Fintan O’Toole: Harassment revelations are good for men

Men and boys are victims both of abuse and of the toxic idea of masculinity that fuels it

It is easy to think of the rolling wave of revelations about sexual harassment as a surge of female protest against men. Easy because it is true – those who are speaking up are mostly women and those about whom they are speaking are all men. But it is not the full truth.

The moment we are experiencing is not just a painful but positive one for women. It is also very good for men. To think of it only as one gender calling out the other is to fall back into a foolish notion of “the war of the sexes”. The truth is that this is not a zero sum game – boys and men have nothing to lose and everything to gain from this period of openness.

The obvious but easily overlooked reality is that men and boys are victims of sexual harassment and assault too. The most famous man alleged in recent weeks to have been a serial groper, Kevin Spacey, allegedly directed his unwanted attentions to boys and young men, including men seeking work at the Old Vic theatre in London where he was artistic director for 11 years.

An actor, Roberto Cavazos, recounted his own experiences with Spacey at the theatre and added: "We were all involved in keeping it quiet. I witnessed him groping men many times in all sorts of different situations." Neither the groping nor the silence are unfamiliar from stories told by women victims.

More broadly, we know that victimhood is not exclusively female.

Out of date

Boys are almost as likely to experience sexual assault as girls are. Irish figures are disgracefully out of date, but the landmark Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) study in 2002 found that one in six adult men reported contact sexual abuse in childhood, compared to one in five women. And this is not just about the general vulnerability of childhood: while 42 per cent of women reported some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime, so did more than a quarter (28 per cent) of men.

The single biggest favour that can be done for a boy or a young man is to teach him about intimacy. And about its opposite – the destructive and self-destructive lure of domination

The larger context for the recent wave of allegations, meanwhile, is bullying in the workplace – sexual intimidation is an aspect of (and usually intertwined with) a wider pattern of domineering and undermining behaviour. And while women are undoubtedly more vulnerable to being bullied at work, this does not mean that men do not have similar experiences.

In ESRI studies in 2005, 10.7 per cent of women said they had been bullied at work; but so had 5.8 per cent of men. (Research from the US suggests a roughly comparable pattern – 58 per cent of those who are bullied are female, 42 per cent are male.)

It is certainly true that women at work in Ireland are significantly more likely to be targeted for sexual harassment. But again, the experience is not confined to one gender. In the ESRI study, 6.1 per cent of women who had been bullied specified sexual harassment as part of the process. And so did 2.6 per cent of men.


Men who do experience sexual assault, bullying and workplace harassment also suffer the same things that women victims do – humiliation, blaming oneself, fear of what a complaint might do to one’s career. It may sometimes be the case that male victims find it harder to even give a name to what has happened to them.

Cavazos told the Guardian in relation to his own experiences with Spacey: "Had I been a woman, I probably would not have hesitated to identify it as [harassment], but I suppose that the lack of a more specifically direct or aggressive action led me to justify the incident as 'one of those things'".

The point is that all the things that women need to happen as a result of what we might call the Weinstein moment of revelation would be just as good for men. If a workplace has clear codes of behaviour, a culture of respect and good manners, effective and sympathetic mechanisms for reporting abuse and zero tolerance for harassers, however high their stations, everybody benefits.

But there are other, larger, reasons why the fight that has been taken on by brave women is being waged on behalf of men too. One is common decency – most men are not bullies, abusers or gropers. Most grew up with the notion that hurting or insulting women or girls is both plain wrong and utterly unmanly.

But the other big reason is that the Alpha Male, the big-swinging-dick, the swaggering bloke who pursues and torments and dominates women is a disastrous role model. The kind of male personality that is toxic for women, is no less poisonous as a mode of masculinity.

There is overwhelming evidence that men are happier and healthier, both physically and mentally, when they're in good, intimate relationships. There is, to take just one example, a remarkable longitudinal study that tracked the same group of men from their (all-male) class in Harvard in 1938 all the way to the end of their lives. As it happened, the group included such obvious high achievers as John F Kennedy and the legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

The results were unequivocal: the biggest factor in their physical and psychological wellbeing over the course of their lives was not their genes or their IQ or their income or their cholesterol levels. It was how happy they were in their intimate relationships with their partners.

Keep them alive

Good, stable relationships don’t just keep men happy – they literally keep them alive. And this is borne out in studies of men from every social background.

In the 2015 Irish Times Sex Survey, men (both gay and straight) rated "feeling desired", "trust", "affection" and "good communication" as the principal elements necessary for intimacy – not very different from the qualities that women seek in their intimate relationships. And the most obvious thing about the predatory and domineering male behaviour that has come into focus in recent weeks is that it is the antithesis of all these things: vile communication, breach of trust, lack of real affection, utter indifference to the actual desires of the victim.

In this larger sense, men who support the women who have been speaking out are not even being altruistic. They are simply practising enlightened self-interest.

The single biggest favour that can be done for a boy or a young man is to teach him about intimacy. And about its opposite – the destructive and self-destructive lure of domination. A man who gets his kicks by humiliating and harassing those he works with is going to be very bad at all the things he himself needs to lead a happy life.

That kind of behaviour does not happen in isolation. It is part of a system that distorts gender differences into a grotesque playing out of crudely-conceived roles – man the hunter, woman the prey. Women are sick of being the prey.

But man the hunter is also the enemy of the vast majority of men. The crude divisions implied by the notion bury the truth that men want and need pretty much the same things that women do: protection in their childhoods, dignity in their working lives, affection and mutuality in their sexual relationships and the capacity for intimacy that will make them happy.

If this really is a watershed moment, it must be a watershed that divides, not men from women but all of us from noxious notions of who we are and what we should desire.