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Why Men Harass

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Probably any man who’s gone through junior and high school in the United States has experienced it. We all have our list. Or I have mine, at least. There was getting punched by Alex because he thought that I was after his girlfriend, and falling down while other boys and a few girls watched. The girl in question didn’t seem interested in either of us. All I did was practice my conversational abilities with her, as she let me follow her on a miniature golf course. Key skills for a 12-year-old.  

There was the way jocks at my high school talked about which girls “put out” and which ones didn’t. I hated the way they talked about girls, but still, there I was, standing on the edge, listening, pretending to fit in, laughing along. It was the place to be if you wanted to be seen—if you wanted to be one of the “cool guys.”

Then there was later on: the four guys down the hall in my dorm at a big state university in Texas who took an extremely drunk girl back to their room. That was years before we even used the expression “date rape.” A group of us reported it to our dorm counselors, but looking back now, they were far less alarmed than they should’ve been. They looked at us as if to say: This is just university life.

The current avalanche of attention to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual entitlement is a moment of change—or it could be. It would certainly be easier to achieve change if all we had to do was topple a few men at the top of the corporate, media, and political totem poles. But that’s far from the entire picture. The challenge is that sexism—daily lived and practiced sexism and misogyny—is in the proverbial water. We feed it to our sons (and to our daughters) all the time. To sustain the momentum against sexual violence, we must  address a simple fact: that we make boys into harassers every day.

How deep does this issue run? A study my organization (Promundo) conducted in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Mexico found out just how much these activities are part of the daily lives of young men. Close to half—42 to 48 percent—of young men ages 18-30 in these three countries acknowledged that they’d teased someone, either male or female, or called them names in the prior month. And one in five young men in Mexico, and nearly one in three young men in the United States and the United Kingdom, had posted photos or messages to embarrass or harass someone, either male or female, in the prior month. One in five in Mexico to a third of young men in the United States and the United Kingdom reported hurting anyone physically, with their fist or a weapon, in the prior month. And one in five young men in Mexico to nearly a third in the United States and the United Kingdom have made sexually harassing comments to a woman or girl they didn't know, in a public place—like the street, the workplace, a school or university, or an internet or social media space—in the prior month.

Far from the behavior of only rich and powerful men, or merely sporadic occurrences, sexual harassment of various kinds is commonly and routinely carried out by young men, and at rates probably dizzying to most. As for which young men are more likely to harass, we used a measure of 17 attitudinal questions, including questions such as “guys should act strong even when they feel scared or nervous inside” and “a real man would never say no to sex.” The more young men believed in these toxic manhood ideas, the more likely they were to have ever sexually harassed someone. Young men who showed the strongest belief in toxic manhood norms were nearly 10 times as likely to have harassed than young men who least believed in the notion that they have to “be the man.”

Why, then, do boys grow up harassing, bullying, teasing, and thinking women’s (and other men’s) bodies are theirs for the taking? Because we too often raise them on a steady diet of witnessing the bullying and harassment of other boys and men—and those men and boys get away with it.

But before we lament the sorry state of manhood, it’s important to point out the good news. In our research and in others’, young men in the United States (and in lots of other countries around the world, too) increasingly accept or see women as their equals. Today’s generation of young men is more likely to agree that sharing the care for children, women in the workplace, and women in leadership positions are normal behaviors and patterns.

This, then, is our big paradox: Today’s young men believe something closer to gender equality is right, and yet large numbers also think that various forms of bullying and harassment are also normal. They believe in equality at some level, but they also think that domination, bullying, and violence are OK. What gives?

Certainly, the political moment of angry (male) politicians is out there, setting the scene for many young men in the United States and beyond. Many researchers, including Michael Kimmel, have written about men’s “aggrieved entitlement,” or feeling emasculated by the lack of work and, in turn, sometimes blaming women (or minority groups or immigrants or, truly, anyone but the systemic causes) for their predicament.

But perhaps the biggest reason young men continue to think harassment, bullying, and sexism are OK is that we haven’t told them otherwise. There’s a new generation of women leaders on the airways, in the halls of Congress, and in corporate spaces who provide a model for whom we aspire our daughters to become. While we have a long way to go before we achieve anything close to true equality for women in these spaces, the point is, there’s an impressive cadre of women leaders that shows our daughters the way.

What about our sons? We’ve had a few good role models, to be sure, but we haven’t spelled out what we expect from them on a daily basis in terms of their relationships with women. Sure, we react after scandals, with a few men speaking out to say “not all men” or “not me.” But how often do we present, in the clearest possible terms, what it is we want from boys in how they treat girls and other boys? Ending harassment means changing how we act, how we treat our sons and daughters, how they see us every single day in how we as men treat women, and how straight people treat those of other sexual identities. This isn’t a one-off talk, or that one public service announcement by a celebrity (though those are good—please, celebrities, keep doing them). This is a long journey.

This is talking to boys and young men, and girls and young women, where they are: whether at home or at school, online, or in sports programs and beyond. This is engaging all fathers and other male caregivers to teach equality, respect, and non-violence. This is getting celebrities and preachers and imams and the rest to join in. And this is talking with women and girls so that, together, we define what consent is and what healthy relationships are.

This is implementing bystander approaches, teaching young men to speak out in nonviolent ways when they see the abusive behavior of their peers. This is empowering boys to speak out, boys who, like me all those years ago, aren’t always sure how.

And this is the hard part: This is talking about privilege and about sex, neither of which we’re good at discussing in this or any other country. As long as men are the majority of decision-makers and earn more money than women on average and control most of our big social institutions, this means we have to talk about how to achieve full equality for women and girls.

On top of that, it means that we have to talk about what eroticism and sex mean to us, how children need to learn about these, how the Internet (with the good and the bad) will be the only teacher if we’re not brave enough to talk about sex and desire and how it is we express those things in respectful (and erotic) ways. Because harassment and sexual violence are about power, of course, but they’re also about sex.

Our silence as parents and teachers and educators, and media content generators, means that boys will continue to face the kinds of experiences I did growing up unless we offer them something else.  

While we must hold accountable big men who harass and abuse, equally important is what we say to our sons. They’re awaiting instructions. And if we don’t offer any to them, the Alexes, the bullies, and the indifferent adults they encounter through boyhood will.


Gary Barker is the director of Promundo, an international organization that works for gender equality and engaging men as full and equal caregivers.