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Sexual Harassment and #MenToo

The Five Stages of Belief

The headlines are full of revelations of sexual harassment by men in power, and women, who are typically the targets of harassers, are “getting it” — in many cases coming to new consciousness about the pervasive effects of men’s sense of sexual entitlement. Many men, though, are having trouble wrapping their heads around the problem. Offered here are five stages for how a man might come to consciousness too.

Stage One: Acknowledgement of the Problem

Sexual harassment happens to some men as well as to many women. Reports of Kevin Spacey’s pattern of predatory behavior have brought that fact to glaring light. From groping to genital exposure to demands for sex in exchange for a career leg up, usually it is younger, more vulnerable people who are sexually harassed by older, more powerful men. The Supreme Court acknowledged the problem in 1986  [1] when it recognized sexual harassment as a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It did so again in 1998,[2] when it ruled that male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace is exactly as prohibited by Title VII as is male-on-female sexual harassment.

Women and girls are also not the only victims of sexual harassment who experience silencing, shame and lasting trauma. As has been disclosed by male victims of many forms of sexual assault — rape, gang rape, clergy abuse, hazing — the psychic harms and humiliation of sexual harassment are not exclusive to persons of one gender. Although workplace sexual harassment of women happens statistically more often than workplace sexual harassment of men — and although women who resist superiors’ sexual come-ons suffer career-sabotage consequences to a greater extent than do men who resist the same — the direct deleterious impact on a person’s sense of self can be nearly identical.

Stage Two: Analysis of the Problem

Regardless of the gender of victims, the acts that effect the harm and humiliation of sexual harassment are gendering for the  perpetrator, for they assert his dominance — over anyone he wants. All such malevolent acts have one fact in common: they demonstrate viscerally who is the alpha male; they prove and profess the perpetrator’s manhood to someone less powerful; and they thereby temporarily assuage the perpetrator’s life-long anxiety about not being a real-enough man.

For the victim, an act of sexual harassment is about being put down, not about being turned on, but for the perpetrator, sexual pleasure and power converge. For him, the eroticism and the assertion of superiority in the act are indistinguishable. In this top-down dynamic, the gender of the victim is almost beside the point; what matters to the perpetrator is that his victim be treated as beneath him in the hierarchy. This means that the group of people powerful men will harm and maliciously demean in the workplace though sexual harassment, in order to defend the privilege of their membership in a supremacist sex class, can include anyone on the spectrum of human genders. Anyone, that is, except other powerful men.

Stage Three: Argument with the Analysis

But wait a minute. Not all men in the workplace are sexual harassers, right? Many men, maybe even most, have collegial and supportive relationships with coworkers. These men might not be paragons of virtue, and they might now and then feel sexual attraction for a colleague or subordinate — but they would never ever do something so crass as to sexually harass anyone. So isn’t it going too far to suggest that perpetrators commit acts of sexual harassment in order to feel like a real man? Just about everyone raised to be a man wants to feel like a real man. And don’t all the upstanding exceptions — men who would never sexually harass — refute this analysis of why men in power perpetrate sexual harassment?

Well, actually, the point of this analysis is not to indict all men. The point is to expose workplace sexual harassment as a particular means by which some men pull rank over women as well as over other, lower-ranking people. And the point is to show that these men who are abusing their power in the workplace are not only causing harm to other humans, they are doing so in service to an outmoded cock-of-the-walk notion of manhood, a notion that is intrinsically linked to heartless hierarchy over others instead of the alternative — embodying equality, empathy, and mutual respect.

Stage Four: Anger Over the Problem

So does this mean that the same hostility- and hierarchy-based manhood that endangers women in the workplace puts some vulnerable men at risk too? And does this mean that the same power-mongering that drives sexual harassers creates a toxic work environment not only for women but for men — even for individuals who are not personally being harassed? And does this mean that, even if individuals are oblivious to what some powerful sexually harassing men are doing and getting away with, the tacit pressure this sets up for everyone to vie for favor from such reprehensible men contaminates the entire workplace with a vibe that is at best creepy, and at worst undermines morale, stunts productivity and makes people want to quit?

Yes, that’s what the problem of workplace sexual harassment means — for both women and men.

Well, damn. That really sucks.

Stage Five: Action Against the Problem

At this #MeToo moment, many women and some men and trans folks have raised their voices and come forward to publicly name what happened to them and who did it. For the first time, these victims are being believed. This shift is likely to have lasting influence on public and personal understanding of what sexual harassment is and does. But this pivotal moment has yet to mobilize coworkers to act in concert against the culture of male supremacy that abets and follows from superiors’ abuse of power by sexually harassing subordinates.

The time has now come when #MenToo need to raise their voices and come forward to publicly stand with colleagues who have experienced sexual harassment. Whether a man has personally experienced sexual harassment or not, he most certainly knows someone who has. Now for their sakes as well as his own and their working relationship, he must take a stand so that men in power will no longer have impunity to exact sex from anyone.

John Stoltenberg, author of Refusing to Be a Man,  The End of Manhood, and the novel GONERZ, is a trans-inclusive radical feminist, theater reviewer, and communications consultant based in Washington, DC. He tweets @JohnStoltenberg.

Footnotes:

[1] Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57

[2] Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. 75

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John Stoltenberg

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