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Here’s the Least Surprising Thing Ever: Sexual Harassment Is All About ‘Precarious Masculinity’

A conversation with social psychologist Jennifer Bosson, author of ‘Precarious Manhood and Its Links to Action and Aggression’

Per social psychologist Jennifer Bosson, today’s masculinity is “precarious.” A professor of social psychology at University of South Florida and author of “Precarious Manhood and Its Links to Action and Aggression,” Bosson has conducted numerous studies to quantify this statement. Modern masculinity is a status that must be continually earned, she argues, and is precarious because it can be easily lost — which is why men are constantly looking for ways to reaffirm it.

One way, she explains, is to sexually objectify and dominate women. Often this behavior goes unreported due to a phenomenon called pluralistic ignorance, a suppression of people’s tendency to call out bad behavior. Bosson wants the definition of modern masculinity to include “righteous intervening” in the face of sexual assault. I recently talked to her to better understand what all this means and how it plays into the behavior of Harvey Weinstein and the other men recently implicated in sexual harassment/assault scandals.

What’s your reaction to Harvey Weinstein?
None of these things are surprising. Sexual predation of women has always been a part of human history. People began calling others out on it with the second wave of the American feminist movement in the mid-1960s, when the term “sexual harassment” became a word. There wasn’t even a name for it until then; it had become so normative that women would be touched or inappropriately harassed at work without consequence.

Is it still normative?
One of the unhealthy ways men act out masculinity is by sexually dominating women. I’m 100 percent confident that it’s going on all the time. It can take many forms — sometimes in mutually consensual ways and other times in inappropriate ones. A certain percentage of men with higher status and power use that power to get sexual favors. I’m slightly optimistic that people are being pressured out of high-status positions instead of being promoted, but I don’t know what it’s going to take to end it entirely.

A lot of your research has been about what men do when their masculinity is threatened. Is that relevant here?
Perhaps. There’s some interesting research out of Terry Vescio’s lab at Penn State. Her studies found that when men’s gender status is threatened, they sexualize women more and report stronger motivation to sexually dominate women.

All of which makes sense. To sexually harass someone the way Weinstein did requires you to temporarily dehumanize the target. You can’t empathize with someone while asking them to watch you masturbate [in a sexually predatory manner]. You must see them as an object, which makes it easier to grab their breast or ask them to come into the bathroom with you.

Harvey Weinstein thought a lot of his interactions were consensual.
When women feel weirded out and anxious, they often don’t clearly say, “No, you must stop. This is sexual harassment.” They go along with it because they’re afraid. Some people are even unaware that they were raped because they’ll think, I didn’t say no. Sometimes the harassers themselves don’t know. They may know they’re doing something risky, but if the people they approach acquiesce, they may falsely perceive it as consensual.

When I witness questionable behavior — e.g., a man repeatedly talking over a woman, or a friend asking the same woman out five times even though she’s said no every time — do I step in? Is that my duty as a man in 2017?
Absolutely. I don’t know that everyone agrees, but I think it is. Often men don’t say anything due to pluralistic ignorance. We often take cues about what’s acceptable from how others are reacting. If other people aren’t calling a man out on sexist behavior, there’s a tendency to assume everyone else must be okay with it. It can be a powerful behavioral suppressant and prevent you from taking action when otherwise you might, like if you were the only one on the street and saw a woman being harassed.

This also relates to the bystander effect, a phenomenon whereby a victim is far less likely to receive help from a person in a setting in which there are less people. Generally speaking, there’s a negative correlation between the number of people observing an event that requires intervention and the likelihood of the victim receiving help. People think, Am I the only one who’s uncomfortable with this?

In 1964, a 28-year-old American bar manager named Kitty Genovese was raped and stabbed to death outside her apartment building while 37 of her neighbors heard her screaming for help. Nobody did anything about it because everyone else assumed, Others have heard this, and nobody’s doing anything — maybe it’s not a real emergency.

Should the new definition of masculinity then include “righteous intervening”?
Sure, that sounds great. Men who would be allies need to learn about pluralistic ignorance and need to get good at speaking up even if no one else is. That’s really hard to do. It’s really hard to be the one on a crowded sidewalk who’s going to come forward and decide, I’m going to put a stop to this. Still, we should spread the message to men that a lot of people aren’t okay with this kind of behavior. It’s just that everyone else is afraid to say something, too.

What does righteous intervening sound like?
It’s most effective if you do it in a way that’s not angry or shaming. Say something like “Come on, man, take it easy. She said no.”

How about, “You wouldn’t talk to your mother/daughter/sister that way”?
I hate that one. I don’t want men to get the message that there are some women who deserve to be treated kindly and others who don’t. When you say, “Would you talk to your mother/daughter/sister that way?” it’s saying that only mothers/daughters/sisters are in need of respect. Better to turn your attention to the woman and politely ask if you can walk her down the block.