Over the last month, more women than can be counted have come forth and opened up about being exposed to sexual harassment and sexual abuse. The floodgates have opened, and every day there seems to be a new case involving a celebrity. Some of the claims are directed toward high-profile and privileged men and some are simply women sharing horrific acts committed under seemingly mundane circumstances. After stepping forward personally in the #METOO campaign I was overwhelmed with how many of my friends added their names to the list. Yet, we had never before admitted it to one another. It was comforting to know I was not alone while at the same time it was disturbing to realize the magnitude of the problem.
When coming together we now talk more freely. We openly question ‘why harassment is allowed to go on’ and come up with more than a few theories:
1) One of the problems is ‘bro-ism’- the bad habit of men banding together and looking the other way in order to avoid exposing a colleague.
2) Another factor seems to be a lack of understanding of what constitutes harassment. This might sound outrageous, but stick with me. While many men become upset about rape in the classic violent sense, they struggle to condemn sexual harassment such as catcalls or persistent pushy invitations after being refused. There is a boy’s club acceptance that these unwanted and unsolicited acts are routine in male/female interactions. In fact, such conduct is so pervasive that many men engage in it and fail to see the harm.
3) And finally there is the hierarchy. Organizations where the unquestioned hierarchy is the strongest present the highest risk for women. Men hold nearly all the top positions and when they are granted unbalanced and unchecked power, it makes it easy for them to abuse their rank and most often it’s not about sexual fulfillment but to demonstrate that they are in control.
The need for control stems from men’s desire to maintain their higher-standing on the hierarchy, in spite of the fact that it is artificial. You see, society believes that there is a gap between the two genders and that men are in some way superior to women when in reality gender differences are actually small or close to zero. Source: PsycNET http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2005-11115-001
We are taught that people are either men or women, masculine or feminine, and we then set the genders up in direct opposition to one another. The ‘us vs them’ mentality, creates a gender seesaw where improvement for one gender creates a loss for the other. Men are naturally reluctant to relinquish their place to the perceived opposition and believe that this gives them the right to discount what women say, objectify them, and treat them as playthings. As an insult to injury they do whatever is necessary to maintain ‘power over’, even to the point of threatening women to keep their mouths shut, and until recently most have done just that.
The inappropriate sexual behavior that runs rampant throughout society stems from the way we raise our sons. In spite of having minimal differences from their female counterparts they are schooled to believe that if they are like a girl, they are less of a man. When a young boy hears the words, ‘be a man’ he will usually strive to be a powerful, strong, tough, provider who keeps an emotionless stiff upper lip. Most often this means sacrificing their compassion and empathy for others and this exacerbates the problem.
Additionally, the loss of traditionally male vocations like manufacturing jobs prevents many men from fulfilling their directed role as the family provider. This loss has caused a transference from provider to protector, in which a man can be still seen as a man, because he is a warrior and protector. University of Arizona socialist Jennifer Carlson believes this is the reason that American gun ownership has nearly doubled in less than two decades.
Men who have been fed misguided messages that they are the superior gender know deep down that it isn’t true and they are trying to live up to an increasingly difficult set of criteria. This creates internal conflict as they try to appease society while still remaining true to their own conscience.
The problem of men asserting their power over women is not exclusive. There are cases of men sexually harassing other men, and even cases of women sexually harassing men. This was demonstrated in the 1994 movie, ‘Disclosure’ starring Demi Moore where she plays an ambitious executive who sets out to damage her former lover now that she is his boss in an electronics company. Once again, it all boils down to one person using the hierarchy to control another.
It is time to quit pitting one gender against the other and even more so to relax the illusion of masculine roles. A good start would be teaching our sons that women and men are all individuals with equal value, that women are not ‘less than’ and especially that men don’t have power over them. Most importantly men have to be told that they don’t have to conform to the pressure to always be in control as that in itself is bound to reduce sexual harassment and abuse.