To many women, sexual harassment is a significant and deeply personal issue. To many men, meh. So finds the a recent survey fielded by Ipsos Mori, who set out to measure the gap between how the public perceives the issue versus the reality of what people experience.
Here’s the reality: more than 80% of women report having experienced sexual harassment in one form or another in their lifetime. Men far underestimate that statistic, believing only about 40% of women have had such experiences.
Among the cacophony of news stories and the endless cry of women sharing sometimes devastating personal accounts, how are men still missing it?
One answer could be that men and women define sexual harassment differently. The newly released American Family Survey reports that less than half of men believe that asking for sexual favors at work is always considered sexual harassment. Even fewer men think that looking at women’s bodies in the workplace is sexual harassment. They also tend to believe that consent is implied even when a woman does not express it verbally.
Is it any surprise that women overwhelmingly believe the opposite?
Complicating matters is the double standard for what constitutes sexual harassment, depending on which gender is playing offense. When a woman comments on a man’s appearance in the office, it’s more likely to be received as a compliment. The identical comment could be construed as objectifying if it’s delivered from man to woman. The same risk applies for hugging or other physical touch.
This double standard leaves women as the default arbiter of what behavior is out-of-bounds in the workplace, which only exacerbates men’s confusion about how to act appropriately. SNL spoofed this double standard brilliantly.
On one extreme, the puzzle is leading more men to take their cue from the White House, where, far away from the Oval Office, the Vice President espouses the “Mike Pence Rule.” The best way to avoid sexual harassment, the thinking goes, is to avoid being alone with women who aren’t your wife. (This from a guy who calls his wife “Mother” but that’s another story.)
Besides the demographic reality – women are 51% of the population, and it would be a challenge to avoid interacting with the 99.9999% who aren’t your wife – this draconian idea denigrates both sexes by revoking their agency. It’s also prohibitive to women’s advancement.
For a stark contrast to Pence’s rule, look to the work of Jackson Katz, Ph.D., one of the most noted experts in healthy masculinity. Katz, in his wisdom, knows that gender segregation does not prevent nor solve sexual harassment. He’s spent 30 years developing solutions for navigating the minefield of sexual harassment and gender violence. Rather than avoidance, he stresses accountability.
Katz urges that strong gender relations begin with the behaviors we model for our sons. “The traditional teaching is that young women are taught to protect themselves,” he says, “but that’s not prevention, it’s risk reduction.” According to Katz, 50% of rapes happen before the age of 18. And shockingly, one in five girls are in a sexually abusive relationship before they get out of high school.
“Men must be held accountable for their behavior,” he says, “and not hide behind the excuse that boys will be boys.”
Of course, most men and boys don’t identify as abusive, says Katz. “They think ‘this isn’t my issue, I’m a good guy.’” Which is why we must teach boys to speak up when they see other boys behaving in a way they know is inappropriate, rather than staying silent, or worse, laughing along.
Progress will come when men face consistent pushback from their peers, teammates, and leaders who make it clear that sexism is unacceptable. Peer culture is a potent force, says Katz.
“The challenge is to get men to stand up and speak up,” he says, “from the earliest ages.” Stand up for women, stand up for what they know is right, and stand up to one another.