The Impact of Gender Norms on Male Victimization

By: Christa St. George
The issue of sexual harassment is predominantly considered a gender-specific issue. Given that women constitute more than half of sexual harassment victims, many regard sexual harassment as a form of discrimination against women, rather than an issue faced by both men and women.
While it is important to recognize the overwhelming proportion of female harassment victims, sexual harassment is not a gender-specific problem. Men are victims as well. Evidence suggests that myths and cultural stereotypes have created a stigma against male victims, leaving them less likely to come forward with allegations. Without the stigma, experts say, the number of male victims reporting inappropriate behavior would likely increase.
In 2013, 17.6 percent of the sexual harassment charges filed to the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) were made by men. In the workplace, 1 in 10 complaints are made by men. On college campuses, 1 in 25 college-aged men report to have been forced to submit to sexual intercourse. Other studies conducted by organizations such as 1in6 suggest an even higher prevalence: 1 in 6 men before the age of 18.
In an effort to further understand the issue of male sexual harassment, let us unpack these statistics. These numbers reveal two important things: (1) male sexual harassment exists; (2) Men are less likely to come forward with sexual harassment allegations.
If men are being harassed in greater volumes than we currently expect, why do the incidents go unreported? One answer to this question is that cultural norms and assumptions about gender and masculinity cultivate an environment of hostility toward male sexual victims.
Masculinity is a socially constructed concept bred by a combination of biological factors and socially-defined labels. Throughout history, these labels have assigned roles and titles to boys, who internalize them and use them to construct their future identities. Look, for example, at the use of guns, soldiers, cars, and superheroes as boyhood toys. What do these toys teach young boys? They teach them the value of power, control, dominance, aggression, and protecting others. Men are therefore traditionally raised to be considered strong, capable, and aggressive. To exhibit strength is to demonstrate an unwillingness to complain or fall prey to others.
If falling prey to victimization is considered “weak,” it is no surprise that male victims fear coming forward about their sexual victimization. Notions of “American masculinity” further the misconception that it makes “more sense” for men to be perpetrators of sexual violence because they are “more inclined” toward dominant behaviors. Fear of being humiliated and/or disregarded therefore prevents men–particularly young men–from feeling comfortable telling others about their experiences
Gender norms and constructs of masculinity have bread a culture of misconceptions regarding male sexual abuse and harassment. While this is likely to be an ongoing battle in the years to come, evidence shows that there is hope regarding the changing mentality of male sexual victimization. Look, for example, at the increase of men filing harassment complaints following the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1998 case Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. This case extended Title VII’s protection against workplace discrimination by establishing the precedent that discrimination “because of sex” applies to workplace harassment involving members of the same sex. The case also established that “sexual desire” is not required to prove sexual harassment claims. EEOC statistics demonstrate that a greater number of men came forward with allegations following this Supreme Court decision.
While this case demonstrates the capacity of court rulings to encourage and empower victims to come forward, many argue for the necessity of establishing a new cultural perception of gender as well. In other words, lawmakers are not the only people capable of changing social stigmas. In order to give voice to victims and prevent false notions of masculinity from manifesting on campuses, in workplaces, and within families, we must all engage in the discussion. We must approach the issue through the eyes of the victims instead of the preconceptions that potentially limit their credibility.

To read more about male victims of sexual assault and harassment, check out Andrew’s story. While Andrew was brave enough to come forward with his victimization, remember that there are many others suffering from harassment in silence. While silence does not make them weak, it hinders the construction of a space in which victims—men and women alike—feel safe coming forward.

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