Men, staying silent isn’t an option – women will face more victim-blaming if you don’t challenge sexual harassment

A study has found that men feel sympathy for other men accused of sexual misconduct. What will it take for them to start holding their own to account?

We’ve known for some time just how big an impact rape culture has had on society. Many of us have also, at some stage, witnessed the nonchalance with which some people treat sexual harassment, even in the face of growing, global, victim-led efforts like the #MeToo movement.

Those whose instincts tell them to side with the accused, rather than at least considering the prospect of taking accusations against them seriously, often express a fear of needlessly tarnishing someone’s reputation. For a man, it’s too big a thing to lose, too much of a risk to their mental and professional wellbeing. Nevermind worrying about the victim’s trauma and the well-documented effects of what surviving an ordeal like sexual harassment does to a person.

I’ve long suspected that blindly believing men who have been accused of harassing women is a sure sign of rancid misogyny – some unexamined, bubbling-under-the-surface mistrust of anything women say or do, even if the evidence gives no real reason to reject their statements.

But exactly what drives some men to take up for anyone charged with the accusation of having sexually harassed, abused or assaulted a person, isn’t quite as straightforward as you’d assume.

In fact, a recent study from Exeter, Bath and Queensland universities has explained that rather than having an inherent lack of empathy, men who take sides with other men accused of sexual harassment tend to do so because they have an abundance of it – but for men only, it seems.

The research involved asking men at universities to respond to “clear-cut” examples of sexual harassment, with more complex cases inviting more scrutiny of victims (essentially, victim-blaming), and yet more sympathy with men accused of harassing women.

Renata Bongiorno, who led the research, told The Independent:

“It is widely assumed that a lack of empathy for female victims explains why people blame them, but we actually found that empathy for the male sexual harasser was a more consistent explanation of variability in victim blame.”

It’s not necessarily surprising news. The men’s rights activists who reserve their outrage solely for the purpose of arguing that “women sexually harass men too” each time a woman comes forward with her story, or that taking accusations of sexual harassment seriously just opens up more opportunities to wrongfully accuse men, clearly have more empathy for their own kind. But it is illuminating in the sense that their warped perception of complex cases of sexual harassment, which are more common than not, seem to have a hand in creating more hoops for victims to have to jump through in order to be believed.

It also explains why so many men fail to hold each other accountable. They simply can’t see a reason to because, on some level, many men feel that doing so would mean admitting fault within themselves.

According to the academics who worked on the research: “Accusations of in-group wrongdoing, as in the case of a man’s sexual harassment of a woman, may pose a threat to men’s sense of their gender group as moral.

“To reduce this threat, men may afford male perpetrators the benefit of the doubt and interpret events in a way that is biased towards that perpetrator’s perspective.”

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So, what’s the remedy for this? If speaking out against harassment means men not only don’t believe women, but also seek to blame them for what they’ve been through, how do we stand a chance of ever changing that knee-jerk reaction to our truths?

The academics behind the research argue that learning to understand how bias works, as well as debunking harmful myths that lend themselves to victim-blaming – ie her clothes gave me the signal; she was flirting with me too – could help men to realise who they’re really standing up for when they universally reject the claims of women.

But I think we need to go further. Like so many other forms of prejudice, one of the most effective means of dealing with it is for those who stand to benefit from discrimination to take it upon themselves to challenge people like them – the people who would shut down if anyone else contradicted their views.

Men could start by seeking to understand their part in exacerbating harassment, even if – from their perspective – it’s as indirect as “happening” to have more trust in people like them, or saying nothing because it’s easier. Stop and ask yourself why your gut tells you to challenge women rather than men, why factors like what someone is wearing, or how promiscuous you deem them to be, trump the facts every single time.

It’s hard to challenge people, especially when you’re in the same social circles. But it doesn’t even come close to summoning the strength to publicly accuse someone of sexual harassment, knowing full well that women who do are too often crucified for it. Just as bias can be learned, it can be unlearned. The sooner more men realise that, the better.

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