Your Cleavage Is Guilty of 'Biological Sexual Harassment,' and Other Dumb Ideas

One of the seemingly endless variations on the "men today are in crisis and it's mostly women's fault" trope is the idea that most straight guys are completely incapable of figuring out what the other sex actually wants. Pop psychologists assure us that men are evolutionarily hardwired towards promiscuity, simplicity, and the inability to pick up on subtle clues. As a result, the theory holds, men are both easily manipulated and vulnerable to chronic misinterpretation of women's dress and behavior. So vulnerable, in fact, that some advocates for men are calling for a change in sexual harassment law: a change that would force women either to cover up — or put out. This, obviously, is bullshit, but the rationale behind it is even more ridiculous.

The latest iteration of this argument has the Antipodes a-buzzing. Bettina Arndt argued in the Sydney Morning Herald that "everywhere you look, women are stepping out dressed provocatively, but bristling if the wrong man shows he enjoys the display." (Remember, it's summer down under.) Arndt writes:

[Men] are in a total state of confusion… Sensitive males are wary, not knowing where to look. Afraid of causing offense. And there are angry men, the beta males who lack the looks, the trappings of success to tick these women's boxes. They know the goodies on display are not for them. These are the men most likely to behave badly, blatantly leering, grabbing and sneering. For them, the whole thing is a tease. They know it and resent it.

There's nothing new about arguing that scantily-clad women drive helpless men to distraction — or worse. SlutWalkers and Talmudic scholars (among others) have made the case over and over that nothing a woman wears (or doesn't wear) can cause a man to rape her, but their voices are often drowned out by those who ridiculously insist on outsourcing all male sexual self-control to women.

In Arndt's case, she goes beyond merely holding women responsible for their own rapes. Her op-ed implies that women who don't cover up are committing an act of cruelty against most men, most of the time. Arndt claims that a conventionally attractive woman who shows off her cleavage "is advertising her wares to the world, not just her target audience, and somehow men are expected to know when they are not on her page… But as we all know, many men are lousy at that stuff — the language totally escapes them."

Arndt's appeal to the universal "knowledge" of men's cluelessness is as casual as it is clumsy. She's right in the sense that our culture raises men to inadvertently confuse a woman's bare skin (or a smile, or direct eye contact) with a sexual come-on. But most men are not biologically incapable of either empathy or intuition. They can learn to distinguish sexual interest from politeness, a fashion choice from an attempt at seduction. Rejection from women (and "correction" from other men) is often how they learn.

Arndt doesn't believe men are capable of learning these non-verbal skills. More importantly, like many in the men's rights movement to which she's sympathetic, she doesn't think they should have to. She approvingly cites Rob Tiller, an Australian psychotherapist and men's advocate who refers to women who wear revealing clothing as committing "biological sexual harassment." This idea that women who go around "flaunting their bodies" are harassing men has become a pet issue for many in the North American men's rights movement. One site claims: "In many offices across America, women dress provocatively, showing inappropriate thigh and cleavage. This, in itself, is sexual harassment against men — but women get away with it, and men rarely complain."

Sexual harassment, of course, takes many forms. Tiller and his fellow men's rights activists (MRAs) refer seem to think that scantily-clad women are guilty of creating a "hostile environment." The term is the same in both Australian and American sexual harassment law, and refers to a workplace or school culture that tolerates unwanted sexual behavior. The law rejects the idea that a low-cut blouse or a short skirt might constitute a hostile environment, but that hasn't stopped the MRAs — or their allies like Arndt — from arguing that perhaps the law should be changed to recognize the damage that sexually tantalizing dress does to men.

The traditional arguments for women's modesty have been that concealing dress was necessary to protect men from lustful thoughts and to protect women from being raped. But Arndt and the MRAs have a different rationale. They're not offended by skimpy clothing on religious grounds, nor do they all buy into the myth of male weakness that says that bare female skin invariably causes otherwise nice guys to commit sexual assault. Rather, they seem to be arguing that by tempting all straight men while only being willing to sleep with a few, flirtatious or scantily-clad women are engaged in a particularly cruel form of sexualized discrimination. That, the MRAs insist, ought to be seen as sexual harassment.

For Arndt and her ideological fellow travelers, it's sexually unsuccessful straight men ("betas") that suffer the most from a culture in which women are free to display their bodies. Asking women to cover up isn't about protecting purity; for the MRAs it's about protecting betas from humiliation and from self-esteem-destroying reminders that they can look but never touch the bodies for which they long. All of that pent-up male resentment is women's fault, Arndt implies, and it is women's responsibility to consider the soul-scarring cost of the mixed messages their revealing clothing sends.

The kind of particularly male pain that Arndt and her allies describe isn't rooted in women's flirtatiousness, sexy clothing, or presumed preference for "alpha" males. Whether they're genuinely hurting or just petulantly sulking, the confusion and hurt with which men cope is based largely on their own sense of entitlement. The calculus of entitlement works like this: if women don't want to turn men on, they need to cover up. If they don't cover up, they'll turn men on. If they turn men on, women are obligated to do something to assuage that lust. Having turned them on, if women don't give men what they want, then women are cruel teases who have no right to complain if men lash out in justified rage at being denied what they've been taught is rightfully theirs.

The reality is that sexual rejection happens to men and women alike. That's part of living in a world in which for a host of reasons, we are not all equally attractive, and where the people we want to sleep with will not always want to sleep with us. The hard truth men and women alike need to grasp is a simple one: our arousal is not someone else's problem to solve. The sooner we encourage men in particular to grasp that truth, the safer and happier we'll all be.


Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. You can see more of his work at his eponymous site.

Image by Jim Cooke, source photos by Sophie Louise Davis and S.Dashkevych/Shutterstock.