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.