Mental Health

Mandy Kloppers

Power and exploitation of the less powerful for sexual favours

Power and exploitation is in the news a lot lately. Ever since the “me too” movement, the media has highlighted the imbalance of power that can lead to exploitation. Russel Brand and the ex-CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch, Mike Jeffries are the latest individuals to feel the spot light on them. Has exploitation always existed or are we just more aware of the inequity that exists in society?

It’s often said that power changes people. In fact, they say that being in a position of power goes to people’s heads and hardens their hearts. It’s true that some biases in terms of social influence and power creep in.

An imbalance of power will often lead to exploitation

Going as far back as the observations of Karl Marx and the exploitation of workers by their bosses, exploitation has been in play throughout history. The owners of the means of production exploit workers who can only sell their labour. The rich elite rub shoulders with other wealthy individuals who are well-connected. Inequality is rife but what is it that leads someone to exploit another? Do individual values come into it or does power and status change someone?

Mike Jeffries

Mike Jeffries

Over two decades from the 1990s, Mike Jeffries transformed A&F from a failing heritage outfitter into a multi-billion-dollar teen retailer by selling sex appeal, with preppy all-American shirtless male store models and provocative billboards.

Once one of America’s highest-paid CEOs, he was a controversial figure who faced claims of discrimination against staff, concerns about his lavish expenses and complaints about the unofficial influence of his life partner, Matthew Smith, inside A&F.

In 2014, Mr Jeffries stepped down following declining sales and left with a retirement package valued at around $25m (£20.5m), according to company filings at the time.

The BBC has now uncovered allegations that the fashion mogul exploited young adult men for sex at events he hosted in his New York residences and luxurious hotels around the world, including in London, Paris, Venice, and Marrakesh.

Half the men who told the BBC about their recruitment alleged they had been initially misled about the nature of the events or not told sex was involved. Others said they understood the events would be sexual, but not exactly what was expected of them. All were paid.

Several told the BBC the middleman or other recruiters raised the possibility of modelling opportunities with A&F. All except one said they felt harmed by the experience.

Men who attended these events told the BBC Mike Jeffries and Matthew Smith would engage in sexual activity with about four men or “direct” them to have sex with each other. Afterwards, the men said staff at the event handed them envelopes filled with thousands of dollars in cash.

Mr Bradberry said the “secluded” location and presence of Mr Jeffries’ personal staff, dressed in A&F uniforms, supervising events meant he “didn’t feel safe to say ‘no’ or ‘I don’t feel comfortable with this'”.

Russell Brand

Russell Brand

Brand, 48, was accused of rape, sexual assault and abuse and sexual misconduct by a number of women – claims he denies.

The offences were said to have taken place between 2006 and 2013, when Brand was at the height of his fame.

More women came forward with claims against Brand following the investigation.

The Dispatches programme, Russell Brand – In Plain Sight, heard four women accuse Brand of sexual assaults between 2006 and 2013.

During that time, Brand held several jobs, including at Channel 4 and BBC Radio 2.


Sexual assault.

Demanding sex in any context or making sex a condition for assistance.

Forcing sex or someone to have sex with anyone.

Forcing a person to engage in prostitution or pornography.

Unwanted touching of a sexual nature.

Refusing to use safe sex practices.

NB This is not an exhaustive list. Other types of sexually exploitive or sexually abusive behaviour may be grounds for administrative action, disciplinary measures, and criminal proceedings.

Dealing with sexual exploitation

No matter how wide the gap is between money, power and status never let your intuition fail you. If it feels wrong it probably is. Stick to your values and healthy boundaries and reject any improper suggestions or actions. Now more than ever, there is support for the victim. Perpetrators are more likely to experience major disadvantages for abusing their position. Having a mobile phone is also a great weapon and can be used to start filming someone who is out of line – provided of course that it is safe to do so.

Call out inappropriate behaviour because the more we call it for what it is, the less likely perpetrators will be to take a risk.

You are important and valuable and protecting your integrity should be of utmost importance.

Six types of leadership

Although holding a position of power transforms the individual’s behavior, this doesn’t always have to be negative or threatening. As Daniel Goleman points out in his book, Leadership That Gets Results, there are up to six types of leadership. All of them, with the exception of the coercive or authoritarian leader, are positive. They’re as follows:

  • Authoritarian.
  • Coercive.
  • Affiliative.
  • Pacesetting.
  • Democratic.
  • Coaching.

Evidently, power changes people, but that change can be oriented in an enriching way for the entire environment and can help in the achievement of common goals.

Hubris syndrome

In some cases, power changes people in extremely negative ways. This behavioral and emotional alteration could culminate in Hubris syndrome. It’s a personality pattern defined by the following characteristics:

  • Violent communication.
  • Excessive self-confidence.
  • Loss of harmony with their work team and other individuals.
  • Ceasing to see reality as it is. In fact, they live in a parallel world where only their personal needs and goals count.

Why do people in power change?

Neuroscience suggests an explanation for why power changes people. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology claims that if social influence goes to our heads, it’s due to variations that appear in our brains.

Those responsible for this study carried out a series of MRIs on people in power and also on those not in power. They discovered a striking fact: those who have a high position have less motor resonance. This neurological mechanism is activated by interacting with others.

Apparently, those who reach prominent levels of society stop reacting to the needs, emotions, and behaviours of others. This could be a recurring characteristic. It might be explained by the instrumental vision of achieving goals at all costs, going beyond the emotional realities of the environment.

The more successful an individual becomes, the less they have to do to prove themselves and the more others subjugate themselves – repetition of these interactions leads to a powerful individual reframing how they see themselves. Those without strong ethics and good grounding might easily let their egos take over.

Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash