Does Male-ness Lead to Sexual Assault and Harassment?

“What’s so important to understand in all of these cases is the social power that’s conferred on [men].” Sherry Hamby

For so long, many victims of sexual violence have found it difficult or impossible to tell their stories. But now, we’re starting to see victims come forward accusing a string of celebrities, politicians, and public figures of multiple sexual assaults. Those cases reflect what we generally see in the dynamics between attackers and their victims: powerful males targeting people — mostly women — who are in vulnerable positions compared to their attackers. But what is it about those gender dynamics that make them so common? What is it about male-ness that leads to this kind of behavior?

Detroit Today host, Stephen Henderson, speaks with Antonia Abbey, professor and Social-Personality Area chair at Wayne State University and incoming editor of “Psychology of Violence,” a multidisciplinary research journal devoted to violence and extreme aggression. She emphasizes the importance of socialized gender roles in sexual assault cases.  

“We have to just think a lot about the way people are taught from early in life to handle situations,” says Abbey. “Men are taught to be more comfortable with their sexual desires, to feel like they should act on them… We’re seeing more outrage about some of this, but still some of the lower level stuff, the street the harassment, the other types of comments that women so more often get than men. Men see other men rewarded for doing that… People laugh as opposed to call you out…We all have to look to ourselves and think about why is this still going on, why did these women have so much trouble coming forward when everybody knew it was happening?”

Henderson also speaks with Sherry Hamby, current editor of Psychology of Violence and director of the Life Paths Appalachian Research Center and research professor at the University of the South. She says that in addition to social programming, physical and social power are also at play.

“Men do have more physical power,” she explains. “Men are on average taller and have more muscle mass than women…Of course what’s so important to understand in all of these cases… is the social power that’s conferred on them… Men have so much more social power in certain situations than women do and these are all very powerful men using their social power so that their physical power becomes secondary.”

With so many powerful men being accused of sexual misconduct, Abbey says it’s important to focus on alternatives to the aggressive male narrative.

“There are a lot of images of masculinity and certainly it’s a predominant one… where power and sex so often go together. But I think we can all think of men we admire that don’t share that profile that we think of as strong men and get their power and use their power in other ways.  So I think there are different images of masculinity that we can strive for and encourage young men to have.” 

To hear the full conversation click the audio player above. 


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