"Using Power In A Way To Hurt Somebody:" The Rise Of Male-On-Male Sexual HarassmentS

Male-on-male sexual harassment claims are on the rise, and according to Newsweek, these crimes are usually about power, not about sex.

Newsweek's Krista Gesaman writes that the portion of sexual harassment claims filed by men rose from 8% to 16% between 1992 and 2008. As an example, Gesaman offers the case of Joseph Oncale, who was tormented by his co-workers at an oil platform. Gesaman writes, "what started as humiliating verbal attacks soon grew to physical violence, and on one occasion, Oncale was sodomized with a bar of soap." She also details the complaints of a group of men at a Phoenix Cheesecake Factory: they were the victims of "sexual fondling, simulated rape, and even being physically dragged into the restaurant's refrigerator." A spokesman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says, "While some people may think sexual harassment of male employees is a joke, the issue is real."

Newsweek's bizarre choice of stock photo — it looks like zombie harassment — isn't helping matters, but it should surprise no one that men can get harassed on the job as well as women. What is a little surprising is Gesaman's analysis of the causes of male-on-male harassment. She writes,

By exposing the men to taunts about their genitalia, sexually suggestive simulations, and lewd comments, the men perpetrating the harassment are seeking to embarrass and target the male victims-not sexually stimulate or "flirt" with them. "Sexual harassment is about using power in a way to hurt somebody," says Marcia McCormick, associate professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, who specializes in employment law and gender issues. In the Cheesecake Factory suit there were no allegations that supervisors were attracted to the other men-the sexual harassment was a form of intimidation, McCormick says.

At first glance, this seems a little heteronormative — it's possible that everyone involved is uncomfortable with the idea that men who identify as heterosexual might be attracted to other men, or that they might try to work out this attraction in a way that is violent and intimidating. On the other hand, McCormick is right that whether or not attraction is involved, sexual harassment is an abuse of power — and the goal may often be to frighten or belittle the victim, regardless of gender. Gesaman writes,

[T]he experience of men harassed by men may help to illustrate the realities of all such cases. When women are the victims, they may face assumptions that the abuse is the result of an affair gone wrong, hurt feelings, or mixed signals. In truth, sexual harassment of both genders has more to do with issues of control and abuses of power for the purpose of humiliation than with sexual attraction.

It's sad that we need men to come forward before we understand "the realities of all such cases" — as though women's experience is only valid when "illustrated" by men. And it's a little strange that Gesaman cites "an influx of women workers or a challenge to the traditional gender expectations" as a possible cause for more male-on-male harassment. But she also writes that it's "possible that same-sex harassment is not on the rise, but that male victims feel more empowered about reporting abuse" — and this empowerment, at least, is a good thing.

Abuse Of Power [Newsweek]