It was creepy. It was disgusting. It was sexual harassment.
But the manager was a woman and that staff member was male, someone I happen to know very well.
It wasn’t the first time I had heard a bloke talk about being sexually harassed at work. Far from it. In fact, I’ve heard enough stories to convince me that the sexual harassment of men is one of the great, untold stories of our time.
But it was the #Metoo social media campaign, in which “all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted” were encouraged to share their experiences, that I began to realise why we hardly ever hear these stories.
We don’t ask. And I suspect we don’t ask, because we don’t believe they exist.
According to the Human Rights Commission, an average of 72 sexual harassment allegation have been lodged per year over the past five years. One in five of those have come from males, although giving your gender isn’t required. Still, by the numbers, far fewer males make allegations of sexual harassment that do women – a pattern repeated in other countries.
Well, I couldn’t find studies in New Zealand addressing that question, but I did find an awful lot of assumptions. Far too many boiled down to the idea that the word “man” is synonymous with “perpetrator” while the word “woman” is synonymous with “victim”.
We seem to believe, in essence, that men cannot be victims.
Perhaps. But then again, if men under report on mental health issues (according to the United Kingdom’s Mental Health Foundation), and under report on physical health issues (according to American studies), why wouldn’t they also under report on sexual harassment?
And if both men and women are capable of feeling sexual desire, and of acting wrongly, then why shouldn’t sexual harassment by both sexes be much more equal?
We know it is in the case of sexual assault. A recent study of tens of thousands of cases of sexual vicitimsation in America revealed what the authors called “a surprising prevalence” of female sexual perpetrators. Males were the victims in one out of three cases.
“Gender stereotypes interfere with complex understandings of sexual perpetration,” claimed the authors. In other words, we miss these stories because we don’t believe they exist.
New Zealand is guilty of engaging in exactly this kind of harmful storytelling.
After all, it was only in 2005 that legislation was enacted making sexual abuse of minors gender neutral, so that women could be charged with abusing boys (and a raft of other sexual crimes).
Left unchanged was section 128 of the Crimes Act, which means to this day only men can be charged with rape. Women cannot.
It seems that as a nation we have bought into a story about “toxic masculinity” instead of a more accurate story about “toxic sexuality”. So, it is no surprise to find that we struggle with the idea of men ever being victims.
But that script needs to change. Sexual harassment is serious, it is damaging and it is wrong, whether the victim is a women or a man.
Outdated stereotypes won’t help us solve the problem.
This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz