“Don’t be such a girl!” Believe it or not, this is an oft-repeated refrain in Australian schoolyards.
Boys are teased, taunted or bullied for showing the slightest femininity.
It’s become part of the dinner conversation with our 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, who’ve internalised this mindless misogyny.
Inevitably, these attitudes extend to the workplace. Take these comments contained in my 1600-strong file of sexual harassment allegations: “Harden up, princess.” “What’s wrong with you, bitch?” “You deserve to be raped.”
But they weren’t aimed at women – they were directed towards men. Mario* says he was abused in his teens by a male colleague when he worked as a floor manager at a regional television station.
Six suicide attempts and three decades later, he has finally gone to the police. “He plied me with alcohol and I woke up with him performing oral sex on me,” Mario says. “The reason I give this information is that I know for a fact that this happened to at least three studio crew.”
This reinforces the message that the problem of sexual harassment is not just a female problem. Despite this, information on male survivors of workplace indecent assault is scant.
Paula McDonald at Queensland University of Technology and Sara Charlesworth at RMIT University analysed all 282 formal complaints of sexual harassment in Australia during a six-month period. Almost four out of five – 78 per cent – involved a man sexually harassing a woman.
The next largest category was men harassed by men (11 per cent), then women by women (5.7 per cent) and men by women (5 per cent).
Some female harassers behave in ways associated with “toxic masculinity” to get ahead in the boys’ club.
One male journalist disclosed how he was sexually harassed by an alpha female: a trailblazing national news and current affairs host. “She kept crossing her legs on my lap, and draping herself across me,” he says.
“It made me feel like a piece of meat.”
During my investigations into sexual harassment in the media and entertainment industry, I found that serial predators who targeted women also bullied those men who didn’t fit an alpha male stereotype. This underpins why such men are reticent to come forward: doing so draws attention to their nonconformity.
What seems to be at issue here is the enforcement of long-held norms. Put simply, women in the workforce – simply by being there – challenge the idea that work is a man’s space and a woman’s place is in the home.
In Mario’s case, the perpetrator was a gay man asserting his toxic masculinity by preying on men who showed a feminine vulnerability.
Interestingly, the McDonald and Charlesworth research shows men tend to experience sexual harassment if they deviate from traditional male roles and are pro-feminist, regardless of their sexual orientation. They are far less likely to report it, and receive little support if they speak out.
Thankfully, #MeToo is changing that.
After his incident, Mario never worked in television again. Last month, he made a full statement to police. “I am no longer afraid to be transparent,” he tells me.
This is why we created NOW Australia, a not-for-profit aimed at helping anyone who is sexually harassed in the workplace, regardless of gender. Let’s hope that thanks to the courage of men like Mario, the next generation won’t have to live through this horror.
But it begins at the grassroots: in the schoolyards, sporting grounds and lounge rooms. Our son spoke up the next time he heard girls being disparaged in the playground.
“I told them it was sexist,” he says, “and they stopped it.”
* Name has been changed.