Why Some Men Harass Women

Women protest against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and the GOP in front of Trump Tower in New York, New York, October 19. Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Many American men watching the video clip of Donald Trump bragging about grabbing women's genitals were quick to separate themselves from Trump's vulgar chest-thumping. Some boasted on social media that they would never treat or talk about women that way. The implicit message was: I'm better than him.

The irony is that these self-satisfied viewers were engaging in a bit of chest-thumping themselves. So were some of the television pundits who couldn't condemn Trump loudly enough as they endlessly replayed the clip. They were all displaying a central feature of American masculinity: the need to dominate others, says C.J. Pascoe, a sociologist at the University of Oregon who studies masculinity.

The object of that domination can be women, employees, supervisors, other men or other countries. The Trump video showed not only his disrespect for women; it also showed how he dominated Billy Bush, the man he was talking to. Trump was more aggressive, more outrageous, more entitled. Bush was reduced to sputtering, "Sheesh, your girl's hot as shit." He'd been Trumped. This drive to dominate is what makes an American man a "man," says Pascoe.

Pascoe is talking exclusively about American men. Other societies have different conceptions of masculinity that don't require domination. "Look at northern European socialist democracies," says Pascoe. It's a softer masculinity, and it's evident in those societies. "They have parental leave for both parents, men and women are in leadership roles," and dominance over women or other countries "isn't part of their national identities to begin with" the way it is in the U.S.

American politics provides a near perfect arena for clashes of masculinity. The 2004 presidential election was a good example. It pitted Democrat John Kerry, a formidable political figure, against George W. Bush. Kerry was portrayed by the Bush campaign as an elite, even an eccentric. He spoke French. He was wealthy. And he enjoyed windsurfing, footage of which gave the campaign an excellent way to illustrate its charge that his policy positions shifted with the wind. Bush was supposed to be the lightweight from Texas, whose political career owed much to friends of his father, former President George H.W. Bush. Yet, Bush proved to be the more "masculine" of the two candidates. "He was a real man. He was from Texas. He could shoot things; he was a man's man, a guy's guy," says Pascoe.

By any other reckoning, the portrayals might have flipped. Consider their military records. Kerry fought in Vietnam, where he was a hero, returning home with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Bush served in the National Guard and never saw combat. With proper crafting, that alone could have been enough for Kerry to appear commandingly masculine. Instead, the cerebral senator couldn't compete with the Marlboro Man.

Threats to American men's masculinity can also distort their views of others. Christin Munsch of the University of Connecticut gave undergraduate male students a phony test that, she told them, would measure their masculinity. She told half of them they fell comfortably in the masculine range. The other half were told their scores put them on the feminine side of the spectrum—a clear threat to their masculinity.

The students were then shown several brief scenarios, including one in which a man and woman go to dinner and then back to her apartment, where he ignores her protests and sexually assaults her. Men who had been told they were on the feminine end of the spectrum "exonerated the perpetrator and blamed the victim," Munsch says. "They said, 'We don't like that woman.'" They sympathized with the man. Evidently the threat to their masculinity prompted them to push back, teaming up with the (masculine) perpetrator against the (feminine) target of that harassment.

Men whose masculinity hadn't been threatened were generous. They were sympathetic toward the woman and less likely to defend the man, because they had little to prove. Their masculinity had been "certified" by Munsch's phony test. Other research has shown that men whose masculinity is threatened are, for example, more likely to send dirty jokes to women.

This distasteful head-butting might be less distressing were it not for the effect it has on so many women. In recent days, 11 women have publicly accused Trump of sexual misconduct. The incidents allegedly occurred years or even decades ago, which has prompted Trump allies and others to question their credibility. Trump has denied the sexual harassment accusations and said he's the victim of a conspiracy orchestrated by Hillary Clinton's campaign and the media. Trump's denials do not, however, erase what we've all seen on the videotape.

Researchers say, perhaps with a bit of wishful thinking, that norms and expectations change over time. The outbursts that Trump characterized as locker-room talk "seems like something from a different time, a time we're not so proud of," says Christopher Uggen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. He doesn't claim the problem has been solved.

Some of Trump's supporters no doubt believe we're heading in the wrong direction. "Many white men feel aggrieved, says Pascoe. "Gains by women and minorities are often felt as losses by these men." The collapse of old norms has snatched from them the opportunity to use women as props in their masculinity clashes with each other. Some will feel deeply aggrieved if Trump is defeated—especially so, perhaps, because his opponent was a woman.