How to Move Beyond Shock at Sexual Harassment: Identify the Root Cause
The past three months have been a whirlwind of reckoning in nearly every sphere and industry, from Hollywood to Washington, D.C., and every place in between. Sexual harassment and assault—topics that were once hidden secrets tucked away in office cubicles and hotel rooms, only to be shared in whispers among other women—have now come to the forefront of the cultural conversation.
This movement of unapologetically saying #MeToo has primarily been catalyzed and sustained by the growing list of men accused of some form of sexual misconduct. Every day, a new name is added to the list: Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Al Franken, Matt Lauer. Whenever news breaks of sexual harassment allegations against another man, one of the most visceral reactions is one of shock. It’s a sense of surprise that a man, especially a man generally considered “nice” or “progressive” or “good,” could treat women so horribly.
But we shouldn’t be surprised anymore. We should see it coming.
While the media’s focus has mainly been on famous men in entertainment and politics, the reality is that forms of harassment and sexual violence occur with alarming frequency. For many women, sexual harassment is ingrained in their life experiences. The commonality of sexual harassment is not because all men are bad, but because of the culture in which we raise boys to become men.
The problem is not simply one of individual character or values, but one deeply rooted in our culture. The behavior of men like Weinstein, Franken, Lauer and others not yet named is primarily a product of being raised in a patriarchal society that prioritizes the needs and desires of men over the agency of women.
It’s not that men who harass or abuse women do so because they are particularly meaner or more misogynist than your average person—it’s that we teach them it’s okay to do so. Starting at a young age, boys are taught the value of aggression as the gateway to masculinity. They are taught that being a man means being confident. As these young boys begin navigating the world, they begin to internalize certain misogynist biases, such as seeing women as weaker, less intelligent, less than. Although these thoughts may not always manifest themselves into actions, the seed has already been planted. As boys turn into teenagers and then into men, those gendered biases have an opportunity to influence how they interact with women. The masculinity becomes more toxic, the misogyny more acute.
These deeply rooted beliefs can manifest themselves through sexual assault on college campuses, the demeaning of women in professional spaces, workplace harassment, and in extreme circumstances even rape. Because our society is often more inclined to believe and value men over women, the mistreatment of women is often reduced to hushed, hidden whispers.
This is not to say all men will harass women at some point in their lives. There are men who are more cognizant of their gendered prejudices and are actively working to deconstruct these harmful biases. But even if a man lives without being accused of sexual misconduct like countless others, the reality is that he is still, at any point, capable of demeaning and harming women. It is our culture that provides them the tools and the freedom to behave this way, after all. Even the men we deem progressive, the ones who support women’s reproductive rights and the fight for equal pay, are capable of harassing and abusing women. Because before they became progressive, they were still men.
This is not meant to be a judgment of morality or ethics, as it is clear that one who mistreats women is not so much a monster or an anomaly, but a clear reflection of a culture that rewards masculinity with power. And, sadly enough, removing alleged sexual harassers from positions of power will not do enough to address this issue. Short-term remedies cannot solve long-term problems.
To combat a culture of misogyny, we must focus on teaching young boys not about power or aggression, but about love and mutual respect. We need to tell boys that it's okay to be emotional, and we should stop putting toxic masculinity up on a pedestal. And we need to teach boys, from a young age, about consent. There are too many young men who misunderstand sex and consent today, a problem addressed by simply talking to young people seriously about intimate relationships. It might seem counterintuitive, but to solve this problem, children need more exposure to discussions of sex, not less.
If we truly want to address the widespread mistreatment and harassment of women, we need a drastic culture shift that tackles our valuing of masculinity and systemic patriarchy. The focus now cannot simply be on adult men in power—we need to turn our attention to our boys. We need to raise them differently. We need to raise them better. Because if we don’t, the list of names will only grow longer.