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Les Moonves and the myth of uncontrollable male desire

The problem with “he just can’t help himself.”

Les Moonves, former CEO of CBS, who left the company after allegations of sexual misconduct
Les Moonves, former CEO of CBS, who left the company after allegations of sexual misconduct.
Ron Sachs - Pool/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

The patient was a VIP, so Dr. Anne L. Peters says she saw him in the early morning, before her usual day began.

When she stood to examine him, she writes in a May essay in the Annals of Internal Medicine, “he pulled himself against me and tried to force himself on me.” When she refused his advances, she says, “he stood beside the examination table and satisfied himself.”

The next day, she writes, he called to apologize. “He said that he had a terrible problem and that he had done the same thing with many other women. That he basically couldn’t control himself when alone with a woman.”

According to William D. Cohan of Vanity Fair, the patient, whom Peters does not name, was Les Moonves, the former CEO of CBS who left the company on Sunday after allegations of sexual misconduct were published in a story by Ronan Farrow at the New Yorker.

Moonves has admitted to some of the encounters reported in the New Yorker but says they were consensual. He says he tried to kiss Peters but did nothing more.

The rationalization, though — that the patient simply couldn’t stop himself — is familiar from countless #MeToo stories. It also has echoes in the words of President Trump, who was caught on the Access Hollywood tape saying he was “automatically attracted” to beautiful women.

“The idea that men can’t control their desires has always been a pervasive narrative,” Joan C. Williams, a law professor at UC Hastings College of the Law and an expert on issues facing women in the workplace, told Vox. “It’s been a standard brick in the wall protecting men against allegations of not only sexual harassment but also rape.”

While women are expected to control themselves or face serious consequences — see, for instance, the penalties leveled against Serena Williams during this year’s US Open finals — powerful men routinely plead powerlessness over their own urges. This narrative forces women to take responsibility for avoiding men’s advances, and leads to victim blaming when their efforts at avoidance fail.

“He basically couldn’t control himself when alone with a woman”

The idea that men can’t be expected to control their sexual urges is widespread. In an exchange with an audience member that went viral earlier this year, life coach Tony Robbins said, “I was with someone the other day — very famous man, very powerful man — he’s saying how stressed he is because he interviewed three people that day.”

“One was a woman, two were men,” Robbins continued. “The woman was better qualified, but she was very attractive, and he knew, ‘I can’t have her around because it’s too big of a risk.’ And he hired somebody else.”

As Amy B. Wang put it at the Washington Post, “Robbins did not specify what that alleged risk would have been.” Robbins also suggested that some women are using #MeToo “to try to get significance and certainty by attacking and destroying someone else”; he later apologized for his comments.

The “Pence rule” (also known as the “Billy Graham rule”) — named for Vice President Mike Pence, who avoids having dinner alone with any woman other than his wife, according to a 2002 interview with her — is also rooted in the idea that men can’t control themselves. It implies that Pence needs to put artificial strictures in place — strictures that could harm women’s career opportunities — to keep himself from cheating on his wife.

Last year, former Trump assistant Sebastian Gorka suggested that the harassment and assault dozens of women said they experienced from Harvey Weinstein could all have been avoided if the producer had simply followed the Pence rule:

President Trump, meanwhile, seemed to brag on the Access Hollywood tape about his failure to control his desire for women. “I just start kissing them,” he said. “It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”

And in January, Andrew Sullivan responded to the #MeToo movement with his thoughts on masculinity, inspired by his experience taking testosterone. Male sexuality, he argued, is inherently “full of handsiness and groping and objectification and lust and aggression and passion and the ruthless pursuit of yet another conquest.”

“It’s called being male, this strange creature, covered in hair, pinioned between morality and hormones, governed by two brains, one above and one below,” he wrote. “We can and should be restrained, tamed, kept under control. But nature will not be eradicated.”

Men who supposedly can’t control their urges, though, seem to have no trouble controlling other people. Take Peters’s patient, identified in Vanity Fair as Moonves. When she reported his behavior at her workplace, she writes, “the person who took my call explained my rights but said that the patient had ‘more money for lawyers’ than my institution did and advised me to refrain from reporting this incident formally to the police because I would lose in court.”

After he apologized to her and offered his excuse, she wrote, he became “ever more powerful and venerated in his professional world.” And Moonves remained powerful until Sunday, when the allegations against him apparently became too much for the CBS board of directors. Even after earlier allegations of misconduct by Moonves were published in July, the network allowed him to lead its quarterly earnings call, and reportedly offered him a multimillion-dollar severance package (that money is now on hold while two outside law firms investigate).

The picture Peters paints is one of a man capable of rising to the top of his profession and marshaling a team of lawyers to protect himself from the consequences of any misdeeds. And yet this man, she says, claimed to be rendered powerless by the mere presence of a woman.

The calculating way many powerful harassers cover their tracks, and choose targets who are unlikely or unable to report them, calls into question the claim that their acts are motivated by uncontrollable animal passion. These men know how to exert control when they need to. It’s just that when it comes to their behavior with women, they’ve never needed to.

The narrative of uncontrollable desire leads to victim blaming

Women, by contrast, are expected to control their emotions at all times — witness the fallout when Serena Williams argued with an umpire during the US Open women’s final. Men, she noted, get into arguments with officials all the time, but when she did the same, she was docked a game and became the target of racism and sexism.

And it’s not enough to keep their feelings in check; women also have to police their own behavior in order to avoid sexual harassment by men. “One of the ways in which the ‘men can’t control themselves’ narrative has excused men is by blaming the woman” for putting themselves in situations where they can be harassed, Joan Williams said. Such stereotypes “have been a way of shifting responsibility away from men and onto women.”

Peters, for instance, writes that as a woman who often travels alone to work events, she has “adopted the strategy of arriving late, avoiding social functions, and enjoying solitude. This eliminated any uncomfortable situations, and what I lost in networking and informal exchange of information I gained in peace.”

One evening, she was forced to break her own rules to discuss a presentation with a colleague at a bar. “As it grew later,” Peters writes, “the bar filled with various people from our group having interesting conversations and I had a moment of regret at having missed so many collegial social events.”

But then a professional acquaintance found her in the bar, put his arm around her, and pressed up against her. The experience, and a male colleague’s help in reporting it, helped her recognize the importance of mutual support in fighting harassment. However, she concludes, “it will take a while before the draw of a noisy bar wins over the peaceful allure of a room-service chicken caesar salad and a glass of wine.”

In order to avoid harassment by powerful men, Peters has had to change the way she conducts her working life, forgoing not just conversations but also the career benefits of spending time with colleagues in social settings. While she is very successful — Cohan notes that she has been named one of the best doctors in the country — many women have likely seen their careers stall because they’re unable to network with men for fear of harassment.

“If there’s no way a woman can complain without being blamed for putting herself in that situation,” Joan Williams says, then she has to avoid situations where she might be harassed or assaulted — “which means she also avoids situations with career potential.”

Many important business meetings take place in hotel rooms, over dinner, or on trips, Williams noted. If you have to say no to all of those because your male colleagues might harass you — and because you know you’ll get blamed for it — your career may well take a hit.

And while the room service salad and glass of wine may be what Peters chooses for herself, she only has to choose between peace and conversation because men have deprived her of the chance to have both.

Williams believes #MeToo has already begun to dismantle the idea that if a man and a woman are alone together, the man can’t be held responsible for what happens. “These kinds of narratives never die, but they wane, and the astonishing thing is that we’ve seen them wane so abruptly,” she says.

She notes that she’d heard Moonves cited recently as evidence of the diminished power of #MeToo — “this was the first high-profile man who’d managed to keep hold of his position” after allegations of sexual misconduct, she said.

Now, of course, Moonves is out. But his future — and the future of that big settlement check — remains in doubt. So, more broadly, does the future of the narrative of men’s ungovernable desires.

It’s no accident that this narrative has been pushed by some of the most influential men in the world. It allows them to abuse their power over others and then, if they’re ever found out, to claim that they are the ones who are powerless. Something so useful to so many high-profile people is unlikely to disappear without a fight.