Jen Lavery looks at sexual harassment and asks if women’s experience can ever translate when the roles are reversed?
A friend was recently repeatedly sexually harassed at a wedding. Despite making it clear that the approaches were not welcome, they were subjected to increasingly aggravated calls to expose themselves, even hearing that old, classic line – “why did you dress that way if you didn’t want attention?”
At this point, I should probably let you in on a significant detail: the friend is male and the harasser female. Apparently, being the only man in a kilt translated, to her at least, as an open invitation to aggressively demand to see his penis.
My friend was genuinely shaken. He’d always known it must be terrible for women to get harassed, but said he’d never realised quite how terrible until that moment. But, as horrible an experience as it was for him, he doesn’t know how shit it is for women to be harassed. The reason is obvious, but it’s something people don’t seem to factor in when citing women who act in a sexually aggressive fashion as proof that harassment of women isn’t a real issue, or should be taken as a compliment.
Let’s get down to brass tacks. When a woman approaches a man in a sexually aggressive manner, in the vast majority of cases, they both know she is unlikely to be physically capable of inflicting harm upon him. Even if, under normal circumstances, he may not do anything to physically injure a woman, or indeed anyone, if she attacked him, he could probably stop her. This is not to say that violence against men by women isn’t a real issue – it is. But it is not the same as violence against women by men, although the stigma faced by men beaten by women stems from the same toxic masculinity. Put it this way: you very rarely hear of a man being beaten to death by a woman, especially a woman using her bare hands. When it comes to the crunch, everyone’s survival instincts kick in – some of us are just better physically equipped to stop what’s happening.
When a man approaches a woman in a sexually aggressive manner, in the vast majority of cases, both he and she know he is likely to be physically capable of inflicting violence upon her. It’s also likely that if he chose to do so she would be unable to prevent him. Let’s be clear – this is not to suggest every man who has ever made an unwanted approach to a lone woman was intending to follow it up with violence. The point is, he could. And both parties know he could. But only he knows if that’s his intention.
As nasty an experience as my male friend had at that wedding, he did not feel at any point he was at risk of physical violence. He was concerned she might attempt to lift his kilt and forcibly expose him. This is clearly not okay: no one should ever have to worry that the actions of another human being will force them to be naked in public. But it isn’t likely to be something he is often going to have to worry about. How many women have experienced someone lifting their skirt in public without their consent? This humiliation and objectification often begins at school and is written off as “boys being boys”.
My friend’s main reason for not telling the woman harassing him to just “fuck off” was that he didn’t want to cause a scene or be accused of over-reacting.
Fundamentally, it was about avoiding embarrassment. When a woman tempers her reaction to a man acting in an aggressive sexual manner towards her, the fundamental reason usually isn’t that she doesn’t want to cause a scene. It’s that she doesn’t want to be hit, assaulted or something even worse. As Margaret Atwood once said: “Men worry that women will laugh at them. Women worry that men will kill them.”
It’s also worth noting this was the first time my friend had ever experienced anything like this. He’s 42. The first time most women experience unwanted and aggressive sexual attention is at school, often when still in their uniform. It’s probably happened more times that we can count since then. And it’s probably happened recently.
Sexual harassment is not acceptable – no matter who does it. The clue is in the word ‘harassment’. But the effect on the genders is, like so many things, unequal.
Journalist. PR. Presenter. Film and TV Geek. Feminist. Roller derby enthusiast. Scot.