Street harassment is about one thing: impressing other men

I’ve been teaching gender studies courses for nearly two decades, and I developed the first “Men and Masculinity” class ever taught at my college.  Through my teaching and other work, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sexual harassment and other forms of public and private violence against women.  And the longer I do this work, the more I’m convinced that one of the roots of the problem – particularly in North America – is “homosociality.”

First discussed by the great sociologist of masculinity Michael Kimmel, homosociality is the notion that men are raised to be keenly interested in winning praise and approval from other men.  While pop culture analysis suggests that men perform masculinity to attract women, Kimmel argues (and the overwhelming weight of the evidence back him) that men are less interested in sex with women than in having their manhood affirmed by other males.

Homosociality is thus intimately connected to sexual harassment.  Harassers may harass singly or in groups, but most learn their harassing behavior from other, older men.

Many women have had this experience:  a car slows down as she walks along the street.  A group of men are inside; they wolf-whistle, cry “hey, baby” or much worse.  If she’s lucky, they drive off, high-fiving each other.  She wonders to herself, “Why do men do that?  Do they think that whistling at me is going to work?  Like it’s gonna make me want to get in the car with them?”

But harassment isn’t about sexual attraction to women. It’s not something women invite.  And it’s not something usually intended to elicit a positive sexual response from women. It’s about one thing: impressing other men.  The cat-callers in the car are using the woman on the sidewalk as a glue for male-bonding, as a way of affirming their masculinity to each other.  That masculinity is so fragile that having it validated is, for many young men, better than sex.

Many men who become solitary harassers first learned to harass in groups. One of the fascinating things about homosociality is that it doesn’t always require the actual physical presence of other men.  When a man has been raised to always be conscious of how he appears to his fellow males, he may end up behaving in stereotypically hyper-masculine ways even when there are no other men around.   The harasser on the subway, acting alone, may well have an internalized audience of other men in his head.  He is performing as much for them as for the woman he’s attacking.

So how can we use our understanding of homosociality to combat harassment?  That’s the subject of next week’s post.

Hugo B. Schwyzer, Ph.D
Pasadena City College

This post is part of the weekly blog series by male allies. We need men involved in the work to end the social acceptability of street harassment and to stop the practice, period. If you’d like to contribute to this weekly series, please contact me.

6 Responses to Street harassment is about one thing: impressing other men

  1. Mark says:

    That’s a really interesting perspective and something, in hindsight, I’ve witnessed in the fraternity scene in college. I’m looking forward to the next post!

  2. alan says:

    Thanks Dr. Schwyzer for this post. Very interesting. Makes sense to me. I’m hook and can’t wait for next week’s post to learn more!!

  3. beckieweinheimer says:

    wow. I totally agree with all this. And when men are in groups harassing, as three men did to me yesterday they’re even worse than when they are alone, braver,acting more macho! It totally adds up. Thank you so much for your insights.

  4. […] I think we need to also have a discussion of what the rape culture means for men and masculinity.  Rape culture is in many ways a manifestation of homosociality.  Homosociality is the set of ideas or phenomena whereby men value relationships with other men above relationships with women.  Homosociality can be reinforced in many benign ways: men get together and watch football together (a thing that women can participate in), or say, go to bars with other male friends.  But some of the most powerful ways to reinforce homosociality and to reinforce our relationships with other man is to engage in activities and behavior that exclude women, hurt women, or otherwise reinforce our masculinity. Hugo Schwyzer has an excellent post up about it in the context of street harrassment. […]

  5. […] In last week’s post, I talked briefly about the role “homosociality” (men’s need for other men’s approval) plays in enabling a culture of harassment. But homosociality can work in positive ways, particularly when it comes to combating that same culture. […]

  6. Nigerian Sista says:

    This behavior is so sad and so true smh.

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