Riddle Me This

Warning: This post contains sarcasm. A lot of it.

Why is it that things need to happen to men before we recognize that they are a problem?

Newsweek recently profiled male on male sexual harassment in their article “Abuse of power.” Sexual harassment claims filed by men evidently doubled between 1992 and 2008, and although for some reason the EEOC “doesn’t always keep track of the gender of the harasser,” a lot of these claims involved men harassing men. Apparently, such harassment is called “same-sex sexual harassment[1. Dear EEOC: I think that you may be conflating “sex” and “gender.” I’m going to keep using your language in this piece, because it’s criticizing an article which uses the same language, but I think what you mean is “same-gender sexual harassment.”],” illustrating, once again, the way in which our society places men at the forefront at all times. The same way in which any unknown or default is assumed to be male; the way we use “he” when we really mean “a person”. Because it doesn’t matter unless there’s a man involved.

The article assures us that this is a “serious problem” and “no joke.” That’s good to hear. Sexual harassment, no matter which gender/s is/are involved, is indeed a serious and not joking matter. And, quite frankly, I think that the more stories we have circulating about it, the better, because it’s good for people to be reminded that sexual harassment is an ongoing problem. I could, however, do without stories which inform us that sexual harassment suddenly matters because men are experiencing it.

Here’s what else Newsweek had to tell us: “…the experience of men harassed by men may help to illustrate the realities of all such cases.” Yes, the numerous discussions which have been going on for years about sexual harassment cases involving men harassing women, those didn’t illustrate any realities. They were purely abstract and not really productive or useful contributions to the discussion. Once we get men involved, however, things get serious.

Sexual harassment isn’t real when it happens to a woman, folks. Women, as we all know, are oversensitive, and they take things too seriously, they can’t take a joke, and they are easily offended. We need men’s experiences to validate what women experience. If we said otherwise, that women’s experiences are real and valid, that would be tantamount to saying that women are people. And we can’t have that!

We must be able to put everything in a male context before it has meaning. This attitude, of course, does not at all reinforce problematic social norms. It’s just that, well, men matter in a way that other genders don’t. We can’t possibly treat something seriously when the only people experiencing it are women!

Newsweek also breathlessly informs readers:

In truth, sexual harassment of both genders has more to do with issues of control and abuses of power for the purpose of humiliation than with sexual attraction.

Wow. I had no idea. Here I was, all this time, thinking that it was about sex and sexuality. You’re telling me that sexual harassment is actually about power? Wait. Does that mean that rape is also about power? Not sex? Gee whiz, this completely changes my perspective on the world.

By exposing the men to taunts about their genitalia, sexually suggestive simulations, and lewd comments, the men perpetrating the harassment are seeking to embarrass and target the male victims—not sexually stimulate or “flirt” with them.

Wow, really?

Newsweek is unconsciously (or perhaps consciously) reinforcing some norms here. Krista Gesaman, the author, says this: “When women are the victims, they may face assumptions that the abuse is the result of an affair gone wrong, hurt feelings, or mixed signals. (Emphasis mine.)” This statement about assumptions and how dangerous they can be when it comes to reporting sexual harassment comes within the framework of an article which is acting like the fact that sexual harassment is about power is new. Which, to me, seems to underscore the idea that when it happens to women, it’s about sex, and when it happens to men, it’s about power.

Gesaman even provides some “poor menz” sympathizing to explain why it is that men feel the need to engage in sexual harassment:

Harassment escalates when those in power feel threatened, either by an influx of women workers or a challenge to the traditional gender expectations. It’s possible that in an economic recession, more men feel powerless and fear for their job security, causing them to lash out at anyone perceived as a threat.

Poor, threatened men. Their positions of power and authority are being threatened by influxes of “women workers.” They have to lash out, because there’s no other way of asserting themselves. They don’t live in a completely male dominated society which centers men in all things and which privileges men above all others, so they have no outlets for their confusion, upset, and rage. Surely, we should cut them a little slack for their harassment!

Gesamen concludes with:

It’s also possible that same-sex harassment is not on the rise, but that male victims feel more empowered about reporting abuse. “People feel they can stand up and say, ‘Hey you’ve violated my civil rights,’ ” Gold says. “They feel freer to pursue what 20 years ago would be considered a gender boundary.”

Oddly enough, I feel like the exact same thing was said when women finally started being more proactive about filing sexual harassment claims. But, again, I guess it only really matters when men are involved. When men are aware that they can and should file claims, they are empowered!

Over at The Sexist, Amanda Hess is doing a great series on groping. You know what she has managed to do? She’s centered the discussion on how groping is about exerting power, denying women bodily autonomy, and reinforcing rape culture. Personally, I think that if this Newsweek article had been written by Amanda Hess, it would have been a lot better. (I think this, actually, about a lot of news articles, just in general.)