Laurie Toby Edison

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Men Will Be Boys

Laurie and Debbie say:


Shakespeare’s Sister
has found an interesting article on sexual harassment claim filings. As you can see from both her post and the linked article, the fastest-growing category of sexual harassment claims in the workplace is claims filed by men (of all orientations) against straight men. (Claims filed by men against women are “rare,” according to a spokesperson for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.)

We are not surprised.

Bullying is rampant in American schools; when the bullies are boys, they are often supported by the “boys will be boys; those kids you were teasing just have no sense of humor” response from teachers, parents, and the school administration. In fact, most bullying of boys and men is specifically around issues of masculinity. As long as this works and is rewarded in the classroom and the school halls, bullies are going to expect it to be rewarded in the workplace … and they’ll be right.

In school and at work, a good deal of heterosexual harassment (painful though it is to the woman) is really about women receiving collateral damage from the rocks men throw at other men, along the lines of “We’ll embarrass or attack her in some way and if you don’t join us in the ugliness, we’ll know you’re not a real man … and then it will be open season on you.” And you know they mean it.

It’s good news to read about court-supported precedent for men protecting themselves by filing these kinds of claims: the victims of bullies, at all ages, need much more support and more ways to push back.

But what makes it sexual harassment?

First of all, in the most important way it is not sexual harassment. Most of these men are not claiming that they have to act sexually with other co-workers or be fired. They are filing sexual harassment claims in some part because that’s where the legal power is. We don’t have anti-bullying laws.

Secondly, it’s sexual because it’s directed at the narrow cultural conception of masculinity, which is fragile and open to threat. Until men get some cultural support for a more varied, richer concept of masculinity, vast power will remain in the ability to threaten an individual man’s masculinity, especially in a public or semi-public context. (For more on this, see the introduction to Familiar Men.)

Shakespeare’s Sister is on the money when she says:

Even the average straight, white, middle class American man exchanges privilege for severe limitations on his personal expression and emotional life—and he is encouraged never to examine that devastating trade-off too closely, lest the veneer on the alleged bargain prove thin enough through which to see.

Thirdly, men bullying men is sexual because so much of the language is sexual: you’re a pussy, you’re a cunt, you’re a bitch, you’re a faggot, you’re on the rag. (One thing we notice here is that the word “faggot” has been in the news a lot recently–we think it’s in large part because we’ve made enough progress that you can no longer say “pussy” or “cunt” in public. “Faggot,” when used by Ann Coulter doesn’t really mean “gay.” Instead, like all the other insults men use, it means “not living up to the hypermasculine ideal,” and it’s also a generalized insult right on the edge of social acceptability.)

The one place where we disagree profoundly with Shakespeare’s Sister is in her description of the patriarchy as “more than anything else, a mafia. The patriarchs—rich, white, powerful, straight men with old money and old family names—are the dons, the kingpins.” She goes on with this metaphor, stretching it further and further to explain working-class patriarchs and similar phenomena.

In fact, the patriarchy is woven much more thoroughly through the social structure than that. Patriarchy exists in isolated agrarian villages, in economic systems from hunter-gatherer to contemporary religious fundamentalist. Patriarchy is supported by men, by women, by institutions, by histories, by expectations, by science. The richest, most powerful men on the planet benefit most from the patriarchy … and can also be harassed by their peers in just this way.

Whatever men reacting against workplace harassment by other men is, it is not reaction against the patriarchy. It is, however, a reaction against bullying, against meanness, and against abuse of power … all worth fighting.

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2 Responses to “Men Will Be Boys”

  1. Sturgeon's Lawyer Says:

    In fact, the patriarchy is woven much more thoroughly through the social structure than that. Patriarchy exists in isolated agrarian villages, in economic systems from hunter-gatherer to contemporary religious fundamentalist. Patriarchy is supported by men, by women, by institutions, by histories, by expectations, by science.

    Given the apparent universality you perceive, is it worth considering the possibility that patriarchy, in some sense, exists in the human genome?

    (Usual disclaimers apply: genes do not determine behavior but provide raw behavioral material which is then formed by experience, etc.)

    If it does, then it is a fact that must be dealt with in any attempt to form a more just society.

  2. Laurie Says:

    We were giving diverse examples, not suggesting universality.

    The 19th century wrote endless scientific articles determining that slavery was “in the blood” (their term for genome).

    Humans both learn from their culture and hand it down generationally. I think patriarchy fits this pattern.

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