What’s Behind Sexual Harassment?

Here’s a question I got over email:

I am trying to understand the psychology of male arousal i.e what causes a man to get aroused at the sight of a fully dressed woman.

The reason for this question is because I repeatedly encounter this issue in the workplace which I would like your insights on.  Men come near me & breathe heavily or click their fingers or make groaning noises and then this is picked up by other men who do the same. It happens outside the workplace as well but I can ignore that and walk away.

Any ideas as to why men do this and how do I deal with this? I am guessing that they are getting aroused at the sight of me and for some reason think I should know that? why? (Note that I dress very modestly)

I don’t think that this is actually about men getting aroused, or at least, not much. I’m willing to bet that when these guys get turned on with their partners, they don’t make those noises or breathe like that. So while there might be some sexual arousal going on for them, it’s important to remember that even if there is, these men are still making a choice about how they express it. So let’s talk about why guys choose to engage in sexual harassment. I can think of two main reasons, with some overlap between them

The first possibility is that these men are harassing you to try to make you feel uncomfortable. Some men use sexualized attention to harass women, to tell them that they aren’t welcome in a given space, to try to express dominance over them, or simply to try to get a reaction from them. I find that there are a lot of different reasons men do that, and frankly, I don’t think it’s really about sexual arousal as much as their discomfort with women. Rather than find ways to deal with that, they act out. If they were truly comfortable with being around women, they wouldn’t feel the need to harass them.

As far as why other men pick up on it and join in, a lot of that has to do with the performance of masculinity. Stereotypical definitions of masculinity require guys to prove that they’re “real men” because if they don’t, they risk being grouped with women, queers, and losers. (See this post for more specifics about how that works.) Not only that, but the “real man” model is a hierarchy with the ultimate macho dude at the top. That creates a competition to demonstrate one’s masculinity since the guy at the bottom of the pack risks being classified as girly, or a faggot, or a wimp. As a result, when one guy starts showing off how masculine he is by harassing you, the men around him join in so they can show how manly they are. The competition from that escalates things, which is why groups of guys generally get louder, more obnoxious, and more direct about it.

Underlying all of that is that they aren’t doing it to try to get you into bed. They’re doing it to perform their masculinity for each other. They’re doing it to prove that they qualify as “real men.” But it’s really not about sexual arousal at all because they almost certainly don’t do those things when they’re having sex. They’re using the performance of sexuality to score masculinity points, which is a very different thing.

Whether these guys are trying to exert dominance over you, for whatever reason, or they’re trying to outdo each other in showing off how macho they are, it’s harassment and it’s never ok. It isn’t about your dressing modestly- women get this kind of crap no matter what they wear. I know that a lot of people will blame women for getting harassed, and that enables men to keep doing it because they don’t get held accountable for their choices and actions.

Since I don’t have to cope with this personally, I don’t think I’m the right person to suggest how to deal with it. So here are a few articles by women about what they do. I hope they help!

Do You Respond To Catcalling? 23 Women Reveal How They Reply To Street Harassment
7 Ways To Respond To Street Harassment
Damn, Girl: How to Beat a Catcaller at His Own Game

And this video is worth watching:

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One Response so far.

  1. Gabby says:

    Great post Charlie.

    “I don’t think it’s really about sexual arousal as much as their discomfort with women.”

    What do you think underlies their discomfort?

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