Women have recently (and yet again) made crystal clear (beginning in the US and spreading beyond our shores) just how pervasive sexual harassment really is. Based on #MeToo a much larger array of folks have become aware of the multiple forms of sexual harassment and assault; and apparently, increasing women are feeling more empowered to more readily hold more men accountable.
But where does men’s harassing come from and what can we do about it?
Effectively responding to and preventing sexual harassment requires a deeper and more nuanced analysis than “those men are evil.” Men are not born harassers. It is also true that in the vast majority of circumstances, men who harass are not universal harassers – that is, they don’t harass every woman (or man) in every opportunity. What we know about the dynamics of harassment and men who harass suggests that harassment, to a large degree, is something that men who harass learn to do, and feel like they have some degree of social support to continue doing.
To begin, few men are taught as adolescents to distinguish between flirting and harassment, seduction and coercion, “pursuing” and stalking. Most men learn that it is our role (in regards to heterosexual relationships) to be the initiator and to “get” women to pay attention and ultimately go out with us. Without some clarity about the lines between these dynamics, it seems that many of us run the risk of crossing boundaries.
For most men in most of the world, “no” is understood as code for “try again” – a message that is, and continues to be, so systematically reinforced that this is what’s considered normal. In other words, the social norm is that no = try again. While there is a clear line between sexual harassment and flirting, men are taught and reinforced to ignore this line. In fact, for most men in most situations, it is defined as unmanly if they do attend to this line.
Male peer groups frequently support men to disregard women’s wishes or boundaries, and to overtly harass women (Dekeseredy & Schwartz, 2013). Evidence suggests that as much as 90% of adolescent men view pornography, that on-line pornography has become the leading resource for sex education for men (Fleming, M.J. et al, 2006), and pornography systematically portrays coercive tactics as seduction (DeKeseredy & Corsianos, 2016). Pornography does not differentiate between seduction and coercion, suggesting that using coercive tactics is actually a form of seduction.
For most men in most of the world, “no” is understood as code for “try again”
In order to sexually harass or assault, men need to have five things, four of which I will focus on here (based on Funk & Bancroft, 2017):
1. A lack of empathy for the woman’s feelings
2. Justifications for his behavior
3. A vision of harassing
4. A sense that his actions are and will be approved by his social groups
5. Trust that his actions will be unlikely to be found out, and if they are, that he will not be held accountable for his behaviors in any significant ways
By noticing where these factors are located in the social environments in which men inhabit, and then developing strategies to counter them, we create much more effective initiatives to prevent harassment.
We see, for example, painfully few examples in men’s social environments of men demonstrating empathy for women or of being supported to express empathy for women and women’s experiences. On the contrary, what we are most likely to see is many in which men are actively discouraged from expressing empathy. In terms of peer relationships, for example, evidence suggests that one of the leading causes of boys being bullied is being friends with and supportive of girls. Men’s clubs and organizations – both the informal ones such as a men’s bowling clubs and formal ones such as fraternities or men’s bible studies – rarely integrate empathy for women as a part of their core. And in the US, we have a current president who won the election based, in part on his extreme and grotesque level of disregard for women’s feelings and rights.
While the vast majority of sexual harassment … is perpetrated by men, there is nothing about harassing behaviors that is intrinsically male.
Men contribute to the existence and the sustenance of these kinds of environments. While there are many men who do not harass, most men do act in ways – both consciously/deliberately, and unconsciously/inadvertently – that give other men permission to harass women or girls. By paying better attention to the ways that men reinforce, support and in fact strengthen the environments that minimize and demonize men’s expression of empathy for women, justify or excuse men’s sexism, tacitly approve of men’s sexism, and/or suggest that men won’t be held accountable for their behaviors. We can help create the groundwork for all of us to be more actively involved in challenging sexist behaviors, countering gender stereotypes, and promoting gender respect and gender justice.
The solutions, then, lie in developing strategic efforts to counter these destructive gender norms amongst men by engaging in efforts that:
- Educate and empower men and boys to act out the best parts of ourselves (our “deepest humanity”). This includes efforts, for example, that develop confidence in boys to counter gender-bullying in our schools and playgrounds; or which mobilize men to participate in marches or rallies against violence against women. It involves educating men to notice different forms of harassment that occur, the kinds of environments that allow/encourage men to harass women or girls, and what men can do to effectively challenge those behaviors and/or change those environments.
One exercise I developed more than twenty years ago is an example: invite men to follow a woman friend (ideally not a family member) through a public venue and just note how men treat, interact with and act towards their woman friend. This experience begins to expose men to some of the forms and prevalence of street harassment.
- Develop pro-feminist peer support networks for and of men. These need not be male only, but do involve strategically organizing social groups in which men get support from the people that men define as peers to act in support of advancing women’s human rights.
Men who are part of these kinds of pro-social networks have organic spaces to come up with ever more creative ways to counter men’s sexism; and tend to feel significantly more empowered even when they’re on their own to challenge other men’s behaviors.
- Create structures within organizations, businesses and clubs in which men predominate that formally and informally set a standard that these are places that respect and honor women and girls – and in which the disrespect or harassment of women and girls won’t be tolerated.
Utilizing a version of “organizational design” (see, for example, Brown, 2016) to structure environments that encourage men to treat women with respect and dignity.
While the vast majority of sexual harassment (against women, men and people not on the gender binary) is perpetrated by men, there is nothing about harassing behaviors that is intrinsically male. There is nothing intrinsically male about allowing other men to sexually harass around us. These behaviors (harassing other people or allowing harassment to go on) are, in fact, exactly counter to our human nature. By creating systems of support at various social levels in which men interact, we can eliminate sexual harassment, and promote men’s support for women’s human rights more globally.
Funk, R.E. & Bancroft, L. (2017) “Addressing and Combatting Intimate Partner Sexual Violence”, in: Perpetrators of Intimate Partner Sexual Violence, Routledge Press, New York.
Brown, J. (2016) Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace & The Will to Change, Advantage Media Group, Charleston.
DeKeseredy, W.S. & Corsianos, M. (2016) Violence Against Women in Pornography, Routledge Press, New York.
DeKeseredy, W.S. & Schwartz , M. (2013) Male Peer Support and Violence Against Women, Northeastern University Press, Boston.
Fleming, M.J. et al (2006) “Safety in cyberspace: Adolescents’ safety and exposure online”, in: Youth and Society, Vol. 38, pp 135-154, Sage Journals.
Rus Ervin Funk is a consultant focusing on racial and gender equity and violence prevention. He is co-founder of the North American MenEngage Network (NAMEN), co-chair of Male Engagement of World Without Exploitation (WorldWE) and board member of the US based National Center on Sexual and Domestic Violence. Currently he serves as the NAMEN newsletter editor and liaison to the Global MenEngage Network.