Exploiting the vulnerability of his colleagues is easy, once he has identified the cracks in each person’s armor. Tom, who was long considered the underachiever in his family, is empowered by Anthony’s consistent praise of his intellect—which Anthony couples with requests to create pitches that he then claims are his own. Maria, recently dumped by her boyfriend, maintains her sense of desirability through Anthony’s compliments on her appearance—which he couples with requests for her to help him finish late work in order to make deadlines.
Anthony’s manipulation flies under the radar for months. When a staff writer finally complains that he stole her material for a story on high-tech secrets used by Olympic athletes—information that she shared with him in confidence—her allegations fall on deaf ears. Reluctant to lose a source of positive attention and affirmation, colleagues and higher-ups take Anthony’s side—even those who recognize his manipulation.
Like other social predators, Anthony charms his way through personal and professional settings, using flattery and positive attention to win over those who will help him get ahead. These predators do not violate the law; they violate loyalty. They exploit their victims financially, reputationally, emotionally, and sometimes sexually, carefully covering their tracks to avoid any “official” wrongdoing. They seduce and discard a broad spectrum of trusting individuals.
Thanks to the #MeToo movement, the curtain has been pulled back on inappropriate and predatory behavior in all walks of life; there is greater awareness of these realities than ever before. Now is the time to uncover those who engage in what is known in legal parlance as “uncharged bad acts” or “uncharged misconduct.” It can be hard to articulate just what infractions such people commit, given that there is no legal violation on the books. The ability to go undetected and unlabeled is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of predatory behavior. By contrast, individuals who are outwardly abusive, intolerant, or condescending are easily identifiable—and thus somewhat avoidable.
Social (and sexual) manipulators have had years of practice hiding their darker traits. Many such people share another dangerous feature: They are smart enough to pull off the disguise. I will use the term “social predator” here to refer to these most stealthy offenders, although the categories of offense can blur. Social predators can certainly engage in sexual misconduct; on the other hand, they may do nothing whatsoever that meets the legal standard for offense. The commonality is that they prey on victims’ emotions or resources, either for their own gain or simply because they enjoy doing so.
Many social predators have psychopathic traits, yet if formally evaluated they might fall short of an actual diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. They may lack the ability to perceive or care how their behavior affects others, leading them to break promises, reveal private information, and take credit for others’ accomplishments. They get away with it by ingratiating themselves in an often drawn-out dance with victims that targets their ego and unique vulnerabilities.
The Grooming Process
Grooming involves desensitizing a victim to inappropriate social or sexual advances through progressive boundary-probing, while at the same time developing a foundation of trust. It is a recipe for a power imbalance. The primary purpose of grooming is to normalize inappropriate behavior. Whether pursuing sex, money, power, or just the thrill of inflicting emotional harm, predators use victims to benefit themselves.
Sexual predators groom a child by providing the affection and attention the child covets. Social predators groom their boss by providing the admiration and respect he or she craves. In both cases, although pursuing drastically different goals, predators manipulate through focused flattery.
“Wow, Ms. Patrick, you really destroyed that witness. You are such a great advocate. I sure hope you go easy on me.” Who do you suppose such a compliment came from? It was, in fact, a defendant in a case that I litigated. I have prosecuted defendants who spent the entire trial complimenting me on my quick thinking and trial advocacy skills, despite their attorney’s repeated admonitions not to talk to me.
The objective? Obtaining a reduction or dismissal of charges, of course—a request they include with the compliments. Everyone has areas in which they are uniquely susceptible to praise, affirmation, or validation. Because some people become suspicious when showered with obvious flattery, predators often target more subtle and insidious areas of need or weakness. A manipulative boss may at first seem no different from a superattentive one. Both might tailor an employee’s work schedule to allow her to attend to personal needs. But the manipulative boss’s compassion comes with a price. Whether the motive is sexual or financial, he or she expects repayment. And, considering how the victims’ personal, private needs have been accommodated, they are likely to oblige.
Social predators won’t just focus on a person’s needs but will often confide how much his or her emotions personally resonate with them, using what researchers Paul Babiak and Robert Hare refer to as a psychopathic fiction to cultivate false similarity. Consummate chameleons, social predators will profess the exact same emotions as their prey, leaving victims feeling both grateful and relieved to have finally met someone who knows how they feel. Never mind the details (which are often fuzzy due to flaws of fabrication), it is heartening for them to realize that someone can relate.
Victims on Trial: The Credibility Contest
Amy loves spending time with Jack, a man she met at the local library. He approached her as she was browsing the Victorian romance novels, admitting (after much hemming and hawing) a similar penchant for historical love stories. Normally reserved and private, Amy is thrilled to have met a man with a taste for this type of literature and with whom she feels comfortable sharing her feelings. Jack asks about her childhood and her goals for the future and seems genuinely interested in her responses. Believing that they have established a relationship of trust over several dates, Amy willingly reveals her fantasies . . . and her sexual past.
When they’ve known each other for two months, Jack shares that he has a sick mother living abroad whom he needs to bring stateside for treatment, and asks to borrow money to help with the medical transport. Flattered that he would turn to her for assistance, and grateful for his companionship, Amy writes a check. Although she is reluctant to admit it, her generosity is fueled in part by wanting to keep Jack on her good side, given the amount of private information he now knows about her.
The fact is that Jack’s questions were never designed to acquire understanding, but ammunition. If he seeks to further exploit Amy sexually, financially, or even reputationally, she will be unwilling to fight back, lest her personal revelations be exposed.
Having prosecuted sex crimes for more than two decades, I have heard scores of victims complain that they feel as if they are the ones on trial. Unfortunately, in a sense, they are. The credibility of an accuser is front and center in a sex crimes case, particularly if there are no witnesses. In a he-said-she-said scenario, the victim is always on the hot seat in the courtroom, subject to unrelenting cross-examination by the defense. Many questions derive from the information a victim has willingly offered the man who now stands accused of a crime against her.
Clever predators create an uneven playing field right out of the gate. During the grooming process, social predators use more than strategies of seduction. They also use strategies of reduction—casting aspersions on the victim’s credibility. They hunt and gather sensitive, embarrassing information about their victims early—to be filed away and retained for purposes of bullying or blackmail. If the victim dares to file a complaint, the character assault begins.
In such cases, a social predator publicly discloses private facts to discredit a victim. Labeling a woman a gossip, a disgruntled employee, an unreliable historian, a problem drinker, a slut, or worse, ensures that the perpetrator wins a credibility contest if a victim ever files a complaint or simply seeks to alert others to the predator’s true nature.
The Ruse of Reciprocal Disclosure
Brenda meets Tyler at the gym. He is attractive, attentive, and surprisingly transparent, given his position as a federal law enforcement officer. A few weeks into their dating relationship he’s already shared much of his life story, swearing Brenda to secrecy as he brands many disclosures “confidential.”
As a single mom running an online jewelry business from home, Brenda is enamored of Tyler’s glamorous job, especially given the steady diet of forensic crime drama she watches on TV. She is flattered to be counted worthy of his trust, and determined to prove that she feels the same way about him. To match his openness, she discloses information about her struggles, health concerns, and messy divorce. She even shares information about her children.
When Brenda and Tyler dine with some of his colleagues, she discovers in conversation that he has shared some of her stories about dealing with an unpleasant ex-husband. Apparently Tyler did not deem her private information to be confidential. What is she going to do about it? Nothing. Tyler has just demonstrated that he has no qualms about repeating her confidences. It would not be worth the exposure, shame, or humiliation that could ensue if Tyler were to retaliate by sharing more details.
Now, what to make of Tyler’s disclosures, which are essentially braggadocio about his professional feats, and all of which are confidential? Sharing information “in confidence” does not make it more credible. In fact, if it is supposedly confidential, the alacrity with which it is offered, early in a relationship, should flag it as less credible. This is particularly true when a new paramour holds a position of public prestige.
The “top secret” information a manipulative new love interest reveals is often false. It is G-rated fiction, and a social predator is virtually guaranteed to be the long-suffering protagonist. In contrast to the often sordid disclosures a victim is prompted to share, a predator’s private information might be sympathetic, but it definitely will not be salacious. Manipulators never tell scandalous or embarrassing stories that could be used against them.
Another red flag is the sharing of details that cannot be corroborated. Predators with professional status or community prestige are careful not to be exposed as liars. Relating stories about being duped by an ex-business partner “who shall remain nameless” ensures that no real personal or professional contact is impugned.
One of the few specific individuals about whom a predator may disclose information is his or her current romantic partner. He or she is “unstable.” The marriage is “coming to an end.” This is almost always a ploy to stoke emotional investment and romantic interest on the part of the victim. The predator wagers (usually correctly) that the victim will not directly confront the current partner. After all, predators size up levels of empathy and conscientiousness in choosing their targets.
The Masquerade Of Malevolence
Karen’s new mentor at the pharmaceutical company where she works is a traveling regional manager with a small car. He insists on taking her to his appointments at various regional hospitals to “show her the ropes.” When they are in the car together, he constantly reaches over her to access the glove compartment, checks her seatbelt, paws around for his coffee in the cupholder (and misses), or makes other superfluous physical moves in her direction. “Accidental” touchings happen frequently. When Karen finally tells her direct supervisor she does not want to accompany her mentor to any further meetings, her supervisor asks why. She is too embarrassed to catalog the minute but real chain of infractions, so she instead cites logistical problems, allowing his inappropriate behavior to go unreported.
Public officials, corporate managers, and other power players routinely serve as mentors and role models to interns, new hires, and local youth, with the goal of empowering and encouraging them to step up and fulfill their potential. Both social and sexual predators seek out such roles but with very different goals. They capitalize on the inherent power imbalance present in mentoring relationships—in pursuit not of victim empowerment but of exploitation. Should a victim complain to a third party, the power differential provides a ready-made credibility contrast, such that the perpetrator expects to “win” every time.
Predators know that they must always have plausible deniability, so they find legitimate ways to isolate a subordinate, having an aide stay late at the office to prepare for an event the next day, for example. Successful predators are smart enough not to invite anyone to their homes or hotel rooms; they strategically arrange other options. I have prosecuted sexual predators who ensured the office space they used to make moves on victims was out of the line of visibility from windows or cameras, so that their behavior could not be documented or corroborated.
Victims With Compromised Credibility
Sexual predators must be even more vigilant than social predators, as the consequences are far more severe if their behavior is exposed. Accordingly, they often select victims who already lack credibility, based on background, social status, criminal record, or other historical or situational factors.
Sexual predators masquerading as mentors often volunteer to work specifically with problem employees as part of a peer-support network, or with troubled youth in the community. In these situations, increased victim vulnerability coupled with decreased credibility provides a potent power imbalance, which also serves to decrease the likelihood that a victim will report any perpetrator who crosses the line.
I have prosecuted many cases where perpetrators specifically preyed on victims with damaged reputations. These cases included men raping prostitutes, assaults on prisoners, teachers molesting emotionally troubled adolescents, and coaches abusing players with documented behavioral problems. The victims’ social status inures bystanders (and jurors) to the weight and import of the crime.
Sadly, countless cases are never reported. Many victims of sexual harassment or abuse who suffer from compromised credibility remain submissive and silent. They fear the perpetrator will expose their own disreputable past or emotional problems and are afraid they would never be believed over an individual who holds relative power.
Idealize, Devalue, Discard in the #MeToo Era
In a world caught up in so-called social climate change, the behavior of men in the workplace is under a microscope. Men who in an earlier era might have committed overt misconduct will be more inclined to do what some predators have always done—to simply toy with a victim’s emotions. Victims are left feeling violated and humiliated—but unsure whether they have even been victimized.
Jeffrey and Susan are website designers. Although they work for the same large online company, their interaction has been limited to the exchange of pleasantries. One day, Jeffrey approaches Susan in the staff lounge, where she always takes her 3:00 P.M. break, to compliment her on a memo she shared in an internal forum. Susan is extremely flattered, because Jeffrey is the only colleague who has acknowledged her efforts, much less complimented her on her work. Susan notices that Jeffrey is as attractive as he is attentive. This positive contact leads to additional conversations, which begin to occur at 3:00 P.M. almost daily.
Encouraged by Jeffrey’s apparent fascination, Susan opens up to him about her life. She shares personal information, goals, dreams . . . and photographs. Because she has developed a crush on Jeffrey, when he asks if she has photos of a recent vacation, she happily complies. When he stipulates that he’d like to see her in a swimsuit, she sends a few bikini-clad selfies. After his enthusiastic response, she decides to share a few more, which she describes as “me in my PJs.” She is wearing only lingerie.
One day, Jeffrey fails to show up at 3:00. He never comes again. Susan is confused and distraught. She immediately checks the internal forum to ascertain that his username still exists and even takes a trip to the adjacent building on campus to ensure that he is still at the company—only to see him at his desk, working away. Her emails and text messages to him go unanswered.
After a week she returns to his building to ask, in person, if anything is wrong. He politely smiles and explains that he is busy. Susan is devastated, and the two never speak again.
Yes, it is possible that this is simply a romance that never got off the ground. If Jeffrey is a predator, however, he is practicing a time-honored MO of deliberately luring Susan into oversharing so as to obtain photos, often just to humiliate and destabilize her. Predators engage in this type of behavior simply because they can. In fact, Jeffrey will take pleasure in gaslighting Susan by denying that he was ever interested in her. And given their tech-savvy positions, Susan worries every day what Jeffrey will do with those compromising photographs.
The worst aspects of human nature do not change merely because a societal spotlight finally shines on them. But public awareness of subtle predatory tactics can drastically reduce the likelihood that men and women will fall prey in any arena.
How to Fly Under the Radar: The Predator’s Toolkit
- Selective Attention Social predators express unique nonsexual interest in potential victims, a tactic designed to test receptivity and create vulnerability, without using any inappropriate behavior or language. Such behavior comes after the predator has gained the victim’s trust.
- Too Much Information Predators overshare to prompt reciprocity, making victims feel obligated to disclose their own private, sensitive information, which can then be used for blackmail.
- Strategic Privacy Predators arrange office furniture to create a zone of privacy away from windows or surveillance cameras. Beware of areas that are obviously designed to be out of the line of sight.
- Creating a Captive Audience A moving vehicle is the perfect trap for a predator seeking to corner a victim alone. The small space inside a car is where “accidental” touchings occur, yet such close quarters allow the perpetrator the benefit of the doubt.
- Red Flags After 5 p.m. Social predators in supervisory positions impose obligations on victims, requiring them to attend after-work “team-building” events where alcohol flows and cell phone cameras capture moments of weakness. Such outings are designed to compromise victims’ physical state, judgment, and ultimately, reputation.