Why Do Powerful Men Risk Everything to Harass and Abuse? A Mental Health Expert Weighs In

Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

"Their expectation is that there will be no consequences," says Cynthia A. Henrie, who specializes in the area of traumatic stress. "And they are not wrong: 99 percent of sexual assault cases are never prosecuted."

Since the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke in early October, hundreds of women have come forward with stories of abuse by an expanding group of powerful Hollywood men. Why do these perpetrators, who would seem to have so much to lose, serially engage in such terrible behavior? Cynthia A. Henrie, a board-certified expert in traumatic stress, specializing in the treatment of both sexual assault victims and offenders, offers some answers.

Why would someone who has money and power risk everything?

Their expectation is that there will be no consequences. I would say this kind of person would be narcissistic and psychopathic. They absolutely don't think they are going to get caught. And they are not wrong: 99 percent of sexual assault cases are never prosecuted.

Does the power create the monster or merely unleash it?

When you are that powerful, people become commodities to you — a means to an end. How do you get to a really high level? A lot of the time you have to be ruthless. Maybe you don't have the same feelings about laying off thousands of people — you may have a certain lack of empathy. Yes, you may be able to mimic empathy. While that may not express itself in an antisocial way, it may express itself in other ways, like sexual entitlement.

Why is it always men we hear about abusing power?

One reason is that when you are dealing with high-powered people, they tend to be men. The second reason is that women's abuse isn't seen in the same way. Women will use a power play, but men often see it and think, "Wow, that's really sexy; they are taking control." So the predatory behavior is seen as seductive and dismissed.

Why is this behavior so prevalent in Hollywood?

Hollywood is like a fraternity. There is a mentality that is built in early on that if you are going to achieve at a high level, you must play by a different set of rules. That feeds a level of entitlement. Loyalty is also a big part of [complicity]. Hollywood culture can be likened to a gang culture — to prove yourself, you show your loyalty. But this isn't exclusive to Hollywood. Look at Washington, D.C. It's the exact same way. 

This story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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