After Harvey Weinstein allegations, psychologists explain why men protect abusive men

After Harvey Weinstein allegations, psychologists explain why men protect abusive men
Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman and co-founder of Weinstein Co., and Tim Armstrong, chief executive officer of AOL Inc. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman and co-founder of Weinstein Co., and Tim Armstrong, chief executive officer of AOL Inc. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Who knew about the allegations surrounding Harvey Weinstein and when did they know it? And maybe more importantly: Why didn’t they do anything about it?

According to a bombshell New York Times report, several Weinstein Company board members and executives — including Weinsten’s own brother and co-founder, Bob Weinstein — were aware of at least some of the allegations levied over three decades against the Hollywood mogul. At least a third of the all-male Weinstein Company board has now resigned, as has his lawyer; and Weinstein took an indefinite leave of absence to “deal with this issue head on.”

There are obvious power dynamics at play in the Weinstein case, which is why his predatory behavior stayed an open secret for so long: He is known as a legendary and influential executive who could make or break your career in show business. But this scenario is by no means unique to the Hollywood elite. Women are far more likely to be the victims of sexual harassment than their male counterparts, and are often subject to severe social repercussions for speaking out.

But what about us dudes? Why do so many men embrace a “bro code” of silence, even when family members, good friends and business partners — people with whom we should feel comfortable being honest — start acting creepy?

Why do so many men embrace a “bro code” of silence, even when good friends and business partners — people with whom we should feel comfortable being honest — start acting creepy?

There’s no one answer, but experts suggest exploring the ways traditional concepts of masculinity complicate the conversations.

“One of the things that American culture teaches boys at a young age is that they are inherently superior to girls and women,” said Dr. Andrew Smiler, a psychologist who specializes in boys, men and masculinity. “We also get taught from a very early age that it’s not cool to talk about masculinity, or talk about some of the ways masculinity contradicts itself or treats other people poorly. Another factor, certainly among guys, is the power hierarchy involved: ‘What’s the advantage to me if I call out Harvey Weinstein, or someone else?’”

Harvey Weinstein in July. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Young boys are strongly socialized to value girls and women in other, problematic ways — as sex objects, or status symbols men use to signal-boost their masculinity to other men, Smiler said. All of those factors play into toxic machismo one-upmanship among friends that can make productive discussions a challenge.

“We treat [women] like prizes,” Smiler said. “We hear about ‘trophy wives,’ but nobody really talks about having a ‘trophy husband.’ We see all of these movies, particularly action movies, where the guy gets the hot babe. Mostly because he’s James Bond, for example, and just smiles. Or he’s Tony Stark [from the Iron Man films] — he doesn’t really do anything, other than be rich and powerful. Not a whole lot of effort there. But [the] message is very explicit: To the victor go the spoils, and spoils is access to hot women.”

“[The] message is very explicit: To the victor go the spoils, and spoils is access to hot women.”

Despite these challenges, Dr. Chris Kilmartin, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Mary Washington, said men offended by sexist behavior from their peers should feel empowered to speak out.

“What I see in my own research is that most men like women and actually overestimate other men’s sexism,” Kilmartin said. “Men offended by sexism often think they are in the minority, but often that’s not the case.”

Kilmartin offered an example from his own experience: A young psychology student, attending a bachelor’s party with 12 friends, was struggling with his discomfort about the group’s plans to visit a strip club. After some worry, the student decided to finally tell his friends that he didn’t want to go. To his surprise, eight of his friends spoke up and said they agreed with him, and the group elected to celebrate somewhere else.

“One of the things I tell men is, ‘You don’t have to get out your flip chart, but indicating your disapproval can be really powerful,’” Kilmartin said. “When you identify male allies, that kind of groupthink complicity and conformity drops very, very sharply — even if you are in the minority. It’s a leadership issue in some way: When the first guy steps up, he — and others — realizes there’s more support in the room than many might think.”

Kilmartin also pointed to another example: a 2015 case where a Sigma Nu chapter was suspended after hanging offensive banners from their off-campus fraternity house.

“Are all the men who live in that house sexual predators? I very much doubt it,” he said. “Are there men who lived in that house who were offended by the attitude? I think [there’s] no doubt. But, they didn’t speak up because they thought they were alone. … And it’s a shame, because if you had a sexually aggressive man who lived in that house, those banners would make him believe his behavior is normative.

“I am not really all that optimistic we can change the sexual predator, but I do think we can mobilize the good men around him to kind of rein him in,” he said.

“I am not really all that optimistic we can change the sexual predator, but I do think we can mobilize the good men around him to kind of rein him in.”

Dealing with a more powerful person — a Hollywood mogul, celebrity or even just a boss — can be a more delicate situation. But Smiler and Kilmartin said an appeal to self-interest may be your best bet to addressing the problem.

“You can try the empathy thing all you want, but it’s not going to work on everyone,” Smiler said. “But, if you say, ‘Hey, you really can’t do that, we’re gonna end up getting sued,’ they might change their behavior to avoid that. The most effective intervention really takes into account all the people involved, the setting itself, your relationship with the person and what’s most likely to be convincing.”