Sherry and Rob have a discussion about sexual misconduct among people who are in power.  They highlight a few talking points that listeners can use to discuss important conversation with teammates, colleagues, and family members. Given the current climate, its an important topic to be aware of for successful people as well as the danger of becoming entangled in a distorted ego.

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Episode Transcript

Sherry:I just sent the revisions for the book off this morning.
Rob:Congratulations. Excited?
Sherry:I’m not going to be excited until it’s in my hand. Until then. I’m just working.
Rob:It takes a lot longer than you think it’s going to.
Sherry:Yup. Yup, that’s true. We had really a lot of feedback about our last episode, when we talked about what life has been like this fall, and talked about the new kiddos in our family. That was really cool, to hear from people who e-mailed or reached out to us on social media. I already felt really supported by our inner circle, but now I feel even extra supported by our wider community, but the ZenFounder community.
Rob:Yeah, it’s always nice to know that people care and people are following the story and that people are impacted by hearing other folks go through struggles, and not just impacted but … I don’t know, there were a lot of thoughtful responses that I think were really appreciated by us.
Sherry:We’ve been talking a lot with friends and thinking a lot about this sort of epidemic of news articles about sexual misconduct among people who are in power. We thought we would talk about that today. If you are listening with kiddos, we are going to be talking about the existence of sex and how it’s sometimes misused, so if that’s not a topic you’re ready to discuss with your children today in this moment, then maybe hold off and listen to this podcast when you are in the company of other grownups.
Rob:Yeah, and as we’ve talked about this, both between you and I as well as with friends, I’m just astounded at the sheer volume of sexual harassment and misconduct claims that are coming out just all at once, over the course of this few months, and all the stuff that has happened over the years, that essentially women now feel like they can come out and tell the truth. The volume of it is just, it’s sickening. For me, it’s shocking and sickening.
Sherry:I wish it was a little more shocking to me. Part of my life as a psychologist is to talk with people who have been survivors of mistreatment, whether that’s sexual abuse as a child, or assault or harassment as an adult. I mean I think the statistics on this are very, very consistent. It’s about one in four women and one in six men who experience unwanted sexual contact, unwanted sexual attention and some point in their lives. The fact that it’s coming to light and we see this pervasiveness among certain men who are in power is … I wish it was more surprising to me, but it’s not. This kind of thing happens all the time, unfortunately.
Rob:Yeah, that makes sense, and I think it’s becoming more obvious and it’s playing out as these accusations come out. How do we want to cover it today?
Sherry:I’ve been thinking a lot about why this happens, like what’s happening. I think about why this happens with the intention of wanting to reverse engineer it. When we understands how a problem comes to be, sometimes that gives us some key insight into how we can prevent it and how we can both check ourselves in the intimacies of our own hearts and our own behavior, but also how we can have our eyes opened to watching what’s happening in the teams around us and the groups around us and the culture around us, to try to prevent this kind of abuse from being so pervasive. I have three problems that I’ve outlined that I think contribute to what’s happening, and then maybe some recommendations that we can throw out to help people be thoughtful about issues of sexuality and power.
Rob:Yeah, cool. Let’s dive in.
Sherry:I think I want to say first of all that this is a deep, broad topic. I mean this is like material for books and dissertations and graduate school courses. We’re going to try to have a meaningful dialogue about it in 20 or 30 minutes, and we just know that there are things that we won’t fully explore, there are topics that we’ll leave out, there are things that we won’t say correctly. If we say something that really strikes a chord with you in either a good or a bad way, please go have a conversation with someone about it. We don’t need to be the ultimate experts about this topic. We’re not the ultimate experts about this topic. We just are having a conversation and we won’t get everything right and we won’t include everything that’s important, but that awareness within your own head is a really good thing, because then you can go and continue the conversation with someone else in your life.
Rob:One interesting point about this is that this problem is not limited to heterosexual relationships, but because that is the current conversation in the media, that is how we’re going to frame this particular conversation.
Sherry:There’s one thing already that we’re not effectively addressing in this podcast. We decided to talk about this today because we’re tired of Christmas music and so we want to talk about something else except what we’re getting our kids for Christmas. We also think this is actually a really, really important conversation for successful people to be very aware of, for all people to be very aware of. But because we’re talking to a community of business owners and entrepreneurs, that generally we’re talking to you as someone who has a sphere of influence, someone who has some version of power that you weird over your own life and over the lives of others. Even though some of these stories that are coming out in the media seemed so outlandish and so like “Oh my gosh how do people even get into these positions or get into this kind of situation?”, the reality is, it’s not that outlandish. Abuse and distortion, harassment, those happen really much more than any of us would like to admit, and without the willingness to do some kind of careful reflection about how we are ourselves vulnerable to a distorted ego, how we are ourselves vulnerable to being abusive or unkind to other people, like we have to have the capacity to ask ourselves those hard questions. That’s what we want to try to talk about a little bit today.
Rob:That’s right. I mean I feel on ZenFounder you and I have tried to tackle difficult issues that perhaps other tech or startup or development-focused podcasts maybe dance around or stay away from because they are hard to talk about and they are potential landmines. I feel like if we can’t talk about it here with you and I, and both I think educate ourselves as we talk through it and educate listeners, or potentially listeners could just pick any nugget of wisdom from it, I feel like it’s kind of something that we need to do, because I don’t know who else is going to do it. It’s such a serious topic that is easy to brush under the rug, as evidenced by the fact that this has not been talked about in so many circles for these decades that a lot of the women have been putting up with, I mean the women who are coming out talking about this stuff. As you said, the point is not to become victim to it, and not to be on the other side and actually become the purveyor or the person-
Sherry:The perpetrator.
Rob:Yeah, thank you, who’s yeah, overusing their power and overstepping the bounds.
Sherry:I think one of the things that leads to the possibility of sexual harassment and sexual abuse is something I’m going to call the gamification of sex. I don’t know if I made that up or if I got it somewhere. If I’m stealing your term I’m sorry, I don’t mean to, but the gamification of sex, the sense in which we’ve sort of as a culture set up sex to be a reward for success, so the more powerful you are the more levels of life you climb, the more access you maybe believe you should have to sex. Sex is part of the package of privilege. In that game, the more powerful you are, the more money you have, the more ladies you have access to, and women are the object of reward, they are the prize at the end of the level.
 Of course this is terrible for women, because women are merely objects to be sought after by powerful people. There’s no consideration for a woman’s interest in sex or a woman’s sense of pleasure in sex. Just the sense that the more powerful you are, the more inner circles you get to enter and the more access you have to things that you want. This is the Billy Bush, Donald Trump conversation of “I’m famous and powerful and I can do what I want with other people, with other people’s bodies,” with women who are there purely to be an object of satisfaction, and not a mutual partner in sexuality.
Rob:This is obviously a tremendous problem. Why is it like this? Where does it stem from? Has it just always been this way? These are things that I ask myself.
Sherry:I mean I think this is deeply part of a patriarchal society, the king and his harem. It is a kickback to this historical pervasive belief that once you have achieved power you’re beyond the law, you make your own moral code. You’ve earned the right to do what you want with a certain amount of money and a certain amount of power. I think this way of gamifying or making sex into this game, it diminishes both men and women in this case. Obviously women are the passive object sought after, but it diminishes men into practicing sex like they practice free throw shots in a basketball game; it’s just something to be done. There’s no intention or even real presence, it’s like “I can have it because I can.” It de-pairs or takes apart, it separates any kind of emotional connection, or even real desire, even really wanting someone and really deeply connecting to them and enjoying them, because it’s sort of a dehumanizing setup for both men and women.
Rob:I think the second problem is this commingling of sex and power. There’s this socialization of men as those who want sex and women as those who exert power by withholding or rewarding. As you said, historically sex has been one of the only tools of power available to women throughout history because of the fact that almost all societies have been patriarchal. That’s been one of the very few ways that women are able to exert power, is by withholding sex.
Sherry:Which is such a bummer, because again, it forms the whole conversation about women’s sexuality in terms of men’s sexuality, so there’s no attention or thought given to what kind of sex women enjoy, and with whom they wish to have sex. It’s just about whether they want to open or close the floodgates for whatever man is hounding them for sex. It’s this kind of cultural thing in the water, this sociocultural history that make sex again this game of pursuit and refusal.
 I think maybe the third thing that lives in … We’re predominantly talking about American culture, but [inaudible 00:12:19] in American culture is really a failure of words, to talk openly and candidly about sexuality. I think Americans are generally pretty terrible at having open conversations about sex. Perhaps it’s a kickback to the Puritan era, or our deep political divisions about sexuality and reproductive practices, but I think there’s a silence around sex that breeds a lot of shame, and keeps sex very secret and silence. The really dangerous thing about not being able to have open, thoughtful conversations about sex is that it makes it very hard to have open conversations about permission and consent. When we feel really uncomfortable saying, “I as a woman like this kind of position or this kind of sexual activity,” that is an important discussion. Because again, it leads to clear permission and clear consent. When we can’t talk about sex, when we can’t talk about sex with our kids, when we can’t talk about sex with our partners, then we are creating this culture of silence and secrecy that does make it very difficult for people who are being abused to speak out or talk about their experiences. It also makes it very difficult I think for people to make sure and really understand whether they are getting consent for the kinds of sexual encounters they’re pursuing.
Rob:Yeah, and I think there’s a major fundamental failure here, and it’s the failure to value people, right. It’s the failure to value someone else over your own ego or your own desires. I mean like we talked about last week, it was valuing people over results, right. It was thinking, I know that results, growing my startup, inventing this thing, or starting my company or whatever, it’s going to make me wealthy and powerful, but I’m not willing to sacrifice a bunch of people along the way. There are people who are willing to sacrifice other people. That is what I think it comes down to here, is being willing to not care about someone else’s feelings or thoughts or what they have to say about it, because you feel like whatever it is, making the comments or trying to force the issue is more important because you’re … It essentially comes back to an ego thing I think, right. It’s that I’m more important than you or your feelings.
Sherry:Which keeps people from even being able to read the feelings of others, right. When we’re so focused on our own ego, on our own “This is what I want, this is what I’m after,” then I think people are really not reading well or attuning to whether their partner is actually enjoying what’s happening, or whether the object of their pursuit is reciprocating or is just getting worn down.
 I think for women too, the old idea, one that is changing, not as fast as I wish it would, but is that sense of women’s power is tied to their sexual desirability. I about lost my mind the other day. I was having a conversation with our new seven-year-old, she’s a girl, and some other adults. These other adults were asking her, “Do you have a boyfriend yet? Do you have a boyfriend at your school?” I was like, “Oh my God, she is seven. This is not an important conversation. This is not a conversation that we need to be having with this little girl, to make her believe that if she’s doing school right in first grade, she’s got a boyfriend.” It made me a little bit sick, and it made me really angry. It’s just a little thing, it’s a little question, but it communicates this larger cultural value of, are you attached to a powerful man or not. Because if you’re not, are you doing something wrong, or are you not utilizing your power optimally to try to get more access to opportunities or money, by using what the Good Lord gave you, so to speak. It’s just such an old idea, but one that still creeps in all the time into our conversations about what success means for women.
Rob:It’s a real problem. I think that I used to see this back when I was in school. I remember being like ten years old, and there were some of the girls who, I don’t know if they had older sisters or what the story was, but they came to school with makeup on and dressed like 18-year-olds, or dressed like adults basically. I remember even thinking at the time, “This is so weird. Why?” I understand that they want to look older, so it was probably part of their desire as well, but growing up as a boy, I never had this desire, or very rarely had the desire to look older. It just wasn’t on my radar. I didn’t care. I think there’s something that we’ve done wrong, we’ve made a wrong turn somewhere in our society where someone so young has to think about this kind of stuff so early.
Sherry:Well, when we place so much value on sexual desirability, over intelligence or competence, and when we continue to rig the game in such a way that the people who control power or the people who have the resources in the world continue to be men, and a certain portion of them continue to be egomaniacs, and we create a game in which women are subjected to the pressure to be successful, but still without that equal playing ground, still without being seen as the value that they bring, but still being seen as objects of desire, sexuality.
Rob:I think one of the issues is something I’ve long believed. People have asked me in the past, or we get in philosophical conversations of, “Do you think money makes you a better person, or do you think money corrupts you?”, or that kind of thing. I’ve always thought, money magnifies who you already are and it empowers the same way. Money and power are different. They can sometimes go hand-in-hand, but sometimes there are folks who don’t have a lot of money but who have power in a given situation. I feel like the folks I’ve known who were very generous and value people when we were all poor, well when they got rich they did exactly the same thing. The folks who I saw who were jerks and who mistreated people, well when they got that money and power they used it as a way to continue to do that. That’s part of this problem that we’re seeing, right.
 They’ve done … I was going to say they’ve done studies. I have heard they’ve done studies. I should probably have a link to cite a source before I say this, but it was where it was talked about like a lot of politicians and CEOs are a certain personality type, and it’s because it’s an adaptive personality type. It’s ego-driven and it desires power in order either to fill a hole, a void in them in their own ego, or it’s so that they can reinforce that they are actually as great as they think they are.
Sherry:You’re describing narcissism too.
Rob:Exactly.
Sherry:That’s what a narcissist does, yeah.
Rob:Exactly. The problem is then that narcissism is the belief “I’m the best, everyone should bow down, and my feelings are more important than anybody else’s,” and so you get a bunch of narcissists in power and what are you going to get? You’re going to get them abusing that power.
 We’ve talked a lot about the problems, and this is probably, and I don’t know how much of this is news to anybody listening, but maybe we can talk about some recommendations or some thoughts or just something that’s not so depressing as outlining all the things that are wrong with our society these days.
Sherry:You need a silver lining, darling.
Rob:I do. I got to end it on an up note.
Sherry:I think that one of the most important things that we can do is to talk about this. Talk about it with our children, talk about it with our boys, talk about it with our girls, talk about it in our families. Talk about how people get what they want, how you pursue your goals, how you seek after things. Also, what to do if somebody’s seeking after you or wants to sort of use you as a prop for their own ego. How do you help young people, well young people and old people, all of us, know the difference between desire that’s healthy, that’s mutual, that feels good, that feels comfortable, that’s with mutual consent, versus desire that’s like “I want you, and you should be thrilled that I do.” That’s not what we’re after. Again, open, candid conversations about sex, but not just the mechanics of what goes where, but also the social and power dynamics that are still very much part of our society.
Rob:Another recommendation is to realize that history and socialization, they still shape the power dynamics between men and women, as we see in … We were just talking about the young people being asked if they have a boyfriend already. I know that over the past few months as I’ve heard these accusations I’ve become just more keenly aware of it in day-to-day life. I don’t know, I guess have gotten a sense of just how hard it is for women, and most men just have no idea. I certainly did not. I think that awareness is helpful. I think it’s helpful for me to know and I think it’s helpful for you as a listener to really keep this front of mind, because it is such a big issue.
Sherry:Maybe it sounds funny to say, but I feel like in a conversation like this we have to put out the reminder that sex is fantastic and fun, with consent. Getting consent, having an open conversation, without alcohol, without convincing, without manipulation, without offer of opportunities or connections or any of the power that can apply pressure, but to really have full knowledge that the person who is on the other end of that sexual encounter is as in it as you are, is as happy to be there, and that it’s really an action that’s mutual consent.
Rob:I think lastly, I think we all need to check our egos and be aware of what or who we are willing to sacrifice in order to feed your own ego. I mean maybe we can boil it down to two words: be kind. Be nice to other people. Value people over results. Yeah, I guess think about what you’re willing to sacrifice to meet an end.
Sherry:Or what you think you deserve, who you think you deserve.
Rob:Right. Whoo, well, it’s a heavy topic, but I think it’s an important one.
Sherry:Again, I feel like we’re just scratching the surface. We probably didn’t even do a good job addressing all of the important components here. We will leave that to you. Around your holiday dinner table, perhaps, but making sure that you are taking time for this kind of conversation with the people that are close to you, because it’s a really, really important one.
Rob:You know, something we haven’t asked for in a while is questions. I don’t know, have we ever asked for listener questions on this show? Because we really don’t get many.
Sherry:It’s been a while, yeah.
Rob:Yeah, if you have a question, and you can say anonymous if you’d prefer, but whether it’s a question that we can answer quickly, or a question that we could design an entire episode around, we’re always looking for thoughts and questions and topics that listeners are interested in hearing about. Because us coming up with them out of thin air is fine, but I think there’s a lot more value if … I’m guessing if one listener has it there’s probably 10 or 100 others who have it as well. You can always e-mail us, and please do e-mail us at questions@zenfounder.com, and we will do our best to answer it in a few episode. Since we have zero questions in our queue, it will probably get answered soon.
Sherry:All right. I think that’s a wrap.