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.