I wasn’t a particularly shy kid or an introvert. I was just taught—or maybe had absorbed—that boys will let you know if they want to date you, and your job was to sit patiently and wait to be let known. Bucking this norm occurred only on one day of the year, for our version of the Sadie Hawkins dance, which was special and exciting for the simple fact that it was the day when girls were allowed to tell boys what they wanted.
Admittedly, some of this was almost certainly regional: I grew up in the deep suburban South, where many of the cool kids at my school were saving themselves for marriage. None of my close friends drank, and I had my first sip of alcohol at dinner with my parents the night I graduated.
I hated our gendered dating rules and found them endlessly inefficient. But still, leaking a list of my boy preferences felt like asking for a raise on your first day at a new job—too forward, too eager, too much like something guaranteed to bring about the opposite result of the one you were hoping for.
The past year has opened my eyes to the fact that, apparently, many men do not have similar compunctions. I experience this same befuddlement every time I read about yet another #MeToo allegation. It would never occur to me to install a button under my desk to entrap my victims. It would never occur to me to try to masturbate in front of people I barely know. I would find it unthinkable to ask a stranger to watch me shower.
I can’t help but feel like the difference between teen me and how teen Kavanaugh allegedly behaved, and indeed between me and the other accused #MeToo perpetrators, comes down to how our different genders are conditioned to approach anything of a sexual nature.
Though there have been several cases in the #MeToo movement in which a woman was the perpetrator of harassment, the overwhelming majority of the offenders have been men. What is it about men, I’ve found myself wondering, that explains this extreme gender disparity? And is it even about the men themselves?
Some have ascribed it to knee-jerk assumptions about men’s essential nature: nasty, brutish, and short on impulse control. Boys will be boys, and the best we can do is contain their boyish urges. But where do we get the idea that it’s just what men are like?
One theory I had, especially when it comes to the lower-level sexual-harassment offenses, was that women are simply more risk-averse. They don’t dare put their hands on the knees of co-workers at bars because they know that they might be rejected, or that the co-worker might not like it, or that it’s just not a good thing to do with someone who’s going to be sitting next to you at the Thursday event-planning meeting. Women, I thought, must just like to err on the side of caution.
Meta-analyses have indeed shown that men are more likely to take various types of risks than women are. Some studies also show that men are more into thrill seeking, if exposing yourself to a woman without her permission could be considered a sick kind of thrill. (One older paper even characterized risk taking as an inherent part of “masculine psychology.”) Stress, like the kind people experience at work, might exacerbate these differences, since men take more risks under stress and women take fewer.