Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sexual Harassment Is Not about Being Male: It’s about Gender Socialization

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago in response to some discussion going on over at The Good Men Project site - it was intended for posting on their blog, but it grew and grew and got to be too big for their format (and most others). Plus, I don't think they wanted it. Minor details.

Fortunately, I have no problem posting long and unwieldy articles here. Especially if they are mine. Comments welcome.

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Sexual Harassment Is Not about Being Male:
It’s about Gender Socialization

Over at The Good Men Project Magazine, there has been a discussion revolving around men harassing women through cat-calls and wolf-whistles, among other ways. Katie Baker began the discussion with an article a week or so ago, A Good Man’s Guide to Catcalling, which generated a good amount of feedback and a follow-up from Ryan O'Hanlon, blog editor for the Good Men Project, entitled Are Men the Victims of Catcalls, Too?

A central element of the discussion is that men are perpetrators of harassment, that they sexualize and objectify women. Ms. Baker offers the following observations:

Go ask any woman in your life whom you respect—mother, sister, cousin, lover, or friend—how it makes her feel when she’s loudly and publicly objectified, the recipient of obscene comments like “suck my cock,” or followed down the street. I promise you that it doesn’t make her feel good or beautiful or respected.

Street harassment has a negative effect on us all. No single man wants the actions of a few to be attributed to his entire gender, but studies show that male harassers impact victims’ perception and reaction to men in general. Still, most street harassers aren’t “bad men”—they don’t fully realize why their actions are hurtful or disrespectful to the female population. Sometimes they don’t even realize they are harassing women at all.

That’s why it won’t end until both men and women start engaging with harassers.

She’s correct – male objectification of women has terrible consequences for female self-esteem, especially in terms of body-image (Strelan & Hargreaves, 2005), and even their cognitive performance (Gay & Castano, 2010).

In fact, it is so much a part of our culture that women are judged, admired, and valued for how they look physically, that most women engage in self-objectification – they have internalized the external evaluations as a measure of their own self-worth, which is a powerful factor for some women in their experience of eating disorders (Moradi, Dirks & Matteson, 2005).

It is actually the process of self-objectification that causes the drop in cognitive performance for women who are prone to this behavior (not all women engage in self-objectification). Gay and Castano speculate that the drop in cognitive function is a result of brain energy being split between seeing the self as a unique individual and also as an object (apparently, Fredrickson & Roberts had identified this originally in a 1997 paper). Essentially, a woman sees herself as both an individual and a generic sexual object, which creates a cognitive discomfort, “with a resulting decrease in the availability of cognitive resources for the tasks the individual engages in."

So far it’s not looking good for men.

Sexual Harassment in Children

On the other hand, men learn these objectifying behaviors as boys – but so do girls.

In a 2000 study, Murnen and Smolak looked at sexual harassment in 3rd and 5th grade children, finding that the “majority” of boys and girls experienced harassment about equally. Bryant (1993), who looked at students in grades 8-11, also found high numbers – although girls are more likely to be harassed by adults (teachers and school employees), which is especially alarming:

Of over 1600 students in grades 8–11, 76% of the boys and 85% of the girls reported experiencing sexual harassment. Girls were more than twice as likely as boys to be harassed by a teacher or school employee. Approximately 12% of the boys who were harassed did not want to attend school and 13% reported that they talked less in class because of the harassment. Because of the harassment, fully one third of the harassed girls no longer wished to attend school, 32% reported that talking in class was more difficult, and 20% said they had received a lower class grade. Girls also reported altering their behavior to decrease the likelihood of harassment by avoiding certain people or places and even giving up attendance at school events.

In both cases, and even more so as boys and girls age, the girls suffer more from the impact of harassment and seek avoidance behaviors (the only exception might be gay boys and transgendered youth, who likely suffer more than either straight boys or girls). Some researchers attribute this disparity to the differences in perceived agentic power – i.e., males feel more able to fend off harassment while females feel the only solution is escape.

In another study, McMaster, et al (2002), looked at early adolescent harassment behaviors. While boys and girls seemed to experience relatively equal amounts of harassment, boys were more likely to self-report perpetrating harassment. Interestingly, they found boys more often also to be the victims of certain behaviors (boys, 42%; girls, 38%), especially homosexual slurs (“fag,” “queer,” “dyke,” or “lezzie”) and exposure to pornographic and sexual images – both of which are likely perpetrated by other boys. Overall, the study found that boys were more likely to report perpetrating harassment and also report being the target of harassment than were girls.

McMaster’s team also broke down harassment into same-gender and cross-gender. For this statistical analysis, they reduced the ten factors in their study to three general categories: a) verbal harassment, b) visual harassment, and c) physical harassment. They found a strong correlation between same-gender and cross-gender harassment, but they also found that these should be examined as distinct phenomena. In essence, the ways that boys harass boys is different from how they harass girls, and the same is true of girls.

However, what boys and men don’t realize in perpetrating these behaviors is that girls and women have a tendency to generalize those behaviors to all males (Chaudoir & Quinn, 2010). These researchers found that women who witness cat-calls directed at other women feel more gender allegiance, more anger toward men, and more likelihood to generalize that anger to men in general – this was manifested as a desire to move away from men (escape, just like grade school girls) and not to move against men (retaliation).

Generalizations about Gender Socialization

What we learn from these studies with children is that both boys and girls have a tendency to harass each other . . . and their own gender. The crucial difference is that girls (and homosexual adolescents, especially boys) are more damaged by this behavior than are boys.

The obvious question is why? The difference is likely in how boys and girls are socialized.

Please understand that the following observations are not meant to imply that boys are more independent and girls are more communal, which is often what is believed in the essentialist models of gender development. Moreover, transgender people and other gender-queer identities call into question the entire binary model of gender identity (Campbell & I’Anson, 2005). Boys are not significantly more individualistic, and girls are not innately more interpersonally dependent – there are mild differences at birth while differences in adults are largely socially constructed traits.

Boys are taught from a very early age to be tough, self-reliant, and not like girls. David & Brannon (1976) described four standards of hegemonic American masculinity:

(1) “no sissy stuff” - Distance self from femininity, homophobia, avoid emotions
(2) “be a big wheel” - Strive for achievement and success, focus on competition
(3) “be a sturdy oak” - Avoid vulnerability, stay composed and in control, be tough
(4) “give ‘em hell” - Act aggressively to become dominant

Ronald Levant, et al (1992), offered an even more specific model of hegemonic masculinity, defining it in eight principles:

(1) restrict emotions
(2) avoid being feminine
(3) focus on toughness and aggression
(4) be self-reliant
(5) make achievement the top priority
(6) be non-relational
(7) objectify sex
(8) be homophobic

In order for boys to grow up within the dominant model of masculinity, they must adhere to these guidelines. To do otherwise is to be teased, bullied, and harassed – called a little girl, a fag, a mama’s boy, a queer, and so on. The socially constructive power of these forms of harassment should not be underestimated – even sensitive boys will become more “macho” to get along with peers. Furthermore, the power of imitation of older boys should also not be overlooked. Younger boys see older boys cat-calling and they imitate that behavior and then reinforce similar behavior among their peers.

However, there is also another perspective on this process – the psychodynamic model.

According to this model (Bussey & Bandura, 1999), boys and girls both identify with their primary caregiver until around the ages of three to five – the “caregiver” is generally the mother, or at least a female. At this point they begin to identify with the same sex parent. For boys, this means rejecting the mother (and because children at this age are concrete thinkers, female traits in general are shunned), but for girls, nothing really changes – they continue to model their behaviors after their mother.

The process of identification is depicted as one in which children undertake wholesale adoption of the characteristics and qualities of the same-sex parent. Through this process of identification, children become sex-typed. Because identification with the same-sex parent is stronger for boys than girls, boys are expected to be more strongly sex-typed. (Bussey & Bandura)

The original psychodynamic model (Freudian) is based on fear (castration and all that nonsense) but there is no evidence supporting Freud’s drive theory. Still, the basic process, as described above, is useful. Nancy Chodorow (1978) offered a crucial update on the model:

During the course of development, girls continue to identify with their mothers and they also psychologically merge with her. As a consequence, the daughter’s self-concept is characterized by mutuality and a sense of relatedness that orients her towards interpersonal relationships. This interpersonal orientation is the main reason why women engage in mothering. They seek to establish a sense of interpersonal connectedness reminiscent of their relationship with their mother but absent in their adult relationships with men. This pattern of development contrasts with that of boys who increasingly separate themselves from their mothers and define themselves in terms of difference from females. They begin to denigrate femininity in an attempt to establish their own separateness and individuation. (Cited in Bussey & Bandura)

Chodorow explains with this conceptualization why girls are more interpersonally inclined and why boys are more individually inclined – it’s a product of psycho-cultural gender socialization.

In this explanation there is also some contextualization for sexual harassment. In order for boys to become men, under the hegemonic view of manliness, they must reject and objectify all that is feminine. This same behavior is part of David & Brannon’s model, as well as Levant’s model. As mentioned above, objectification contributes to sexual harassment.

The Origins of Sexual Harassment

In Baker’s article for The Good Men Project, she makes the following claim about men harassing women: “it won’t end until both men and women start engaging with harassers.”

This may be true for the percentage of men who cat-call and wolf-whistle and are truly unaware that this form of attention is often unwanted by women. Yet, it’s also important to note here that many “men’s rights activists” (MRAs) would simply say that it’s not a big deal to be whistled at, so enjoy that men notice you. Some women agree with that position. But they’re wrong, based on the research, and Baker’s suggestion is only a partial solution. Despite objections from the MRA guys, the studies do show that women are negatively impacted by this kind of attention – and that alone is reason enough to stop it. However, simply confronting the perpetrators is not going to get anyone very far.

There needs to be a more integrative understanding of why men act this way and how they are shaped by the culture to act that way.

One of the first steps is to acknowledge that men also are being increasingly objectified by women in this culture. Even if men are not as psychologically impacted by this as are women, it contributes to an atmosphere where people are treated as less than unique human beings and are instead valued for their body-parts or their looks.

As evidence that men also are objectified, a brief Google search turned up the following articles:

Depressed, repressed, objectified: are men the new women? (The Guardian UK; August, 2003)

The Beefcaking of America: Everyone knows women who have body image issues. The secret: men have them too. (Psychology Today: Nov. 1994/Oct. 2009)

Shirtless Scene: The most common form of fanservice for women and gay men. (

The Women of The View Love to Objectify Men (Gawker; July, 2009) – The video is a little disturbing

Objectifying Men (Sociological Images; November, 2008)

From a fashion shoot for Elle Magazine (July 2008)

As women gain more power in the culture, they seem to be adopting more traditionally male behaviors (watch the video of the women from The View). Advertisers have been using naked women to sell products to men for ages, now they know it works with women as well.

Harassment, which grows out of objectifying bodies and sexuality, needs to be seen as the complicated result of social and cultural constructions that it is, and not as a “men are pigs” and “women are victims” issue – this helps no one.

Another step is to look at where boys learn these behaviors. It is not an exaggeration to say that as long as women are still the primary caregivers for our children, the solution starts with them. All of those restrictive, emotionally deadening behaviors that are demanded of boys (see the lists above) often start with caregivers – the mothers (this is not blaming because, quite often, mothers have no idea how their own unconscious beliefs shape their children).

How many times have you heard a mother say to her young boy – after he has fallen or been startled by a stranger – that “Big boys don’t cry”? I heard this from my own mother many times growing up, and from teachers, and coaches, and peers, and my father. Boys get these messages about how to be men from day one. In fact, studies have shown that mothers are more attentive and more interactive with female infants than with male infants (Eliot, 2009), even though male children require more attention to be soothed and comforted (Eliot, 2009; Weinberg, Tronick, & Cohn, 1999).

There are small differences between boys and girls at birth (Baron-Cohen, 2003; Eliot, 2009; Fine, 2010), but nearly everything parents traditionally have done in raising children serves to accentuate and amplify those differences. For example, boys tend to be fussier than girls as newborns (a generalization, of course, but poll 100 parents and ask their opinion). For caregivers, it’s easier to be positive in their responses to female infants, who tend to be happier, than to the fussier boys. The result is that girls get support and boys get more “shushing” – over time this sends negative messages to boys about expressing feelings. According to Eliot (2009), similar shaping (behavioral conditioning) occur throughout childhood.

From a social constructionist approach (which assumes that a large portion of our gender identity is socially constructed and not essential to our biological sex), who we become as adults is the result of our cultural context and our interpersonal attachment as infants and toddlers. All of the available evidence shows that if we raise our boys (and girls) differently, we can reduce or even minimize sexually harassing behaviors.

Be the Change

Once again, I support Baker’s suggestion that we need to engage with those who harass – both men and women. However, as I mentioned, this is only a partial solution. It may stop one person at a time – and that is where change often begins – but it will not prevent future harassers.

A third step in creating change is raising our children to have access to their own feelings, which is a crucial element of feeling empathy for others. Infants are inherently empathic – they cry in response to other infants crying. Female infants cry longer than male infants, and this slight difference become a slightly more substantial difference in adulthood (McClure, 2000). The difference is not in empathic ability, it’s a result of how boys are socialized not to feel their own feelings, making it much harder to empathize with others. McClure speculates that females are born with slightly more mature brains and that this difference becomes minimal in later childhood, only to widen in adulthood.

Heinz Kohut, the founder of Self Psychology, speculated that if the parents fail in their empathic response to the child, then the development of the child is arrested – it is in these circumstances that the child begins acting more aggressively to control its environment (cited in Rifkin, 2009). The work of Kohut, along with Fairbairn, Winnicott, Bowlby, and Ainsworth developed into attachment theory and eventually became the currently evolving field of interpersonal neurobiology.

Attachment theory looks at the ways a child bonds with its caregiver, creating either a secure attachment or one of three basic forms of insecure attachment. Securely attached children tend to grow up emotionally healthy and are much less likely to engage in aggressive behaviors. Insecurely attached children may become bullies (Eliot & Cornell, 2009), stalkers and partner abusers (Davis, Ace & Andra, 2000), or even victims of harassment (Bernstein & Watson, 1997).

If we want to raise kids who possess empathy and are securely attached, we need to change the way we raise our children. Some very recent research suggests that fathers need to become more involved – when they are actively involved and not absent, their children are less likely to suffer emotional troubles, become aggressive, experience addictions, or have run-ins with the law (Mossop, 2010).

Being present and being empathic is crucial, but it’s not the whole story.

The hardest part of changing how we raise our children is changing our own perspectives. Parents pass their own beliefs on to their children who then grow up and pass them on to their children. If we want to break the cycle, we need to examine our own biases and stereotypes about gender and identity, about compassion and acceptance. We need to teach our children to accept others, to honor differences, and that hurting anyone, even verbally, is never acceptable.

This may sound easy, but try it for a few days. Try to be exceptionally mindful of what you say, how you act, and what values you are communicating. Then remember that children – especially young children – are sponges, and they absorb everything we model to them.

It’s a tremendous responsibility. But raising a human being who is humane is a wonderful gift to the world. The change begins with us – ending sexual harassment of all kinds ends with me, and you, and our children.


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