men, masculinities and gender politics

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Sexual harassment will be eliminated only when men take part in ending it

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(A shortened version of this piece was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, News Review, on November 6th 2010.)

Sexual harassment will only disappear when men take an active role in ending it. Most men don’t harass, and most don’t condone it. But sexual harassment is largely a problem of men’s behaviour, against women and other men. Four of every five harassers are male, according to a recent national survey. Two thirds of incidents involve a male harasser and female target, and another fifth involve male harassers and male targets.

Most men think sexual harassment is unacceptable. But too often we turn a blind eye, stay silent, or laugh along, if only to cover our own embarassment. And too many senior male leaders have offered token platitudes rather than real action.

I support the White Ribbon Campaign, which focuses on the positive roles men can play in preventing men’s violence against women. The campaign recognises that this violence – whether harassment, domestic violence, or rape – is a ‘men’s issue’. It harms the women and girls we love, gives all men a bad name, and is perpetrated by men we know. A minority of men treat women with contempt, and it is up to the majority of men to help create a culture in which this is unthinkable.

Men’s sexual harassment of women often reflects sexist social norms and gender inequalities in power. It is part of a continuum of abusive and coercive behaviours, including sexual violence.

Ending sexual harassment will mean shifting entrenched cultures of sexism and chauvinistic bonding in which women endure a daily ‘dripping tap’ of unwelcome sexual behaviour. It will mean tackling the homophobic abuse, bullying, and violent initiations involved in men’s harassment of other men.

Men of goodwill can play a key role. Treat women with respect. Challenge peers who practise or condone harassment. Speak up when mates are making jokes or comments supportive of harassment and abuse. And support victims, female or male.

Leadership from men at the top is critical. Senior male leaders must become committed advocates for reforms to build respectful workplace cultures.

We’ll also need education campaigns to undermine the dodgy gender norms which feed sexual harassment of women: women are sexual objects and men are women’s superiors. Men are less likely than women to perceive incidents as harassment and more tolerant of harassing behaviour, particularly if they have traditional attitudes to gender.

Women have led the way in challenging sexual harassment. It’s time for men to step up and join them.

Dr Michael Flood is a researcher at the University of Wollongong and an Ambassador for the White Ribbon Campaign.