When there's talk about sexual harassment, people usually think of female victims and male perpetrators. It’s a common assumption, especially since women are three times as likely to report experiencing sexual harassment at work, according to a 2014 Angus Reid poll.
About 43 per cent of Canadian women reported they have been sexually harassed at work, compared with 12 per cent of men, found the poll of 1,504 people.
But sexual harassment of men has long been a neglected area of research, according to Susan Strauss, a workplace harassment expert and investigator in Minneapolis, Minn.
“We don’t know as much about the sexual harassment of men as we do about the sexual harassment of women,” she said.
“There’s probably more men who are sexually harassed than men who come forward.”
Further complicating the issue is the fact there are many harassment or bullying behaviours, particularly hazing-type behaviours against men, that would not have been considered harassment a few decades ago.
But reports of sexual harassment against men have doubled over the past 15 years, according to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
And that number may rise as employees develop a greater understanding of what actually constitutes sexual harassment and forward complaints.
We generally imagine sexual harassment to involve unwanted comments, contact or attention of a sexual nature — and when men are the victims of such conduct, it’s often considered more of a punchline than a problem.
The workplace is notorious for not taking it seriously if a man complains of this type of harassment, said Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of Matuson Consulting in Brookline, Mass.
“Other men in particular look at it and think, ‘Well, you’ve got a compliment. Someone’s making advances at you,’” she said. “A lot of that’s probably due to the media.”
But the realization that men can be victims just as much as women is starting to gain more traction, said Strauss.
“I can remember when I first started to get into this business — you didn’t even think about men as targets of harassment. And now, of course, we’re finding out that they are. Still not to the same degree as women, and the kinds of harassment that they are subjected to differs, usually, from that that women are subjected to,” she said.
Our understanding of what harassment can mean has broadened, and it’s now understood sexual harassment is not always sexual — it can also be about gender, said Strauss.
“And, very often, the sexual harassment of men is done by other men. Not that women do not sexually harass them — they do. But we see men sexually harassing men with more regularity. And, very often, it deals with gender stereotypes — that they’re not masculine enough.”
Quite often, the sexual harassment of men is actually about “policing” gender norms, said Strauss.
“Some of it is overtly sexual, but some of it is not as sexual so much as gender-based,” she said. “That’s not to say that men are not sexually harassed in the traditional sense either, because they are. But, oftentimes, men are sexually harassed by straight men. It’s not gay men sexually harassing other men, it’s straight men harassing other straight men.”
In fact, according to research on the subject, male-target sexual harassment is often not about sexual attraction at all, said Margaret Stockdale, chair of psychology at Indiana University and study author of The Sexual Harassment of Men: Articulating the Approach-Rejection Distinction in Sexual Harassment Motives.
“Who is the kind of person who sexually harasses a man? For a long time, the belief was these are homosexual men who are sexually harassing other men for sexual purposes.
“And we’ve tried to debunk that myth. Myself and other researchers in this field (have found) the type of harassment that men
experience from other men tends not to be romantic, with a physical motive or sexual attraction — it’s more of a dominance kind of behaviour as a form of bullying or what we might call gender policing,” she said.
And it wasn’t recognized as bullying or harassing behaviour until recently, said Stockdale — in the late 1990s, researchers started looking more seriously at male sexual harassment.
In large part, men are beginning to feel more comfortable speaking out about their experiences with harassment, said Strauss.
“Men are feeling more of a freedom to speak out about it, particularly as we look at the expansion of what it means to be masculine and feminine, and the influx of more acceptance of LGBT people,” she said.
“They’re feeling more freedom to come forward and complain.”
But some organizations are more receptive to these kinds of complaints than others, said Strauss.
“When I go to organizations that are predominantly male, I tell them that they are at an increased risk for both bullying and harassment, particularly sexual harassment,” she said.
“Both genders are at an increased risk for being targeted because of the male infrastructure. The male infrastructure, it’s got more of that machismo.
“They’re afraid they will be labeled a ‘pansy,’ et cetera, if they come forward and complain.”
So what should employers do differently? First and foremost, any claim of harassment, whether the victim is male or female, has to be taken seriously, said Chinsky Matuson.
“And, in most situations, the managers don’t have the skills to do that. They need to take it to their manager or to HR,” she said.
Training and education are also of critical importance.
“It’s a good practice to have… people understand where those lines are. I’ve done a lot of investigations around sexual harassment and nine out of 10 times, the person who’s being accused of harassment will say, ‘I didn’t know that what I was doing was harassment.’ And the majority of times, almost every single time, I honestly believe them,” said Chinsky Matuson.
“They really didn’t know. That doesn’t make it right… but had that person been coached or had access to training, might that have been prevented? Probably.”
Many organizations are still not providing the kind of training they need to be providing employees, said Strauss.
“That said, training is not the be-all end-all. Training just begins the discussion. So they need to have comprehensive policies, for example, that identify sexual harassment and that it can be gender-based and not just sexual. So that needs to be included in their definition in their policy. Then, they need to have a subject-matter expert do their training — and it needs to be more than just an hour.”
The training needs to be longer than a 20- or 30-minute online program, she said.
“They also need to make sure that they’re including the more subtle and nuanced forms of sexual harassment.”
Anyone can be a victim, perpetrator
And the bottom line for employers? Anyone can be a perpetrator and anyone can be a victim, said Stockdale.
“(Employers should) not discriminate against men as victims. If a man comes forward with a complaint of sexual harassment, whether it’s by a man or a woman, it needs to be investigated and taken as seriously as when a woman complains. Men can be harmed by sexual harassment just as women can be, and one of the issues of sexual harassment is it doesn’t just affect the individual who is the target of the harassment, it tends to affect everybody else in that work environment as well,” she said.
“Management may have to take a strong stand and show with their words and with their actions that sexual harassment is not tolerated regardless of who the target is, and regardless of who the perpetrator is.”
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