In the first of three blogs inspired by the recent coverage of historical sexual abuse and harassment I want to spend some time reflecting on the phenomenon of men as victims of such behaviour.
Why have I chosen to focus on men first? Well, partly because I was already going to write about men as victims at some point anyway, but also because it is an issue that provoked a great deal of emotive responses when the #metoo campaign went viral. Once again, men found themselves in the spotlight as predators and perverts, driven purely by base instinct, unable to resist their sexual urges, abusing their position of power over women, and forcing their will on others.
In a recent Psychology Today article Romeo Vitelli identified three types of harassment:
1 Sexual coercion involving job-related threats or bribes to force unwilling workers to enter into a sexual relationship with the harasser. One example of this is when an employer threatens to fire an employee if he/she doesn’t agree to sex. While often the most damaging, most harassment tends not to be this blatant.
2 Unwanted sexual attention involving unwelcome sexual advances towards someone else in the workplace that that are regarded as unwelcome or offensive. This can include sexual touching, and pressuring for a date. Since it can involve threats or bribes, there can be considerable overlap between this category and the first one.
3 Gender harassment involving hostile behaviour aimed at undermining workers simply due to their gender. This can include denigrating comments, off-colour jokes that are intended to be offensive, mocking, and even violent threats. Women expressing strong feminist ideals are often targeted this way. While this is the most common form of sexual harassment in the workplace, it is also the least likely to be seen as harassment.
As the #metoo campaign highlighted, like many women, I have experienced sexual abuse, harassment and bullying perpetrated by men, yet I do not hold with the belief that all men are perpetrators and all women are victims. An ex-colleague of mine (a gentle and kind man) commented on Facebook at the time of the #metoo campaign, apologising and feeling shame for being a man. Logic dictates that simply sharing the same gender as someone else does not mean you share in that person’s culpability. However, the groundswell of emotions during that campaign was such that it left many men questioning their gender and sexual identity, feeling shame, and also anger that, yet again, it was not possible for them to be considered a victim in the same way as women.
When I hear stories from men about times when they have been left feeling humiliated or scared by the way in which someone else has treated them, I am reminded of what it was like as a young female working in a male dominated world where “nudie mags” “pin ups” and sexual banter were part of every day life. To complain about how offensive these things were, was to incur more ridicule and humiliation, even run the risk of being ostracised. After many years of people raising awareness and campaigning, thankfully things are shifting for women, but sadly not so for men.
Only recently I was told of a young professional man who was completing work on a project involving people from overseas. Over a period of a week, the man was subjected to lewd comments, inappropriate banter and eventually a proposition by one of the overseas guests. The man was embarrassed, it was his job to maintain a rapport with the guests and given the seniority of the guest in the organisation, he felt unable to make a formal complaint. Instead he stuck close to his colleagues and looked forward to the end of the week when the guest would leave. The man felt embarrassed and scared. He felt humiliated in front of his colleagues, it left him questioning his self image and behaviour, wondering how his sexuality and sexual interest was being interpreted by others. He found himself feeling inhibited at work and in social settings for some time after the event. Initially his colleagues thought it was funny, but as things progressed, they felt awkward and concerned for their colleague.
Another man told me of how he attended a training course with fellow professionals. At one point he found himself the subject of banter and comments being made about his body. When he challenged this, he found the Trainers unsupportive and unable to understand why he was humiliated and frightened by this. He was left questioning himself, doubting his sense of boundaries with others, and the rights and wrongs of sexualised banter. When he told me what had happened I was horrified that fellow professionals would treat him that way, and that others could not see what was wrong with the behaviour. Just as it had been for me in the 80s and 90s, so it was for him that he was seen as over-sensitive and making a fuss about nothing.
A couple of years ago I witnessed a male colleague being humiliated by a female visitor at work. He was the only male in the group and comments were made regarding him taking his top off when no such suggestion was made to the rest of us. I was left feeling really uncomfortable about the interaction, and spoke with my colleague who stated he felt really humiliated but did not know how to deal with it at the time. We decided to take a stand and raise the issue, for which he received an apology, but nothing was done to shift the culture in which it is still implicitly acceptable for men to be the subject of sexual harassment.
So often people behave in a way towards men that if that had been done by a man to women he would have been seen as sexist and abusive. For example, the adverts for a well known fizzy drink in which a group of women are seen to cause a man to take off his top for their gratification, are regarded as acceptable, but what if it was a group of men causing a woman to take off her top for their gratification?
The focus of my examples so far has been on verbal harassment, but let’s touch on touching for a moment. Many of my male colleagues over the years have used touch as a way of connecting with their team mares, on whom they rely for their safety. Sometimes, this touch is unwanted and used in a way to control or humiliate someone. Grabbing bottoms, crotches and chests as part of a banter about physique seems to have been seen as acceptable with no consideration given to how the person being grabbed is left feeling.
One colleague told me how much he hated it when the group of men he worked with started to make jokes and tease him about his body simply because they knew it embarrassed him. It was seen as sport to tease him and get him embarrassed, particularly in front of women. During the banter, one or two of the men would grab at parts of his body in order to heighten his embarrassment whilst roaring with laughter. Privately I know that those men liked and admired my colleague, but publicly they saw nothing wrong with humiliating him. If it had been a woman on the receiving end of such behaviour we’d have stepped in and supported her to make a complaint. But I was horrified to hear the behaviour being defended as “just banter” in the same way it was for women years ago.
Although most of us would not like to admit it, women are just as capable of being lecherous and lewd as men, just watch Jennifer Anniston’s character in Horrible Bosses for a very stark example of a woman using her position to sexually harass a member of her staff. Some women may use sexualised behaviours as a way of humiliating or intimidating men, as it may be the only power they believe they have over men. But, more often than not, women do not see their behaviour as being perceived as inappropriate or harassing. It’s not acceptable to have nude calendars of women in the workplace, but how many women decorate their workspace with images of scantily dressed men? It’s not acceptable for a group of men to make comments about a woman’s body in her presence, but how many groups of women make comments about the man in their presence, or even go so far as grab at him and compete over who can touch him? Believe me, it happens!
Our society struggles to conceive of men as victims of sexual assault, what man wouldn’t want to be the focus of sexual advances and flirtation? It is still so difficult for men to be able to report being raped or sexually assaulted. People’s bodies are programmed to respond to sexual contact, whether they want that contact or not, leading to confusion about consent and desire. Stroking, poking, tickling, fiddling with items of clothing, brushing up against them and play fighting are all very common ways in which women engage in sexually inappropriate or harassing behaviours with men. The intention may not be to leave someone feeling bad, but after listening to their stories, men tell me of how such behaviours impact on them. It is awful to know how humiliating, intimidating and objectified someone can be left feeling after what someone else may think as playful banter. Many of the men talk of feeling powerless, afraid to act against the behaviours causing them distress, fearful of being seen as weak or vulnerable, or conversely accused of being the abuser.
Women’s harassment of men often gets minimised as flirtation and harmless. The man’s friends make a joke out of it, teasing him about having a “girlfriend” or referring to the woman as a “bunny boiler”, whilst the man feels scared and embarrassed about being the focus of their attention.
5 Top Tips for Change
1) Pause for thought – If you’re not sure if the way you are treating someone could be experienced as harassment or abuse, ask yourself “If a man did this to a woman, would this be seen as inappropriate?”
2) Listen – Have a conversation with the man on the receiving end of the behaviour to check they are ok
3) Respect – Choose the images in your workspace carefully by asking “if this image were of a woman, would it be offensive?”, and check you are doing and saying things that show you have respect for yourself and those around you
4) Tune in – Check your motivation, what’s going on for you by having contact with the man, and ask yourself if you are sure the man wants you to behave that way with him, if you’re not sure then don’t do it
5) Empathise – if someone tells you they are uncomfortable with a situation then take them seriously, encourage them to talk about it, and support them if they want to make a complaint about it.
I want to say a huge thank you to those who have had the courage to share their stories with me, and I hope that by bringing this to people’s attention more people will find the courage to speak out.
If you need help or support with the issues raised in this blog please check out the following links: