Why Do We Tolerate and Excuse Sexual Harassment?

On my flight home over Thanksgiving break, I sat down at a randomly-selected seat next to a window on the plane. Since it was a Southwest flight, I ended up sitting next to a couple of strangers who were behind me in line. Both seemed to be in their 60’s, and were unrelated. They seemed perfectly nice, but it was clear that the man had stopped by the airport bar before boarding the flight from PHX to SEA. About 2 hours into fNone animated GIF light, both the woman in the middle and I had to get out of our seats. All was well, until I came back to the seat and was ushered back into my seat by the man on the aisle. Was that what I think it was? I sat down uncomfortably. The woman next to me leaned over and told me that the man had also groped her as she came back into our row. I didn’t leave my seat for the rest of the flight, I didn’t tell the flight attendant what had happened, and I avoided any contact with the man.

Not only are most women subjected to this kind of personal violation when we go out in public, but it is also even more uncomfortable in small spaces, such as airplanes or in a crowded frat house. This happens much more often than we think; there was even a recent case on a flight coming into BNA.


The excuse “Oh, they’ve had too much to drink,” is common in situations like these.

R.W. Connell observes the following when studying masculinity and sexual violence in NSS, “Sex and Power”: “Men are believed to be uncontrollably aggressive and sexual. Society therefore has a tendency to understand rape as a natural consequence of men’s uncontrollable sexual desires and natural tendency toward violence” (47). Another common phrase that we often hear is “Drunk actions are sober thoughts.” Thus, sexual violence and harassment is more excusable if the perpetrator is intoxicated—given that men are “uncontrollably sexual” and are “’authorized by an ideology of supremacy’” (47). Though my experience was not as extreme of Connell’s observations of rape, excusing a man’s inappropriate actions due to alcohol—or to avoid the hassle of reporting it—rings true in both rape cases and other instances of sexual harassment.

Why didn’t I say anything? Why didn’t the woman next to me? My reasoning was that there was nothing to be done about the situation, and I wouldn’t see him again if I just let it go. It wasn’t worth the trouble to point attention to myself if it didn’t seem necessary.

Given a report of sexual harassment or assault, the person reporting it immediately makes themselves a victim in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the public. One way to avoid reporting these crimes is by justifying them—as we often see with the excuse of intoxication. If a survivor does choose to pursue legal action, or subject themselves to questioning from staff or authority, it is not difficult to face a “he said, she said” kind of argument, which can be even more traumatizing for a survivor if their stories are being negated by their attacker or harasser. We tolerate these instances of sexual harassment because it’s far too inconvenient to self-victimize, deal with questions of validity, and feel the need to prove oneself as a survivor of harassment or assault. My experience on the airplane was only a small example, but for people who experience more violent instances of assault, it seems as though it could be extremely difficult to face the public and in some cases, the law, in order to get justice.

Here, I am mostly talking about a situation in which a woman is the survivor and a man is the perpetrator.

In the essay “Sex and Power” in NSS, Kristen Barber understands the sexual relationship between men and women to most often contain a dominant figure—the male—and a submissive figure—the female. “Women are expected to say ‘yes’ to sex because they are expected to be compliant and to fulfill the man’s ‘implicit right’ to get laid regardless of the woman’s desires” (45). This sexual script seems to have a pretty direct correlation to the way sexual harassment, especially from strangers, happens in public. Harassers feel justified and empowered in their actions because it’s “in their nature”; they are considered “dominant”, and more threatening if retaliated against. Even within private relationships we can observe this power dynamic. Bogle brings up the concept of “hidden power” in Hooking Up, which ties in to harassment and other conflicts between sexes in both the public and private sphere. In some marriages, “wives would not even bring up issues that were bothering them in the relationship for fear of ‘rocking the boat’” (101). This hidden power in the dynamic between men and women is present when it comes to conversations of sex or relationships between friends and strangers.

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Even though I didn’t know the man on the airplane, how come he was able to have such “hidden power”? Do you think that in cases of sexual violence, the perpetrator has more hidden power before, during or after the act? How can this dynamic change—is it possible for police and universities (places where survivors can report a crime) to create an environment where the survivor is empowered by telling their experience, rather than victimized?

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