Sexual Harassment Victims Speak Up
It depends on who you ask
You have probably noticed a lot of women (and some men) posting the words “#MeToo” in their tweets and statuses.
The viral campaign, which took off as an offshoot of another hashtag, #WomenWhoRoar, is meant to call attention to sexual harassment against women in the wake of several recent cases of high-profile abusers, including legendary producer Harvey Weinstein.
Although individual posts tended to vary, the common theme was this: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘#Metoo’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste.”
As #MeToo posts filled my news feed—by friends of mine whom I have never personally spoken to about their experiences of harassment—I realized I was witnessing something powerful. There is no shame in being the victim of harassment, but it can be a very difficult thing to recount and share publicly.
Seeing all these #MeToo posts made me sad. I’m sure many other men felt the same way seeing their friends open up about painful moments in their pasts. But making men sad is not the point of #MeToo.
As stated in many of the posts, the idea is to give people a “sense of the magnitude of the problem.” What I was able to see on my newsfeed parallels a well-known fact: that women are disproportionately the victims of sexual harassment, and men are disproportionately the harassers. How does this fact implicate men, including those who do not see themselves as harassers?
This question can make some people feel very defensive. Men also experience sexual harassment, and I saw friends of friends point this out in the comments section of #MeToo posts. This reliably sets off heated arguments, with both sides feeling like their point of view is being dismissed.
Fortunately, it’s possible to connect these lines of thinking and forge a consensus. I know this because I was able to do so on a friend’s post using a single concept: male culture.
Why More Men Don’t Speak Out Against Sexual Harassment
It’s tempting to start with men who know “right” (as we would think of it) from “wrong.” But for many men, that’s not a helpful starting point because their idea of “right” is skewed.
Our views of “right” and “wrong” are heavily influenced by our culture. If men grow up in homes and communities where women are physically and emotionally mistreated, this behavior can come to be seen as the status quo.
For instance, catcalling in Brooklyn, where I live, is common. A boy who is raised in this environment sees this behavior in older men and internalizes it. It is quite natural, unfortunately, that he comes to the conclusion that this is how he gains the approval of other men and how he should interact with women. Many men do not “see” how their behavior and culture affects women because it’s the norm—“just the way it is.”
But men who have a broader frame of reference for their perception of human dignity often feel the same pressures. Even though they may personally disagree with the behavior of other men towards women, they often feel unable to call it out. This is because they fear that doing so may cause them to fall out of favor with other men. We call this the pressure to be a “man’s man.” Add to this the fact that men tend to overestimate the sexism of their male peers and the paralysis becomes even stronger.
When more men make it clear that they do not tolerate the denigration of women, it will make this behavior, even among groups of men, socially unacceptable.
Why It’s Important for Women to Share Their Stories
I know many women who are exasperated that the mistreatment of women persists, and that they always seem to be the ones speaking out about it. There is absolutely a need for men to change our culture with other men, but women’s stories, like the Me Too posts, help men understand experiences most of us haven’t had and aren’t fully aware of. Even when these issues are on a man’s radar, he has to square them with adherence to strict male gender norms (and the social penalties that can come with straying from them), which slows down the process of arriving at a point of mutual understanding.
Ideally, it wouldn’t be a woman’s responsibility to demand equal, respectful treatment from men. But when women share their experiences of harassment and gender inequality, it helps build empathy in men. This, along with the support of male allies, can influence men to change their ways.
Worth a download: How to Cultivate Empathy in the Workplace
Where Men’s Experience of Sexual Harassment Fits In
A focus on the sexual harassment of women tends to garner a response from those who think we’re overlooking similar issues that affect men.
Men also experience sexual harassment. One of the reasons men may be even less likely than women to report harassment and seek help is due to the shame of being robbed of sexual agency (“emasculated”), the idea that men are meant to “like it,” or, if the harasser is another man, homophobia. These expectations are harmful and it is here we see a common thread: the same set of gender roles that influence the behavior of men who harass women.
While sexual harassment towards women takes place on an individual level, it is rooted in a wider culture that all men share to some extent. When societal gender norms push one group (men) towards abusive behavior more than another (women), it is worth examining whether we should change them.
#MeToo makes it clear that we should.