The XX Factor

Increased Complaints About Male-on-Male Sexual Harassment

I was happy to see that the Wall Street Journal published an article that’s largely sympathetic to male victims of sexual harassment. Claims have gone up due to the recession, probably because when it’s hard to find another job, you’re more likely to stay on and sue, or quit and sue for compensation. Unfortunately, the WSJ buries an extremely important detail that should be at the top of the story: Most male victims of sexual harassment were harassed by other men.

That information isn’t baldly stated until the 10 th paragraph, and that’s after the writer quotes a legal expert in a way that implies most of their cases are female-on-male, which I’m sure the legal expert did not intend to imply. You could easily read this story down halfway and walk away with the incorrect impression that male victims simply suffered from female colleagues who come on too strong, which both erases the sexism that drives sexual harassment and implies that the victims are just oversensitive.

The reality is that men get sexually harassed for the same reason women do-male colleagues find them threatening for whatever reason, and they use sexual humiliation to bully them. A quick moment with Google, and I found some relevant research done at the University of Minnesota looking into the specifics of harassment cases. A quote from the researchers:

All women are at some risk of sexual harassment, but males are also likely to be targeted if they seem vulnerable and appear to reject the male stereotype,” reports researcher and University of Minnesota Professor Christopher Uggen. “If a man refuses to go along with sexual joking, wears an earring to the workplace, or is financially vulnerable, he could be targeted. We even found a correlation between a man’s likelihood of being harassed and the amount of housework they reported doing-an activity typically attributed to women.

Sexual harassment happens when men who are hung up about strict gender roles encounter colleagues who threaten their prejudices. Women can do this merely by working-or at least working in an environment the harasser considers boys only. But men can easily face it if they break what the harasser considers the man code. (To be fair, some women are so invested in sexism they could do this, too, but it’s rare.) This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone; the image of nerdy or gay or even just nonmisogynist young men getting whipped in the locker room with towels is a cultural icon. It’s also a major social problem that shouldn’t be ignored.