Men Don’t Understand Sexual Harassment. This Is How We Change That

Photographed by Nicolas Bloise.
In 2004, James* was an intoxicated 21-year-old attending a work gala at a casino, when he overheard two more senior-level colleagues plotting to take advantage of one of his drunk female friends, Sara*. Their plan was to take her back to a hotel room and have their way with her — they’d even tricked another co-worker into giving them a room key. But James, who himself was on the verge of blacking out, knew better: “She was in no state of mind to be consenting,” he recalls, so he acted quickly.
James persuaded the men to give him the room key after he told them that he needed it to get more alcohol from the suite. In the meantime, he brought Sara to another female colleague and tasked her with looking after Sara since James felt like he was too intoxicated to do so. Sara went to bed that night unharmed.
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The next morning, he told her about the incident. She in turn went to her manager about the matter. Unsurprisingly, the supervisors higher up the ladder wrote it off as a misunderstanding. Soon after, however, James was taken off of some of his favorite assignments once word spread of his involvement in the situation.
Thirteen years later, James still thinks about whether he should have done things differently, a sentiment that’s come back into focus in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, where dozens of actresses have alleged countless stories about sexual harassment and rape. The fallout from that matter has inspired hashtags like #WomenBoycottTwitter and #MeToo, and sparked intense conversations about what men are and aren’t doing to curb sexual harassment and assault when their careers are at stake. This includes Hollywood A-listers like Matt Damon and Quentin Tarantino, who both said they knew something about Weinstein’s alleged misconduct but did nothing. But it’s trickled down to regular men, too; thus the hashtag #HimThough.
This has opened a floodgate of pieces about the failings of so-called male allies, and their role in combatting assault and harassment. And yet it’s hard to ignore the fact that until this point, there's been a disconnect between when men feel they should intervene, and when they shouldn’t. While we can throw around big terms like "toxic masculinity" and "rape culture," the fact is, to encourage men to do the right thing, we have to first understand their mindset and the gaps in their reasoning. I talked to roughly a dozen men about situations where they stood up in instances of sexual harassment and assault — and situations where they didn’t. What quickly became apparent is that men are ready to act when there is “clear and present danger.” But when it comes to helping out in the context of school or the office? It’s way more complicated than that.
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First let’s look at when they do act: When Tyler was 21, he helped two drunk women into a cab after a man started harassing them and touching himself at a train station. Then there’s Ryan, who tackled a male perpetrator while he was chasing a woman down the street late at night; he later testified on her behalf in front of a grand jury. “I never knew her name and will never see her again, but the horror she went through that night is something I think about often,” he recalls. “It also highlighted to me the dangers women face on a daily basis from something as simple as walking to their car.”
Michael, who intervened when a man was harassing and stalking a woman at his bus stop, noted that the only reason he knew to step in was because the man was acting so brazenly. “It is possible that if the perpetrator in this instance were not so bold I might never have noticed, even as the woman herself was victimized all the same,” he explains. “Recognizing instances of sexual harassment might not always come so easily to me.”
These kinds of stories, where the men got to feel like heroes, were the most common. Rarer were the stories where men intervened in less “obvious” situations; when it required one man to talk to another about his behavior. In the few cases where men did try to go through formal channels to report harassment and assault, they say they faced numerous obstacles. In many instances, supervisors didn’t take their concerns seriously, or these men ended up facing career- and life-altering repercussions.
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Researchers say that this isn’t a new issue. Chris Kilmartin, Ph.D., a Professor Emeritus of Psychological Science of the University of Mary Washington, notes that there have long been unaddressed psychological barriers for men when it comes to curbing sexual harassment and assault. This starts with the fact that men have to see a problem, and then acknowledge that it’s a problem, before they even think of addressing it. Men can identify an obvious physical threat to someone’s safety as a bad situation, but when it isn’t black and white, the lines get a lot blurrier. For example, men might think a scenario isn’t “that bad” if there aren’t any women present, like if a male colleague is making lewd comments about a female coworker in the break room.
Jimmy, a 40-year-old software company CEO (who declined to use his full name or share the name of his company), fired a senior official for sexual harassment. In that case, a senior executive sexually harassed an employee in an explicit manner in front of a number of colleagues, and they came forward immediately.
But, Jimmy says, a cut-and-dry situation like this is rare. What’s more common is a messier array of circumstances, which brings with it a set of hard questions: What happens if no one is around to witness the incident? What if it takes place between peers, and it devolves into a matter of he-said, she-said? “That’s going to be hard to figure out,” he says. “There’s going to be a problem, it’s going to be grey, and it’s going to really suck.”
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Men can identify an obvious physical threat to someone’s safety as a bad situation, but when it isn’t black and white, the lines get a lot blurrier.

The fact is, there are still schisms in the cultural norms that exist between men and women: In addition to men not being able to spot what’s actually harassment, Jimmy’s also concerned that they just plainly don’t understand what is and isn’t appropriate. “I’ve had to warn guys making comments about the [overall] attractiveness of a department. I’ll say, ‘You really shouldn’t be saying that, and you really shouldn’t be thinking of your coworkers as ‘options,’” he says. “What used to seem kind of innocent [to men] is not, and it’s perceived to be a problem [to women].”
Jimmy’s situation also points out something obvious: He’s the CEO of his organization and can institute those top-down changes that impact HR policy and culture. But his situation is atypical. What can men at the bottom of the company ladder realistically do?
When Brian* was 14, he worked in the kitchen at a summer camp, where there was a single female employee around his age. After hearing a teenage male coworker call her “penis breath” on the job and telling him to knock it off, Brian brought his concerns to their boss. Unsurprisingly, the coworker lied during a meeting about the incident and said he’d referred to her as “peanut breath.” The supervisor ruled it a case of miscommunication and free speech. Just as unsurprising, the coworker continued calling the young woman “penis breath” for the rest of the summer, and Brian felt like he was unable to do a thing.
This happened to a teenager at summer camp, but this attitude can have much more far-reaching consequences. James, who prevented his two senior colleagues from attacking his friend Sara, said that his interference ultimately meant he was taken off of better assignments at his job, which impacted the rest of his time at that organization. In an even more high-profile case of retaliation, Brandon Charles, a one-time employee of financial startup SoFi, filed a lawsuit in August alleging he was fired after reporting sexual harassment of a female colleague.
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Of course, the biggest question on everyone’s mind is solutions. The fact is, there is no one panacea to fixing sexual harassment and assault. But the good news is, there are many different steps that researchers say are effective when used together.
Dr. Kilmartin notes that there needs to be a multi-pronged approach to tackling these issues. Raising awareness through something like a #MeToo campaign is one of them, he says. But that’s not all. For example, Dr. Kilmartin found that one way to tackle the issue of how perpetrators corner victims is to create fewer spaces where they can be alone; in a workplace, that could mean putting windows in office doors so that superiors and subordinates know they’re being observed.
Another critical step Dr. Kilmartin learned from his work is that men need routine practice stepping up in situations of harassment and assault before that clear-cut, super obvious moment strikes. His research suggests that taking the time to practice how to react in these situations does lead men to step in more. In addition to male allies, there’s still the big questions about why men feel the need to sexually harass and assault women in the first place. How do we combat the inclinations that lead to these problems, and how can we change the need to put down women in an effort to uphold masculinity? These won’t be answered overnight or solved with a single hashtag.
As for James, he’s trying to think more broadly about not only what he can do in the future to create safer spaces for women, but also how he was a part of these problems in the first place. “We all contribute to this culture of rape and misogyny,” he says. “One action makes you the hero. There's no flag-waving saying, ‘Look at me I did a good thing,’ because I contribute and perpetuate to the same learned behavior that made it okay to begin with. It's sobering.”
*Name are changed to protect identities.
Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Glamour, Allure, TIME, Newsweek, Fast Company, and Mashable. Follow her on Twitter.
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