Sexism And The City – Nature Or Nurture?


Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. 

Women are afraid that men will kill them. –  Margaret Atwood

The last time I said anything remotely qualified as sexist, was in 1980, in a Chinese restaurant in the West-End of London. The chopsticks were hygienically wrapped in a beautiful red paper sleeve, decorated with Chinese letters. There was a small print, English translation of the text, “with these, you can pick up anything.” I jokingly said, “Hey guys, I’ll try them, to pick up a woman.” We laughed, as young, unmarried blokes do, and our laughter was directed at male dominance and female submission.

It goes without saying, that rape should be systematically condemned and punished. The same applies to the so-called “rape-culture”, in which rape is considered to be a part of normality. The people who defend this by arguing, “yeah, it’s part of our culture, so it should be OK,” not only demonstrate a gaping lack of reasoning, but also a profound disrespect for their fellow human beings.

The question that I am posing, albeit to the annoyance of hardline feminists, is to what extent are sexism and sexual harassment, governed by the environment (i.e. our culture), genetics, or both. Having been scolded by two fellow bloggers, before this post even saw the light of day, I fear choppy waters ahead, but they do say that the worst of what you write, is still better than the best of what you don’t. So please, read me out.

I view sexism as relating to the acceptance, and propagation, of a male dominated world, in which a woman’s place is limited – preferably limited to the home, looking after the kids, and buying the week’s food supplies at the local supermarket. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sexism as, “prejudice and discrimination based on sex; especially: discrimination against women,” but also as, “behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.” 

The dictionary’s definition of sexual harassment is, “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate.” The term is much harder to define, for the simple reason that, in order to define it, one must make a list of all male behaviours comprising the definition. Having seen the film “Fatal Attraction” several times, I do think that a list of all the things that women do, could also be included in the definition. Added to this, is the problem of defining a threshold level, above which, this behaviour becomes defined as sexual harassment. I ask myself if behaviour such as staring, whistling, sexual joking, and sexual innuendoes, can systematically be considered as sexual harassment. If it is, then at least half the films ever produced should have been severely censored, and the entire collection of the UK “Carry On…” films, should have been destroyed. I suppose that it all boils down to quantity over quality. There is a huge difference between a rather basic-looking  building worker who whistles to a woman passer-by, who he will probably never see again, and a boss who constantly behaves in an inappropriate way with his female employees, every working day of the week. I would find it hard to believe that there are men, in this world, who have never shown off, teased, or even jokingly flirted with women who were not their partners. And how many women have never uttered a single innuendo, or fluttered their eyelashes in order to escape a parking fine given out by a man? Never, I hear you say? Seriously though, I apologize in advance, to anyone who is remotely feminist, but I do believe that this behaviour contains a substratum comprising our evolutionary past.


Natural/Biological Theory of Sexual Harassment and Aggression

I am not saying, for one moment, that sexual harassment reposes solely on a biological basis, as clearly it doesn’t. However, I do believe that such “evolutionary remnants” could contribute to the fact that the perpetrators of sexual harassment, are mostly men.The theory rests on the premise that men have a stronger sexual drive than women, and that this sexual drive can lead to aggressive behaviour at the workplace, due to an imbalance between men and women. In searching for more sexual partners, and not obtaining them, “frustrated” men utilize their position of power to satisfy an innate human instinct. Sexual harassment could be viewed from an evolutionary perspective.

The theory does contain flaws, and can certainly be disputed. The most obvious objection is that it echoes the reasoning used by those defending “rape-culture”, namely that sexual harassment is a natural phenomenon and must be accepted as such. It also does not explain the fact that women are not the sole victims of sexual harassment.

But biology is not only about evolution. In 2015, General Tom Lawson, a high-ranking Canadian military, ignited a nationwide controversy during a televised interview. When asked why sexual harassment was still a problem in the Canadian military, he calmly replied that, “it’s a trade answer, but we are wired in a certain way, and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others…” Lawson quickly apologized for his comments by saying that, “I apologize for my awkward characterization … of the issue of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces. Sexual misconduct in any form, in any situation is clearly unacceptable.” His comments might pose problems for politicians, but what about biologists?

The question that must be posed, is to what extent does biology “dictate” human behaviour in relation to sexual harassment. I could compare the conundrum to someone lighting a match in a room filled with gas: is the ensuing explosion caused by the match, or the fact that the room was filled with gas? The match, of course, refers to biology, and the gas, to our “permissive” societies – the tiny spark compared to the billions of gas molecules, floating in the room, but the two combined form an explosive cocktail.

Of course, the role of biology in sexual harassment cannot be proved or experimented with. We are certainly not talking about a gene that can be isolated and manipulated, although some research may lead us to think otherwise. 

Niklas Långström is the author of a controversial research article entitled, “Sexual offending runs in families: A 37-year nationwide study.” The study comprised an extensive analysis of familial aggregation and the contribution of genetic and environmental factors to sexual crime. The longitudinal study linked Swedish crime and multigenerational family registers. It included all men convicted of any sexual offence, including child molestation, from 1973 to 2009. Sexual crime rates among fathers and brothers of sexual offenders were compared with corresponding rates in fathers and brothers of age-matched population control men without sexual crime convictions. The relative influence of genetic and environmental factors to the liability of sexual offending, was also modelledThe results suggest “strong evidence of familial clustering of sexual offending, primarily accounted for by genes rather than shared environmental influences.” 

Environmental factors affecting sexual behaviour are more difficult to analyse. The study did comprise maternal and paternal half-brothers, being brought up in the same and different family homes, respectively. The risk of sexual offence was found to be high in both groups, but significantly lower than that of full siblings, suggesting a non-negligeable influence of genetic factors. However, the report does not go into detail concerning the differing nature of the environmental factors in the various groups comprising the study.

Although the study strongly suggests a “genetic background”, even the authors admit that, “caution is needed regarding generalization of the relative importance of genetic and non-shared environmental influences on sexual offending to countries and settings with poorer gender equality and sexual rights policies.”


Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic

Egypt is a prime example of how the social and cultural environment – patriarchy, in particular – can affect the incidence, and acceptance, of sexual harassment. According to a study sponsored by the United Nations, 99% of surveyed Egyptian women admitted experiencing some kind of sexual harassment at some period in their lives – the most common feature being, inappropriate touching.

Hani Henry, of the American University in Cairo, published an study, in 2016, using feminist theory to analyse the reasons given by the participants for their sexual harassment. Henri considers sexual harassment as having a sexist – rather than a sexual – component.

Feminist theory posits that sexual harassment should be treated as a sexist act that aims to subjugate and disempower women, and punish their efforts to compete with men over jobs and status. This theory challenges the idea that sexual harassment is a sexual act and invites scholars to see it from a gender-based angle that reflects male dominance and women’s subordination, which are constantly condoned by society.

A prevailing view was that women were responsible for the sexual harassment, with one participant saying, “I did not intentionally want to harass women but I believed that women send subtle message through the way they are dressed. Women with tight clothes are probably sending a message that they are asking for sex.” Well, he may have just bumped into the poor woman, by mistake, and one thing lead to the other. We all makes mistakes, but few of us open up our trousers in doing so. It is sadly ironic that the participants blame women for their sexual assaults, ignoring their own violent conduct.


“Forgive me, I’m being biological”

You may find my views controversial or even sexist. “How on earth can he suggest that sexual harassment may be biological,” I hear you say. Even if it were, biological instincts can be overridden by moral will, and be ignored or suppressed.

For those who think that I have no empathy for the victims, think again. When I was 13 years-old, I was the victim of sexual molestation, not once, but twice. One incident took place in a public toilet at Kilburn underground station, the other on a street pavement leading to my home. On both occasions I found myself alone, facing a perverted man. I told no-one of the incidents that, luckily, had no traumatic consequences. But I can assure you that, more than 40 years later, I can still vividly picture myself as an innocent teenager, running out of a public toilet, not having finished what I went in for. I can also recall, in perfect detail, the thoughts that went through my mind, when being blatantly followed by a man. When I stopped walking, he stopped too, looking at me, and making sexual gestures with a folded newspaper. I did not know whether to run, too scared that he would chase me. I went into the first open driveway that I came across, pretending that it was my home, hoping that he would walk away – luckily, he did.

Whereas it is true that our societies facilitate the expression of deviant behaviours, by glorifying sexual exhibitionism and freedoms, and making men “macho’s”, it is not only the latter who should be educated and/or counselled, in order to restrain their biological impulses. I do have the feeling that women may have to at least consider discussing certain things, in the context of present-day society. In the 60’s and 70’s, the legalisation of contraception and abortion, was thought to reduce the blatant inequalities between the sexes. Just maybe, it has had the opposite effect.

It is to be hoped that in the wake of the Harvey Weistein scandal, women will be less scared to come out in the open and make public their upsetting experiences with the opposite sex. Social media, for all its ills, has a positive role to play in letting people express their anxieties. The success of the #MeToo twitter campaign, followed more recently by, #Ihave, in which men can own up to their misdemeanors, may be a sign that our mentalities are changing for the better. However, one problem remains the same and is not yet resolved – the boundary not to be crossed, that separates harmless fun from sexual harassment. The next time a woman asks me if I think her latest hairstyle is sexy, I’m gong to answer, “You may think that, I couldn’t possibly comment.” Just to be on the safe side, I suppose.

My advice to all women is, dress as you want to. As long as it’s legal, and not religious, it won’t bother me. As one blogger so eloquently wrote:

I don’t wear sexy clothes. I don’t wear makeup. I don’t shave — anything. None of that stopped me from getting sexually assaulted, catcalled, harassed, and stalked. I have suffered because men are sexually attracted to me, and no choice I make will stop this. Refusing to conform to the norms of sexual attractiveness does not stop it. Binding my breasts does not stop it. Being read as gay does not stop it.

So why fucking bother?

If I’m going to be harassed no matter what, why not look good for the people who are respectful and who I might actually want to fuck?

Maybe what she’s saying, in her own charming and feminine way, is that dress, appearance, and society, have nothing to do with it.If you’re pretty, it may be all about biology. Well, to be honest, she may well think that…I just couldn’t possibly comment.