Why Men Sexually Harass Women

Men vastly outnumber women among sexual harassers. The reason has more to do with culture than with intrinsic maleness.

Airdone / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

I can’t imagine my teenage self—or any girl I knew—doing anything like what Christine Blasey Ford described teenage boys doing to her. Watching the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing last week, I was struck by the feeling that the Brett Kavanaugh she described and I both went to something called “high school,” but they were about as similar as a convent is to Space Camp.

Ford has alleged that when she and Kavanaugh were in high school, the Supreme Court nominee drunkenly pinned her down on a bed, tried to rip off her clothes, and covered her mouth so she wouldn’t scream. A confidential FBI investigation, according to Senate Republicans, did not corroborate her account. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, say the investigation was not thorough enough, and several people who say they have knowledge of the allegations against Kavanaugh have told The New Yorker that they felt the FBI was not interested in their accounts.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Ford was mistaken and that it was some other boy who assaulted her. Either way, it boggles my mind that any teenage boy would feel empowered to do such a thing.

In high school, I made a list of all the boys I liked. My bitchy friend (everyone has one) told some of the listed boys. I was mortified—not only because they did not return the sentiment (this went without saying) but also because I felt like I had inflicted my liking on the boys. They were just minding their business, trying to live, and here I was, burdening them with my liking. It felt like such a grievous imposition, making someone deal with affection he wasn’t prepared to receive.

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.

But other studies have complicated that narrative. For one, women seem just as keen to take certain kinds of risks, like disagreeing with their friends on an issue or attempting to sell a screenplay. It’s just that when surveys measure risk taking in terms of things like unprotected sex and motorcycles, women tend to demur, since those types of activities are either more dangerous for women (the unprotected sex) or less familiar to them (riding motorcycles).

In fact, when researchers measured risk using more stereotypically feminine risky behavior, such as “cooking an impressive but difficult meal for a dinner party,” women turned out to be just as, if not more, likely to take risks as men. “Maybe there isn’t anything so special about male risk taking, after all,” wrote the University of Melbourne professor Cordelia Fine in Nautilus.

Several prominent psychologists believe there are actually few psychological differences between men and women. Men, it would seem, are from Mars, and women are also from Mars but are nonetheless baffled by why our fellow Martians would opt to do things the way they do. The major differences between the genders are that men are more aggressive, can physically throw things farther, masturbate more, and are more comfortable with casual, uncommitted relationships. These very differences can help explain the disparity in sexual harassment.

“The bottom line is that men and women have quite similar psychology other than sexuality and aggression,” says Janet Shibley Hyde, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin who has done several studies on this topic.

There’s also evidence that men and boys are less empathetic than women are. Men make up the vast majority of prison inmates, commit 99 percent of rapes and 89 percent of murders, and cause more severe car crashes. Just 16 percent of sexual-harassment complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were filed by men.

Boys are raised to think that men should be the initiators of sexual relationships, and, as Hyde explains, boys are also socialized to be more aggressive. The two processes can be toxic when combined. “Gender differences in empathy are not huge, but they’re there,” Hyde says. “If you’re going to victimize someone, it takes a certain lack of empathy.” (Though some studies point to men’s higher level of testosterone as the explanation for their higher levels of aggression, she says, “Humans are much less controlled by their hormones than other species are.”)

The explanation, then, might lie in social norms, or in what society is telling boys as they grow into men. Men are told they’re supposed to behave more aggressively, so they do. According to research, powerful people follow different societal rules than those who are powerless, and there are more men in power than there are women. Among men in powerful positions, but not among women, a fear of being seen as weak is related to an inclination to sexually harass others. People in power are more likely to wrongly perceive that subordinates are sexually interested in them.

“Power is enabling, and it is known to reduce empathy,” Peter Glick, a psychology professor at Lawrence University, told me. “It allows people to act on their impulses.” Glick says this is why it’s so often confident women who are harassed, or those who try to assert themselves, or who behave in a masculine way, or who otherwise challenge men’s power. They are being put back in their place.

People in power enjoy “looser” rules, according to work by the University of Maryland psychologist Michele Gelfand, the author of the new book Rule Makers, Rule Breakers. “Loose” environments are those in which norms are less strict and norm violations go unpunished; “tight” environments are the opposite. “People in high-power positions tend to live in looser worlds where they sometimes not only violate social norms but also border on completely inappropriate behavior,” she told me. In her book, Gelfand points to Uber as an example of a company where extreme looseness went wrong. “Several former employees described the exceedingly loose work environment as a ‘frat house,’ rife with unprofessional and even abusive behavior,” she writes.

In a 2010 study, Gelfand and Hannah Riley Bowles hinted at why sexual harassers often get away with the behavior for so long. They found that people who thought of themselves as “high status” were more likely to want to punish their subordinates when they broke the rules, but not other high-status people. White men, but not white women, were more lenient toward other men when they broke the rules. The social hierarchy is reinforced, they write, because high-status people are granted more leniency.

Glick also underscored how a permissive, boys’-club environment can turn a would-be harasser into an actual harasser. “There are these bad apples, but there are also environments that really permit it,” he says. “If the allegations are to be believed about the guys that Kavanaugh hung out with, it’s a lot of bragging about their sexual conquests.” This is a major reason that fraternities, with their culture of heavy drinking, male-on-male competition, and hazing rituals, are so often associated with higher rates of sexual assault than the rest of the university.

When women are seen as mere tokens of status to be collected, natural male aggressiveness can descend to a dark place. Subtle messages within social circles can imply that women are, sometimes quite literally, up for grabs. Men who want to sexually harass someone, says John Pryor, a professor of psychology at Illinois State University, “are unlikely to do it if they’re in social settings where there’s normative pressure not to do it.”

Perhaps the problem, then, is not in “masculine psychology,” but in environments that allow the least scrupulous men to act on their most hideous impulses. The norms I grew up with were not great for women. Those of Georgetown Prep, where Kavanaugh went to high school, may have been even worse.