‘It was just a joke, mate. I’d never do that to a girl’: experiences of sexual harassment as a man

Sexual harassment and assault have really expanded in the public consciousness these days and this is a wonderful thing. More and more historic sexual abuse cases are being brought into the light, and due to things like everdaysexism.com and much greater added awareness, sexual harassment and assault is being treated with totally deserved disgust, recognition, and stoppage. I’d like to share a few experiences of being sexually harassed as a male. Let me be clear and say that, judging by current statistics, women get harassed and assaulted more than men; please keep that in mind when reading this article. It’s pointless to try and put these things in binaries: assault is assault is assault, regardless of gender. That being said, although women are sexually harassed and assaulted more than men, lots of men don’t come forward for whatever reason, be it fear of being ridiculed or even disbelieved. I’d like to talk about my experiences, and why I feel there’s this ‘grey area’ when it comes to male sexual harassment and assault.

United Kingdom law defines sexual harassment as ‘unwelcome sexual advances, touching and various forms of sexual assault’. This definition sides with what the victim experiences, not the intent of the harasser, thus nullifying the “it was a joke” argument. The first instance of harassment that I experienced happened in a club night, where someone pinched my bum over the course of the same night several times. I don’t need to say that that was a pretty grubby experience. The second was a year or so later, where a man slid his hand onto my bum and gave it a long slow squeeze. Again, a really disgusting thing to happen, especially when you’re enjoying some techno bang-bang music. This time, I turned around and saw some chino-clad twat half-laughing at me, so obviously I told him to fuck off and asked why he did that. He replied, “it was just a joke.” I fail to see how that’s funny. I was incensed that someone could feel they had the right to do that to me so I went and told someone on the door, who dealt with it really well. He found the ‘orrible predator. and got things sorted out. The guy in question explained, again, that “it was just a joke”, and I asked him, “is that what you do, then? Wander round clubs squeezing people’s arses?” Then he said, “Oh, I’d never do it to a girl”. I don’t need to explain to you, enlightened reader, what a ridiculous, Neanderthal, hypocritical thing this is to say. Gender is irrelevant. You don’t go around touching people’s bums when they don’t want it. That being said, and whilst the bouncer dealt with it really well, I can’t help thinking that were I a girl, the guy might have been kicked out, or worse. Please think on that.

The gender differences here are difficult to write about because they are complicated and it’s a very combustible topic as it is. I don’t want to make out like men have it far worse off than women because in many regards they don’t, but often there’s a belief that a man might be more able to take care of himself. I think this is why Chino Man squeezed my bum, but “wouldn’t do it to a girl”. Who’s to say that I wasn’t a victim of serious sexual abuse, and that that action could have triggered anxiety, depression, and flashbacks? These are all possible ramifications. As it was, I could take care of myself and tell him where to go. But what if I couldn’t? I don’t know what it is about my posterior that drives people wild with lust, but these people need to know that men aren’t more fair game than women. You. Do. Not. Touch. People. If. They. Haven’t. Expressly. Stated. They. Want. To. Be. Touched. Duh.

In these situations, though obviously less serious than aggressive touching, as a man I feel a little more scared about going to someone in authority. I’d be worried about possibly being laughed at, or dismissed. These are minor examples, compared with what some people have gone through and I’m aware of this, but had I not been able to stand up for myself, or had I felt the harassment more keenly, then perhaps things like that would affect me in greater ways than just anger and disgruntlement.

I’d like to discuss one more instance of harassment. This is perhaps the one time where I felt most anxious. I was in a seminar at university and I had just read out a poem. After I’d read it, the seminar leader asked for our thoughts and one girl (I mention gender because of what happened next) said, “I took quite a sexual, erotic reading from this poem, or perhaps it was just the way you read it.” Every student laughed. I was the only male in a seminar full of females and though everybody was a nice, normal, clever person, they still laughed. Once again, I imagined the tables being turned, and it were a lone female in a seminar of males and her reading was perceived as sexual and every man laughing at this. I didn’t speak up at the time because it took a while for it to register what she said and the whole experience made me feel quite anxious. I confronted the girl in question a few hours after the seminar over social media. She couldn’t have been more apologetic and courteous. She recognised the error of her ways, which was reassuring, and we parted on good terms. The fact still remains though that someone thought it was appropriate to say that to me. I can’t stress enough how aware I am that these are trifles compared to what some people go through or  have gone through, but I just want to make these instances of sexual harassment known. It’s vitally important that people take male sexual harassment as seriously as female. Added awareness and vigilance must be applied to all genders, otherwise it is incomplete.

I can pin this grey area that I’ve touched upon on a couple of things. The main reason is the gendered stereotype that men can stick up for themselves much more. Although, as a rule, men are bigger and stronger (it’s an empirical fact), this doesn’t mean that sexual harassment and assault are simply brushed under the mental carpet. Even if men can deal with these things physically, incidents can still weigh heavy, mentally speaking. Because of the gendered stereotype that men have to be manly men and not complain and eat red meat and talk about peng tings and have six-packs, this can mean some don’t come forward or are afraid of being laughed at. When I was harassed at the club, I was worried about telling someone in authority. Was I going to be laughed at? Told to not be a prude? As it happens, I wasn’t, but that could have happened. Now let me be clear, the reason I told someone was not because I felt particularly threatened. It was because he could have harassed someone who would have been seriously threatened by what he did to me. Men have to speak up about these things because even if they themselves aren’t threatened, it could easily happen to someone who would be. Another example of mine that this is applicable to is the one in the seminar. Clearly the girl in question thought I could take it, otherwise I’m sure she would not have said that she found my reading sexual. I can’t say this enough, but imagine if the tables were turned, and that was said to a girl by a room full of boys.

The belief that men have a thicker skin sexual harassment-wise is outdated and patently wrong. Just because men on the whole are a little bit bigger doesn’t mean things like sexualising comments and bum pinches don’t matter. They do.


Art by Jess Brown

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