To what extent are sexism and sexual harassment governed by culture? Some say biology may play a role in dictating behaviour.To what extent are sexism and sexual harassment governed by the environment (i.e. our culture), biology (i.e. genetics), or both?
If we define biology as anything to do with living organisms, it seems quite reasonable to speculate that biology will participate in human behaviour, of which sexual harassment and sexism are manifestations.
This is highly controversial, particularly amongst the most hardline of feminists, who seem to take ‘biological’ to mean something synonymous with ‘acceptable’ and ‘determined’. There are two things, therefore, that I should like to make clear from the outset.
One, I am not saying that sexual harassment rests solely on a biological basis. Two, rape and sexual harassment should be systematically condemned and punished, as should ‘rape-culture’, in which sexual violence is trivialised and normalised.
Males are victims too: my story
When I was 13 years-old, I was the victim of sexual molestation on two occasions. The incidents took place in a public toilet at the Kilburn underground station and in a street not far from my home.
On both occasions, I found myself alone, facing a perverted man. I told no-one of these incidents that, luckily, produced no traumatic consequences. But I can assure you that, more than 40 years later, I can still vividly picture myself, as an innocent teenager, running out of a public toilet, not having finished what I went in for. I can also recall, in perfect detail, the thoughts that went through my mind as a man followed me, making sexual gestures with a folded newspaper.
What is sexism?
Sexism relates to the acceptance and propagation of a male-dominated world, in which a woman’s place is often limited to the home – looking after the kids and buying the week’s food supplies at the local supermarket.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sexism as ‘prejudice and discrimination based on sex; especially: discrimination against women,’ but also as, ‘behaviour, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.’
The dictionary’s definition of sexual harassment is, ‘uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature, especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate.‘
The term is much harder to precisely define for the simple reason that one would have to make a list of all behaviours comprising the definition as well as define a threshold level.
Having seen Fatal Attraction several times, I could come up with a list of things women do that could also be included in the definition. Is sexual harassment exclusive to men?I ask myself if behaviour such as staring, whistling, exchanging dirty jokes, and sexual innuendos can systematically be considered sexual harassment. If so, the entire collection of the UK “Carry On…” films should be destroyed.
Doesn’t it all relate to quantity and quality? Is there not a difference between a construction worker who whistles to a woman passing by, as a one-off, and a boss who constantly behaves in an inappropriate way with his female employees? How many men have never jokingly flirted with a woman? And how many women have never uttered a single innuendo at a hen-party or fluttered their eyelashes at their object of desire?
“How many men have never jokingly flirted with a woman?”
Natural/Biological Theory of Sexual Harassment and Aggression
This theory rests on the premise that men have a stronger sexual drive than women, which can lead to aggressive behaviour at the workplace due to an imbalance between men and women. In searching for more sexual partners, and not obtaining them, ‘frustrated’ men utilise their position of power to satisfy an innate human instinct.
The theory does contain flaws, and it can certainly be disputed. The most obvious objection is that it echoes the reasoning used in defence of rape-culture, namely, that sexual harassment is a natural phenomenon and must be accepted as such. It also does not explain the fact that women are not the sole victims of sexual harassment, nor are men the sole perpetrators.
But biology is not only about evolution. In 2015, General Tom Lawson, a high-ranking Canadian military officer, ignited a nationwide controversy during a televised interview. When asked why sexual harassment was still a problem in the Canadian military, he calmly replied:
It would be a trite answer, but it’s because we’re biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others. It’s not the way it should be.
Lawson later apologised for his comments.
I apologise for my awkward characterisation […] of the issue of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces. Sexual misconduct in any form, in any situation is clearly unacceptable.
The role of biology, in sexual harassment, cannot easily be tested. We are certainly not talking about a gene that can be isolated and manipulated, although some research may lead us to think otherwise.
Niklas Långström is the author of a controversial research article entitled, ‘Sexual offending runs in families: A 37-year nationwide study.’ The study comprised an extensive analysis of familial aggregation and the contribution of genetic and environmental factors to sexual crime.
The longitudinal study linked Swedish crime and multigenerational family registers. It included all men convicted of any sexual offence, including child molestation, from 1973 to 2009. Sexual crime rates among fathers and brothers of sexual offenders were compared with corresponding rates in fathers and brothers of age-matched population control men without sexual crime convictions. The relative influence of genetic and environmental factors to the liability of sexual offending, was also modelled. The results suggested ‘strong evidence of familial clustering of sexual offending, primarily accounted for by genes rather than shared environmental influences.’
“The results suggested ‘strong evidence of familial clustering of sexual offending, primarily accounted for by genes rather than shared environmental influences’ “
Environmental factors affecting sexual behaviour are more difficult to analyse. The study did comprise maternal and paternal half-brothers, brought up in the same and different family homes, respectively. The risk of sexual offence was found to be high in both groups, but significantly lower than that of full siblings, suggesting a non-negligible influence of genetic factors. The report, however, does not go into detail concerning the differing nature of the environmental factors in the various groups comprising the study.
Although the study strongly suggests a significant genetic component, even the authors admit that, ‘caution is needed regarding generalisation of the relative importance of genetic and non-shared environmental influences on sexual offending to countries and settings with poorer gender equality and sexual rights policies.’
Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemicEgypt is a prime example of how the social and cultural environment – patriarchy, in particular – can affect the incidence, and acceptance, of sexual harassment. According to a study sponsored by the United Nations, 99% of surveyed Egyptian women admitted experiencing some kind of sexual harassment at some period in their lives, the most common feature being inappropriate touching.
Hani Henry, of the American University in Cairo, published a study, in 2016, using feminist theory to analyse the reasons given by the participants for their sexual harassment. Henry considers sexual harassment as having a sexist – rather than a sexual – component.
Feminist theory posits that sexual harassment should be treated as a sexist act that aims to subjugate and disempower women, and punish their efforts to compete with men over jobs and status. This theory challenges the idea that sexual harassment is a sexual act and invites scholars to see it from a gender-based angle that reflects male dominance and women’s subordination, which are constantly condoned by society.
A prevailing view was that women were responsible for the sexual harassment, with one participant saying, ‘I did not intentionally want to harass women but I believed that women send subtle messages through the way they are dressed. Women with tight clothes are probably sending a message that they are asking for sex.’
It is sadly ironic that the participants blame women for their sexual assaults, ignoring their own violent conduct.
‘Forgive me, it’s just my nature’
You may find my views controversial or even sexist. ‘How on earth can he suggest that sexual harassment may be biological!’ I hear you say. But sexual harassment is biological in the sense that it not only encompasses actions of the mind, but also of the body.
In any case, biological instincts can be overridden by moral will. Men must realise that, in the same way you wait to go to the toilet, you must also moderate your attitude towards women.
Hopefully, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, women will be less scared to come out in the open and make public their upsetting experiences with sexual harassment.Social media, for all its ills, has had a positive role to play in allowing people to express their anxieties. The success of the #MeToo twitter campaign, followed more recently by, #Ihave, in which men owned up to their misdemeanours, may be a sign that our mentalities are changing for the better.
One problem, however, remains – the boundary separating harmless fun from sexual harassment. The definition of sexual harassment seems to encompass more and more behaviours, which is also something we must be wary of. The next time a woman asks me what I think of her dress, I’ll answer, ‘You may like it, I just couldn’t possibly comment.’ Just to be on the safe side, I suppose.
“The definition of sexual harassment seems to encompass more and more behaviours, which is also something we must be wary of“
I suppose my concluding words on the matter would be, ‘Dress as you wish.’ As long as it’s legal, it won’t bother me. As one blogger so eloquently wrote:
I don’t wear sexy clothes. I don’t wear makeup. I don’t shave — anything. None of that stopped me from getting sexually assaulted, catcalled, harassed, and stalked. I have suffered because men are sexually attracted to me, and no choice I make will stop this. Refusing to conform to the norms of sexual attractiveness does not stop it. Binding my breasts does not stop it. Being read as gay does not stop it. So why fucking bother? If I’m going to be harassed no matter what, why not look good for the people who are respectful and who I might actually want to fuck?
Maybe what she’s saying is that if you’re pretty, no matter how you dress, harassment will occur, courtesy of biology. She may well think that – I just couldn’t possibly comment. I like playing safe.
George is a British/French national. He has a passion for oral microbiology (obtained a PhD in Lyon, France) and a passion for philosophy and politics.