Leiden Law Blog

Male privilege and the abuse of power

Male privilege and the abuse of power

No one had foreseen that the #MeToo reports would spread so quickly all over the planet. We still believed until quite recently that sexual abuse was something exceptional, limited primarily to the Catholic clergy. Now, the truth about many powerful people in various secular institutions has been fully exposed. It is becoming very clear that we are dealing with something major here that must have been building up under the surface for a long time.

The masculine norm

In a reaction to these reports Renée Römkens argued on November 18 in the Dutch newspaper Trouw that although intervention by criminal law is necessary as a last resort, in cases involving sexual harassment it is not always the best route for restoring justice. She also emphasised that the problem of sexual intimidation is not new, as the Women’s Movement had already acknowledged it much earlier. It reflects ‘traditions in which masculinity is the norm and femininity by definition is subordinate to it’. She thinks that sexual intimidation has been made possible by the power differences in organisations where men are in charge and that #MeToo is only just the beginning: once the media attention dies down, we should keep on talking about masculinity, sex and power.

A historical powershift

If this is only the beginning, we may also start to wonder about the past: how long have these power differences existed and when did they start? In this respect a book comes to mind that is well known in feminist circles and has placed the history of power in a new, comprehensive perspective: The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler. In this book Eisler made the distinction between a feminine oriented ‘partnership culture’, symbolised by the chalice, and a masculine inspired ‘dominator culture’, symbolised by the blade. According to her, a major powershift occurred about four thousand years ago when a dominator culture emerged and started to suppress an age-old partnership culture in which women and men were equally valued. That’s the bad news. The good news, though, is that she sees a lot of evidence that in our lifetime the tables are turning again towards a partnership culture – a theme she worked out in her later books.

Two forms of power

There are other thinkers who have something important to say about this issue, like Scilla Elworthy. In her book Power & Sex she distinguishes two kinds of power: on the one hand a feminine power to, which she calls ‘hara power’ and is internal, located in the belly and focused on being open to and cooperative with others; and on the other hand a masculine power over, which she calls ‘domination power’ and is external, focused on forcing others to do what you want them to do. Although Elworthy keeps on repeating throughout her book that both women and men have access to these two forms of power, like Eisler she acknowledges that historically the widespread emergence of domination power happened primarily through men. This also resulted in women being devaluated to male property, which enabled men to exercise constant control over the lives of women and in particular over their sexuality. According to Elworthy this reign of domination power could only be realised at the expense of hara power. Yet, she believes that this is the kind of inner, bottom-up power we badly need today, and fortunately we are currently rediscovering it, individually and collectively.

Gaining and losing power

Dacher Keltner, an American psychologist, provided me with some surprising, additional insights into the world of power. In his book The Power Paradox he shows that the Machiavellian idea of power – the idea that power is something you always exert externally over others – is a very outdated and limited view on power, which might have suited the violent ways of the Renaissance world in which Machiavelli lived, but not our modern world. He argues that real power is something else altogether and has everything to do with – as he calls it – ‘making a difference in the world’ – which can only be realised when our attention is focused on other people, when we fully empathise with them. He stresses that real power must always be given, and can never be taken from others or be forced on them.  The title of the book refers to the fact that once we possess power it is very difficult to continue on the path of maintaining it, to realise ‘enduring power’. There is always the looming danger of a complete reversal, of a shift towards force and abuse. Keltner believes that this shift to using force to maintain our power, is actually a sign of losing power – which would mean that sexual abuse is really evidence of being powerless! (You can also watch him talk about power on YouTube.)

The beginning of a beneficial transformation

The message of all these people is quite similar and touches directly on the theme of #MeToo: when we manage to reconnect with our inner power and start living again in a partnership way, there will be little chance of sexual harassment. Of course, the power of attraction will still be there in full force, but it will be a mutual, equal exchange – an expression of power in balance. Although the presence of some very masculine leaders in the world today might give us the wrong impression that dominator power is still on the rise, research reveals that the reverse is true: a long era of unquestioned male privilege – which for a few thousand years has been the ‘tradition’ – is coming to an end. As Renée Römkens said, we are now only witnessing a beginning. And I believe – with Eisler, Elworthy, Keltner and others – that we are on the verge of a major transformation in the way we experience power in our culture. This will not just result in more sexual equality, but will bring positive changes in many other fields as well. In fact, it will be beneficial to all life on our precious planet. 

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