Is the male libido really to blame?

Sex, power, and #MeToo

The #MeToo movement has given rise to the view, expressed with alarm in social and other media, that men are pigs. Such a view was on display in a letter an anonymous woman sent to sex columnist Dan Savage, in which she said she doubted she would ever sleep with a man again after reading so many stories of sexual harassment. “I know #notallmen, but I have to admit, I wake up and read the news, and I find myself saying, my god, men are disgusting.” Toronto writer (and Literary Review of Canada contributor) Stephen Marche expressed a similar view in in a widely discussed New York Times article. It argued that the exposure of Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, and other harassers should prompt an overdue conversation about “the masculine libido and its accompanying forces and pathologies.” Savage vividly summed up the view of men expressed by his letter writer, Marche, and many other people who follow the news in the age of #MeToo. “Men,” Savage wrote, “are testosterone-soaked dick monsters.”

This view offers an explanation of sexual harassment that emphasizes the raw barbarism of the male sex drive. Of course Savage, Marche, and other proponents are not so simplistic as to blame harassment on male body chemistry and leave it at that. Their articles inevitably contain qualifiers. But the view they share is noteworthy in the degree to which it explains sexual harassment by reference to a particular aspect of biology. It is sometimes said that the best way to understand a political writer is to ask what they are afraid of. Proponents of the sex-monsters theory of harassment may fear that when we describe the ultimate causes of predatory behaviour, an excess of gentility will cause us to overlook the central role played by men’s most basic sexual urges.

I have a different fear. It is that we too easily overlook the degree to which sexual harassment is a product of power. There is a long history of ascribing natural causes to practices and institutions that are the product of human decision-making. To our ancestors, everything from poverty to female fainting fits all had perfectly natural explanations. Proponents of the view that the inner drives of men are the primary cause of sexual harassment are just as horrified by harassment as anyone. But their explanation of it courts complacency by exaggerating how impervious harassment is to efforts to eliminate it.

The idea that male lust is the problem derives support from the obvious fact that men are the perpetrators in all the high-profile #MeToo cases. Junot Dìaz is only the latest example. Another writer, Zinzi Clemmons, stepped up to the microphone during a live Q&A at an Australian literary festival to publicly accuse the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist of having harassed her six years previously when she invited Dìaz to a literary workshop. After Clemmons challenged Dìaz, other women came forward with stories of his abusive behaviour. In this way the allegations against Dìaz repeat the same pattern: a man harassing and abusing multiple woman, stretching back through Weinstein, Franken, and the rest.

A salient fact about Clemmons is that at the time of her harassment she was a graduate student. In her words, “I was an unknown wide-eyed twenty-six-year-old, and he used it as an opportunity to corner and forcibly kiss me.” Dìaz was a famous writer harassing a lower-status member of the literary world. In this way he is typical of the big #MeToo cases, which invariably involve men exploiting a position of status or power. Weinstein, who may be the most extreme case, has been charged with raping and assaulting actors who needed to stay on his good side for the sake of their careers. Weinstein, however, was also a major fundraiser for the Democratic party. In this capacity he came in contact with many women, including senators for whom he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. The female politicians and staffers Weinstein interacted with had reasons to stay in his good graces, but he did not have the same make-or-break power over their careers. None of the accusations against Weinstein to date have involved political women. If he did harass them, it seems to have been far less often than he abused women in his own profession.

Dìaz and Weinstein in this way are typical of other high-profile harassers. They did not inflict themselves on women who are their social equals with anything like the frequency they targeted less powerful women. This suggests they are perfectly capable of restraining themselves around women when they deem it prudent to do so. This self-control is hard to reconcile with understandings of harassment that emphasize sheer libidinal desire. If the main driver is sexual attraction, why do few men harass their bosses? But, if Weinstein and other predators who gave rise to #MeToo deliberately target lower-status women, then their behaviour reflects not an inability to control their natural urges but a ruthless willingness to exploit workplace and other hierarchies. Yet to date #cancelmen has trended as a hashtag while #cancelbosses has not.

Other areas of sexual life support the thought that it is conditioned by power. Consider sexual tourism. For decades, it was something men pursued. But in recent years media stories have documented women doing it too. A 2007 Reuters piece noted that Kenya had become popular with British and Scandinavian women in their fifties and sixties who travel there because it is “just full of big young boys who like us older girls,” as one British tourist put it. The women sleep with men thirty years their junior, whom they reward with “gifts”—a scenario that was once unthinkable. What has changed over time is not women’s body chemistry. It is that there are now women with enough economic power to participate in a practice that well-off men have always engaged in.

Of course, female sexual tourism is not equivalent to sexual assault. Men in the developing world who sleep with Western women often tell researchers that they enjoy it. One reason is that unlike when the roles are reversed, the men are rarely in physical danger. The average body sizes of men and women highlights biology’s obvious relevance to determining whether someone is vulnerable to sexual exploitation and, by extension, harassment. But biology is relevant because it affects the kind of power one person can have over another, and power is not a chemical property but a relational one.

If sexual harassment is significantly about power, this can explain the full complexity of sexual harassment. Take female high school teachers, who regularly make headlines for initiating inappropriate relationships with male students, including boys as young as twelve or those who have mental disabilities. Reliable numbers about the frequency of such cases are hard to come by: academic studies suggest that the practice is severely under-reported. But if we hear about female teachers doing this more than women in other professions it may reflect the fact that high school teaching is a form of authority in which women are disproportionately represented and that the boys over whom they have authority are less physically imposing on average than men. Female teachers can also be seriously harassed by male students, subject to catcalls and other verbal abuse. The point of such behaviour is not to initiate a sexual relationship with a teacher but to redefine the relationship of teacher and student as one between a man and a woman—to undermine one source of power by accessing another.

The testosterone-driven view of sexual harassment obscures the truth that abuse exploits power imbalances of any kind, social or biological. That is worth bearing mind if we are serious about making harassment a thing of the past.