Women Can And Do Sexually Harass Men

Hugo Schwyzer offers his take on the recent sexual harassment allegations against a female official with Homeland Security.

Women can sexually harass men. A reminder of that obvious truth came this week with the report that Suzanne Barr, a top aide to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, has been placed on leave following allegations that she made lewd comments to male subordinates. Among other indiscretions reported by Michael Isikoff (of Clinton-Lewinsky fame) Barr allegedly offered to perform a sexual act on a male Immigrations and Customs Enforcement attaché in Bogota. (Coming so soon after this spring’s Secret Service Cartagena scandal, it appears that traveling to Colombia has a dangerously disinhibiting influence on American government officials.) The investigation is ongoing.

Whatever Suzanne Barr did or didn’t say in South America, it shouldn’t be news that women can harass men in the workplace. American case law shows that men have sued successfully after being harassed by women. Regal Cinemas and LensCrafters have both paid recent settlements to male employees who were subjected to inappropriate sexual come-ons from bosses or fellow employees. The EEOC, which tracks sexual harassment under Title VII of federal law, reports that men now make up 16.3% of complainants, up from 11% in 1997. What the EEOC crucially doesn’t do is provide data about the sex of the accused harassers. We don’t have the numbers that distinguish man-on-woman harassment from woman-on-man. That makes it difficult to figure out just how many Suzanne Barrs there are in public and private workspaces.

The fact that women harass men so infrequently doesn’t mean that the consequences are any less devastating for the small number of men who are the target of inappropriate sexual conduct by their female bosses. We need to remember that women can be predatory and that men can be victimized. Just as we now acknowledge that boys can be raped, the law now recognizes that men can be harassed. Being male significantly reduces the chances of being victimized, but it doesn’t serve as a prophylaxis against the pain that can result.

Of course, the flip side of raised awareness is the dangerous claim of false equivalence. As the EEOC numbers reveal, women are more than six times as likely to be sexually harassed as men. Though woman-on-woman harassment is not unknown, it too remains rare in case law.  Even as women have broken through the proverbial glass ceiling to reach to the highest levels of corporate and political power, “man-on-woman” remains the most common type of sexual harassment. It would be a gross misrepresentation of statistical reality to claim that sexual harassment isn’t still largely a gendered behavior. Even in 2012, it remains something that can be done by anyone to anyone—but in practice is overwhelmingly done by men to women.

Like the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau story, the Suzanne Barr affair attracts attention because it is both mildly titillating and because—like the apocryphal “man bites dog” headline—it reverses what we think we know about how the sexes behave. One takeaway ought to be the reminder that anyone can commit sexual misconduct. But even as we acknowledge that harassment may not always be a one-way street, it’s important to remember that the bulk of traffic flows in a single direction. Suzanne Barr may not be unique, but her (alleged) behavior remains statistically very uncommon. While she should be disciplined without regard to sex if the charges prove true, her case shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the reality that the overwhelming majority of harassers are men.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.

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