching of what is actually his to have, be it her body, or her attention and affection. So, even when a woman says no (thereby claiming power over herself), he might try to snatch it, because they he thinks it is owed to him, and hence is his for the taking. And if he fails to do so, she may be held responsible for trying to cheat him out of what is rightfully his.

For this, of course, the woman could be anyone. Take the example of cat-calling, or the various forms of online trolling. This, Manne argues, occurs when the “demand for her attention exceeds supply on a grand scale.” In this case, attention is owed to him, while he may confer to her value, by rating her on her attractiveness, and thereby social status. She must, in fact, like being cat-called, is the common misconception: as is so evident in the main plot of many movies (again, written primarily by men). This is, of course, a forceful bid for what is rightfully his.

In this context, men might exercise their power through harassment. Men without traditional power (say access to resources, or social standing), may try to seize it from her with a sense of immunity from consequences. Men in most societies have higher power and influence than women, as is well acknowledged. It is also understood that women are obliged to give typically feminine-coded possessions such as attention, warmth, and even sex to some man; and a man may be presumed to be owed such things from all women.

This kind of power is thought to be entitled to all men over most women, which is what they aim at taking through harassment. Additionally, acting in dominant ways often leads to expanding power among men, and is lauded in various contexts. It is likely that men who do not have such power over other men might exercise it through women, who often have lesser power than them.  Men also have the power to silence, for example through gaslighting, by making her use softer words (like grabbing instead of choking), or by physically stifling her mouth, to even killing. You don’t have to be socially powerful (compared to other men) to exercise silence: think online trolls sending rape threats to any woman who does not conform to their ideals of femininity.

On a parting note, of course, I should warn that it is not only men who harass; however, men are more likely than women to kill and/or perpetrate serious physical harm on their partners, something that comes with power too. To be exact, every third woman in India is thought to have faced domestic violence, and up to 91% of the times, those who were killed in an inter-partner lethal conflict were women. Besides, men are less likely to feel disgust towards ideas of sexual coercion, and as pointed out, more likely to acknowledge that they have done so. This is, of course, not to say that there are no individual differences, but then again, the fact that I mention them as exceptions shows us what the rule is.

About the author

Arathy Puthillam

Arathy Puthillam is a Research Assistant at the Department of Psychology, Monk Prayogshala, a not-for-profit research organisation based in Mumbai, India. Her research interests include Evolutionary Psychology, Social Cognition, and Psychological Methods.