Masculinity is a pathology

Dec 6, 2017 at 10:31 am

Matt Lauer, the former “Today” show host accused of sexual harassment, offered an apology recently: “There are no words to express the sorrow and regret for the pain I have caused others by words and actions.”

Thanks, but no thanks, Matt. Your apology means nothing.

“Masculinity,” in its current form, is a pathology, and it is up to men to treat it and fix it. When women report sexual harassment, largely nothing happens or women are penalized for the behaviors of men. We got only quiet in return.

We not only got quiet, we felt like it was truly our fault.

That women are still feeling shame for the abuse they’ve suffered is caused by this pathological masculinity — that men feel they have a permission slip for abuse.

I am vexed because I want women to know we do not need to own this pathology. I understand it. I’ve felt it; but how do we change it? Certainly, we cannot stop, nor can we fight off, an attack; but in the face of workplace sexual harassment, how can women feel empowered to speak up, and if not that, how do we not internalize the shame of the man’s behavior?

There are several answers.

Men need to be better.

Women need to be in positions of power, and women need to own their sexuality, feel empowered and not be ashamed.

I spoke with Karen Christopher, a UofL associate professor of sociology whose research focuses on gender and workplace issues. The first points of discussion were to better understand why men sexually harass women in the workplace.

“Probably the most important thing from a social science perspective about sexual harassment is that it’s about power— the typical case is men using sexuality and inappropriate sexual behavior to reaffirm their power over women,” said Christopher. “It is true that women are more empowered. It’s funny, we think that sexual harassment would become less common, but the data doesn’t show that. Sexual harassment is still pervasive. I think that’s often a reflection of men, especially white men, controlling our major institutions.”

That is how I see it. It isn’t only white men who harass women but, when paired with power, this is the typical pattern. In each recent case the men have unnecessary amounts of power over female coworkers. In Lauer’s case, he was allowed to build in his office a sex trap for women where he could lock them in.

Who approved this?

Fire them, too.

We know that replacing male control is a start, but how else can we create safe spaces for women at work?

Christopher suggested we look at the strategies used to prevent bullying. Often when kids are being bullied, it is the other kids who do not stand up to the bully, allowing the behavior to continue. We are nowadays doing a better job of talking to our children about bullying, so how do we extend that model to men in the workplace?

Christopher said one way could be to empower men to stand up as bystanders. “When they know it’s happened, having men stand up and say that’s not OK. That’s a big cultural shift.”

I agree —we need to see sexual harassment as an aggression like any other.

“When somebody is mugged or robbed, we don’t say, ‘Did that really happen?’ We believe them,” said Christopher. “Obviously, there should be investigation, and the way you’d treat any other crime, you’d treat harassment or sexual abuse. Believing women, having policies and accountability.”

“We do know that men who are less traditionally masculine, especially if they are gay, they experience more harassment. It’s not just about gender,” she said.

One question that I grapple with is: How can we as women react in the moment that preserves us? There is an old, but pervasive idea that women should be pure, and that women who are sexual or have been sexual are spoiled. That antiquated line of thinking influences, consciously or subconsciously, how women react to sexual harassment. When we are attacked, we feel that we either deserved it, or are ruined by it. How do we stop looking at these situations through the purity lens and recognize the violence as violence, without internalizing it?

Christopher noted that more women are feeling comfortable in their sexuality, but: “At the same time, we still see these gender inequalities.”

“The hookup culture research is fascinating. For example, there is a pleasure gap such that especially in early hookups that men are much more likely to orgasm than women are. Once young people get in long-term relationships, that gap almost disappears. There is still this belief that men’s pleasure is more important.”

“There is sort of more room for young women to be sex positive, but of course we still see inequality associated with that. There is still a sexual double standard.”

I want this double standard erased. I don’t have a perfect answer, but I do want to ask that we begin conversations about the way we think and speak about sex. Our ideas of sexuality and our own empowerment need to be completely severed from patriarchal ideas of female sexuality and female purity.

Many women who are harassed do not report, or under-report, because they feel this shame.

“There is research that says women who are sexually harassed at work are more likely to quit,” says Christopher. “They are significantly more likely to quit. That’s not an easy decision given that we all need jobs.”  These women are also more likely to suffer from depression.

The wave of women speaking out is a step in the right direction to eliminate our ties to shame about our harassment.

“We know this about sexual harassment, sexual abuse, rape — that really these behaviors are about power more than sex per se,” said Christopher. “When we use that lens, thinking about women coming forward is a way for them to reclaim power, including power of their own bodies and their own sexuality.”

One young female writer from the libertarian-leaning Federalist claims “what women really want is the patriarchy,” and without it we are lonely and sad.

I’m not sure who this young writer is speaking about, but it is clear that, evidenced by women’s reaction to harassment, what we really want is to be left alone to do our jobs and to exist without men trying to make themselves feel more powerful at our expense.

We need men who are not harassers to speak up to ones who are.

We need to elect female leaders, and put them at the top of companies and, while we’re at it, we should address policies that protect against sexual harassment.

More than anything we have to reshape our ideas about shame, violence and harassment so that, as women, we are less likely to internalize the behaviors of men who can’t keep their pants up, mouths shut or hands to themselves. •Masculinity is a pathology