Bill O’Reilly got fired. Otherwise known as canned, dismissed, and/or let go. He left the building in disgrace, except his former employer handed him a $25 million check on his way out the door. Not bad for a guy with a documented history of workplace sexual harassment. Most other men would just get fired and sued and maybe even arrested. But Bill O’Reilly is not most men. He’s rich and famous, and we seem to have a different set of rules for those folks.
Even in the face of numerous allegations, it’s shocking that Fox News bid O’Reilly adieu. After all, for 20 years he’s been one of the most popular and lucrative personalities on television. Yet they did it. Because they had no choice after the New York Times ran an exposé stating that five women had received a total of $13 million to keep quiet about sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of O’Reilly. This on the heels of former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes’ sexual harassment scandal and firing last July.
So yeah, it’s been a tough nine months for Fox News. But it’s not just right wing news networks who seem to think it’s OK to sexually act out with impunity. It’s men with power and fame (and a lack of emotional integrity) in general. So in this O’Reilly fueled moment, let’s not forget about Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, Bill Cosby, Tiger Woods, Josh Duggar, Jared Fogle, Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, David Petraeus, etc. The list goes on and on. And on. And these are just the stories that we hear about. How many others never make the news?
Why Did He Do It?
Love him or hate him, Bill O’Reilly had the ear of America. Inarguably, he was our most powerful newsman since Walter Cronkite. His show was number one, his books flew off the shelves, the far right revered him, the far left reviled him. And his millions of supporters practically worshipped him. So why, pray tell, would he risk all of that? Did he not see what he had to lose? Did it not occur to him, even while other powerful men were dropping like flies thanks to their sexual misdeeds, that he might get caught? Did he somehow think that power, fame, and money made him invulnerable?
What I can tell you after almost three decades as a therapist specializing in the kinds of intimacy and sexual disorders that lead to infidelity, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual addiction, is that in the heat of the moment, with a potential sexual conquest on the line, the men who engage in these problem-causing behaviors are very definitely not thinking about the possibility of getting caught and facing consequences. A healthy man would likely step back from such a situation and think, Gee, that looks tempting, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. But that’s not the case for intimacy disordered men.
And this is even more likely with famous and powerful men. For them, even if their rational mind knows that what they’re doing might come back to bite them in the butt, their narcissism (“I can do what I want, when I want, and nobody can stop me!”) rises up and takes over when the opportunity arises. And this occurs even if the object of that “opportunity” is decidedly not interested. I mean, who doesn’t like a good chase, right? So these famous and powerful men engage in behaviors that most of us would see as unbelievably stupid and maybe even reprehensible. And they do this without a second thought. Until their behavior comes to light and the inevitable crisis hits.
Basically, the neurobiological rush of what they are doing (or fantasizing about) creates a psychological bubble—a trancelike state in which they are temporarily divorced from reality and the possible problems their behavior might create. The pleasure center of their brain releases a flood of dopamine and adrenaline (plus a few other neurochemicals), and this “rush” overrides the more sensible parts of the brain. The end result is that they feel invulnerable, so they do what they want. And later, when the crap hits the fan, they throw money and power at the problem. They also tend to overcompensate with a false self, hypocritically presenting themselves as upstanding citizens, humanitarians, father figures, religious leaders, arbiters of intelligent thought, and role models. And this is all made worse when sycophants and enablers work to maintain this false image to keep the cash cow producing.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I can’t sit here and pretend I know the truth about Bill O’Reilly, as I have not assessed or treated the man. Maybe the allegations are true, and maybe they aren’t. That said, the fact that Fox News fired him, despite the enormous financial hit, suggests that this is probably an instance of “where there’s smoke there’s fire.” But I can’t tell you that for sure. What I can tell you, after working to address similar issues within the U.S. military, the Catholic Church, and other equally patriarchal groups, is that the practice of powerful men sexually harassing subordinates and then sweeping it under the rug is deeply ingrained in many organizations.
Consider, for example, our military—with 25,000 reported cases of sexual abuse just last year. In this male-dominated hierarchy, sexual complaints are typically handled not by the military justice system, but by the complainant’s commanding officer, whose overarching goals are unity, efficiency, and unquestioned obedience. Because of this, the military’s typical response to sexual misbehavior, even very serious sexual misbehavior, is to ignore it and hope it goes away. Usually, the best a victim can hope for is to be transferred to another unit or discharged altogether. Only rarely are the perpetrators prosecuted and punished.
This is similar to what we have seen with the Catholic Church, the entertainment industry, the sports world, prep schools, and pretty much every other male-dominated arena. Organizational goals are routinely prioritized over individual transgressions, even when those transgressions pile up. So Bill O’Reilly, Jerry Sandusky, Bill Cosby, countless priests, and hundreds of others are given free rein, allowed to repeatedly do their thing, with bosses, organizations, and employers either looking the other way or actively paying hush money. Meanwhile, our culture diminishes the meaning of this behavior, blaming the victims for the abuse, stigmatizing them as money grubbers, and worse.
Put very simply (and sadly), sexual harassment occurs all the time in male-dominated organizations. Men in power, whether we’ve heard of them or not, treat female (and some male) subordinates more as sexual objects to be used than as valued employees and people. These self-entitled, out of touch, narcissistic men say things like, “If you had sex with me, it would be good for your career.” Or they sit a little too close, a little too often. Or they touch their subordinates inappropriately. Or whatever. And if the subordinate capitulates, she (or he) might advance through the company. If not, the subordinate will be exiled to the proverbial typing pool, left in place to suffer continued abuse, or fired.
Am I saying that the majority of men in power treat their subordinates like sexual chattel? No, of course not. In fact, I suspect that the majority of bosses (of both genders) are acutely aware of the modern sexual climate, which does not tolerate harassment in the workplace or anywhere else. However, as a mental health professional, these are not the people I tend to see and treat. Instead, I see the people who are causing problems. And my experience tells me, over and over, that the men who do mistreat their subordinates and others tend to be incredibly self-entitled and disengaged from day-to-day social norms. The more powerful they are, the more likely this is, and the more likely it is that their “loyal troops” will rally around them. Most of the time, it is only when the media creates a pressure cooker that the situation is dealt with. And even then it tends to be a matter of too little, too late.
If you feel that you or someone you know is a victim of sexual harassment or abuse, there are numerous laws and organizations that can help. In today’s world, you do not have to sit silently at take it. Useful resources can be found at the following websites:
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is a digital-age intimacy and relationships expert specializing in infidelity and addictions—in particular sex, porn, and love addiction. He is the author of several highly regarded books. Currently, he is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities. For more information please visit his website, robertweissmsw.com, or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.