Men are the main offenders when it comes to sexual harassment and assault, but the issue is not male vs. female – it’s powerful vs. powerless.
As more and more women come forward and accuse powerful (and not-so-powerful) men of sexual harassment and assault, a powerful narrative has taken shape – predatory men, preying on women. This narrative is also overwhelmingly true. After all, the US is strongly patriarchal, with men controlling most positions and levers of power. In this situation, men wield sexual harassment and assault as weapons to keep women “in their place.”
But overwhelmingly true does not mean universally true. Any time there is a real or perceived power differential between individuals, regardless of their genders, there is the potential for all manner of abuses of power to take place, including sexual harassment and assault. There are cases of sexual harassment by a woman against another woman, by a man against another man, and even by a woman against a man. These cases are far less common than the abuse of women by men, but they do happen occasionally.
I know this for a fact, because I was once the target of sexual harassment.
It happened a year or so after I earned my Master’s degree, at my first job out of grad school. I was sitting at a lab bench one day, trying to figure out why my circuit wasn’t working correctly, when I felt someone run their fingers through my ponytail.
In this world there are three people I don’t mind running their fingers through my hair – my wife, my daughter, and my son. Only my wife always has permission to do so without asking first. That day at work my children were not yet born and my wife hadn’t snuck into work to surprise me.
The woman who thought it was OK to caress my hair was the CEO’s wife, co-founder of the company, board member, and the vice-president of human resources. And I was just a lowly engineer, fresh out of school.
I still remember stiffening at someone playing with my hair, and the sensation of the skin on my neck and shoulders crawling as if someone had slipped a dozen spiders into my polo shirt when I realized what was going on. I remember the VP saying something to the person she was with that the she “just couldn’t resist” guys with long hair, and I vaguely recall her saying she just had to touch it.
That was nearly 20 years ago, and it remains one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve ever had.
At the end of the day I went home, told my wife about what had happened, and decided to let it go this one time. I decided that I’d file a complaint if it happened again, although I also figured a complaint would go exactly nowhere given she was the VP of HR. Thankfully, it didn’t happen again.
Even though I’m the only man I know who has been sexually harassed (although that may be a function of how it’s not “manly” to admit such things to other men), I think it would be inappropriate for me to claim “me too.” I’ve been sexually harassed exactly once, and that one experience is nothing compared to what women put up with every single day. For example, when my wife and I were dating, we joined a few friends at a dance club. While we were there, some random guy grabbed her ass. I was livid when she told me about what happened later that night, but when I mentioned this incident to her in 2016 – about 20 years after it happened – she didn’t even remember the incident. Even after I described what she had told me at the time, she still didn’t remember it and said (paraphrased since I don’t remember her exact words) “I’m sure you’re right, but it’s so far down the list of harassments and assaults that it doesn’t even register on the scale.”
There isn’t any comparison between my one experience with sexual harassment and the hell of sexual harassment and assault that women live through every single day.
Today, sexual harassment, assault, abuse, and rape are almost exclusively performed by men on women, but it’s not about sex or gender – it’s about power. And in our culture today, men nearly always have the power. As women rightly claim more power for themselves, and as men are forced to adapt accordingly, there will naturally be more cases like mine. There will always be powerful people who are willing to use sex as a way to assert their power over those who are powerless.
Thank you to my wife who gave me permission to share the example above.