Sexual Harassment of Men

Sexual harassment (SH) falls in three different categories that be defined as sexual coercion: occurs when the harasser tries to establish a sexual relationship using job-related threats or bribes.[1] Unwanted sexual attention occurs when the harasser makes romantic or sexual advances that are unwelcome, unreciprocated, and/or offensive.[2] Gender harassment includes hostile behaviour, insults and/or degrading attitude that are gendered in nature.[3] Out of these, gender harassment is the most common.[4] Both men and women can be harassed, but the issue of harassment of men is mostly neglected. It was found in a recent study that one-third of the working men have been the victim of at least one form of harassment in the previous year.[5] And other men are more often found to be the perpetrators of this harassment as opposed to the females.[6] This is more frequently caused by the desire to prove and set the stereotypes of “masculinity” than obtaining sexual pleasure.[7]


Much study has been done on SH of women, but society often neglects the cause and effect of SH on men. It is estimated that research, help, and support for male victims is still more than 20 years behind that for female victims.[8]They are almost always portrayed as the perpetrators and SH among them is portrayed as mere “horseplay” and “roughhousing”.[9] However, the motive behind both men and women remains the same- “proving the perpetrators’ and their group’s masculinity, punishing those who do not adhere to gender expectations, and upholding conventional gender norms”. The sufferings of these male victims are also sufficiently minimalised because of the common stereotypes where men are supposed to be all-powerful and incapable of being harassed, and that if harassed they would not object to it.[10]Hence, there is a need to analyse SH of men in the context of these set norms of masculinity and the subsequent effect it has on them.


The author hereby seeks to analyse the role played by the “stereotype of masculinity” and established gender hierarchy in the context of SH of men and show how stereotyping tends to neglect and minimise the sufferings of the male victims, making it unfair for those victims.


The method adopted is the deductive approach, also called the top-down approach in which the works of other authors and researchers are studied first and then analysed to reach a conclusion which supports your hypothesis.


The research found that women who are engaged in feminist activism are more often harassed than those who are not.[11] These activist women are perceived as a threat to the established norms of gender hierarchy and male privilege.[12] Similarly, men who are involved in feminist activism are a threat on the gendered status quo which places men at a higher social level and allows them to enjoy this privilege till they conform to the masculine stereotype of being dominant and heterosexual.[13] Also, men who take time off to care for children-which is generally perceived as a “feminine” act experience more gender harassment in the workplace.[14]

Heterosexual men who violate masculinity norms by either engaging in or supporting activities that are perceived as feminine are more likely to be targeted and they are often labelled as “women”. Research also shows that many people do not differentiate between a gay man and a feminine man. These people also admit that the terms “fag” and “faggot” were addressed to them because they were feminine and therefore didn’t conform to the stereotypical standards of masculinity.[15]

Another study found that sexual minority men such as bisexuals and gay experience more sexual harassment in – school, housing, work, and their daily lives.[16] Sexual minority men who engage in feminist activism may be at even greater risk than straight activist men, as these men also transgress expectations of male heterosexuality. Tenets of Masculinities theory are-“don’t be a girl and don’t be a gay”[17] and males who display feminine characteristics are therefore considered as inferior and other men perform to prove their masculinity[18] by sexually harassing them- by converting them into symbolic females, using words which pose them as insufficiently masculine and “physical batteries of sexually-identified body parts-e.g., grabbing the chest, buttocks, or genitals, and inserting foreign objects into the victim’s anus, or threatening to do so”.[19]

For example, In K.S. v. Northwest Independent School District, the classmates of a 6th standard boy ridiculed him for having large breasts by calling him “titty-boy” and “teddy titty baby”.[20] The cause of such behaviour was the plaintiff’s failed masculinity, his failure to comply with the stereotypes of how a boy should look. Hence, the subsequent need to punish him and the opportunity to establish their masculinity arose. The court, however, named this as mere bullying and not sexual harassment.  It is often seen that when the perpetrators are a group of boys/men, their actions are motivated by the desire to police the masculinity of their group, so that the members maintain their masculinity and that of their affiliates[21] SH against men is thus used as a punishment for those who defy the set norms of masculinity and it tries to reinforce the existing gender hierarchy.[22]

Several studies have shown that the effect of SH on both Men and Women is same, or even severe in men, which includes long term psychological problem such as depression, anxiety; increased drug and alcohol abuse; and other mental health problems.[23] Yet the common perception remains that female victims suffer more. This inconsistency between reality and perception is the result of established notions of masculinity. It is present partly because most of the cases of SH against men aren’t reported and partly because when they are reported, they are not taken seriously. In a study, it was found that only 5 out of 40 rape victims had reported to the police and only 1 of the 5 cases resulted in criminal conviction of the perpetrator.[24] Victims do not report these incidents to their friends, family or other authorities due to the fear of being disbelieved or even blamed.[25] Men are blamed when they do not fight back, appear scared, and fail to escape[26] because of the social stereotype wherein men are supposed to be strong, assertive and being able to escape from a confrontational situation.[27]

The cases which are reported are also overlooked and the behaviour of the harasser is often condoned by the courts. Male perpetrators often escape liability because courts name their behaviour as “roughhousing” and “horseplay”.[28] Among boys, it is termed as mere bullying. But behaviours that courts dismiss as simple “bullying” are often the same as those that meet the definition of “sexual” or “gender-based” harassment under the law.[29] Courts wrongly conceptualize motive of SH as only sexual attraction to the victim. They do not take into consideration the role stereotypical masculinity can play in causing such harassment.

Male victims of female perpetrators are also negatively evaluated because of the endorsement of the view that men should be ready for sex with a willing woman at any time.[30]They tend to be evaluated even less harshly than the male perpetrators. This is because women are considered incapable of sexually assaulting men. Further male victims portrayed as gay are more negatively evaluated than heterosexual victims because traditional views about masculinity are related to homophobia-hatred towards homosexuals. However, when the perpetrator is a male and the victim is a female, courts more readily find a claim of illegal harassment. Social norms about how men and women interact thus, perhaps unconsciously affect the court’s interpretation of behaviour.[31]

It is seen that the traditional set norms of masculinity lead to the trivialisation of the sufferings of male victims. Firstly, by the perception that they suffer less than the female victims. Secondly, by stating that they can avoid the harassment. Thirdly, by terming SH of a man by another man as mere bullying. Fourthly, by considering females as incapable of harassing men. Fifthly by believing men to be ready and willing for sex all the time and lastly, by viewing the perpetrators of SH of men in a less negative light than the perpetrators of SH of women. Thus, this essentialization tend to overlook the suffering of any male victim who does not conform to the pre-established notions of “Masculinity” and they are thus denied their justice.


SH of men is more often caused by toxic masculinity than sexual/romantic interest in the victim. It is seen as a means for policing the masculinity of the victim as well as members of the same group and establish dominance. The consequences of SH are often more severe in male victims as compared to the female victims and yet their sufferings go unnoticed and neglected. It is therefore imperative to recognize the masculine motivation in cases of SH and defy these established norms to give due consideration to the sufferings of male victims and deliver true justice by punishing the perpetrator rather than condoning his/her actions.

[1] Fitzgerald, Louise F., Michele J. Gelfand, Fritz Drasgow. 1995. “Measuring Sexual Harassment: Theoretical and Psychometric Advances.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 17(4).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Leskinen, Emily A., Lilia M. Cortina, Dana B. Kabat. 2010. “Gender Harassment: Broadening Our Understanding of Sex-Based Harassment at Work.” Law and Human Behaviour 35(1).

[5] McLaughlin Heather, Christopher Uggen, and Amy Blackstone. 2012. “Sexual harassment, workplace authority, and the paradox of power.” American Sociological Review 77(4).

[6] Berdahl Jeniffer L., Vicky J. Magley, Craig R. Waldo. 1996. “The sexual harassment of men? Exploring the concept with theory and data.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 20(4).

[7] Mcginley Ann C. 2018. “Masculinity Motivation.” Stanley Law Review 71.

[8] Davies, Michelle and Paul Rogers. 2006. “Perceptions of male victims in depicted sexual assaults: A review of the literature” Aggression and Violent Behaviour 11(4).

[9] Mcginley Ann C. 2018. “Masculinity Motivation.” Stanley Law Review 71.

[10] Supra Note, 8.

[11] Holland, Kathryn J. and Lilia M. Cortina. 2013. “When sexism and feminism collide: The sexual harassment of feminist working women”. Psychology of Women Quarterly 37(2).

[12] Id.

[13] Berdahl, Jennifer L. 2007. “Harassment based on sex: Protecting social status in the context of gender hierarchy”. Academy of Management Review 32(2).

[14] Berdahl, Jennifer L. and Sue H. Moon. 2013. “Workplace mistreatment of middle-class workers based on sex, parenthood, and caregiving”. Journal of Social Issues 69.

[15] Supra note, 9.

[16] Konik, Julie and Cortina, Lilia M. 2008. “Policing gender at work: Intersections of harassment based on sex and sexuality”. Social Justice Research 21(3).

[17] Supra note, 7.

[18] Supra note, 7.

[19] Supra note, 7.

[20] Supra note, 7.

[21] Supra note, 7.

[22] Supra note, 13.

[23] Walker Jayne, John Archer and Michelle Davies. 2005. “Effects of Rape on Men: A Descriptive Analysis.” Archives of Sexual Behaviour 34(1).

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Supra note, 8.

[27] Supra note, 8.

[28]  Supra note, 9.

[29] Supra note, 9.

[30] Supra note, 8.

[31] Supra note, 9.

Sanya Zehra Rizvi from The West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata

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