“It’s a form of power, and that’s scary.”
New research shows young men with at least secondary-level education are more likely to harass women in the street than their older, less-educated counterparts.
The international study “Understanding Masculinities”, conducted by UN Women and research group Promundo, looks at the motivation behind street harassment and catcalling. In 2010, the UN launched its Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces campaign aimed at preventing public harassment in more than 20 countries.
Researchers surveyed 4830 men Middle Eastern and North African men from Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco and the Palestinian territories. While the region has some of the lowest rates of women’s economic participation in the world and its traditional views are inequitable, the authors of the study say its findings are universally relevant.
“We know that street harassment is an issue around the world, and there are likely similar dynamics at play. We just happen to have a rich glimpse of what it looks like in [this] region through this data set,” co-author Brian Heilman told NPR.
They struggle to achieve the socially recognised sense of a man as financial provider.
Street harassment is a global problem, and while there is plenty of research about the effects on women, the authors say there is a lack of knowledge about what motivates the men who engage in it.
The study found that young men with secondary-level education are the most prolific catcallers. Its authors were surprised by this, arguing these men should have more enlightened attitudes toward women.
But in reality, they can also have stronger feelings of inadequacy and resentment towards a world they believe owes them something.
“Many young men report difficulties finding a job, and as such, they struggle to achieve the socially recognised sense of a man as financial provider,” the study says.
Their behaviour can also be a “backlash to gender equality”, and a way for them to assert their power.
Executive director of HELP, an Auckland agency that supports victims of sexual violence, Kathryn McPhillips, says the finding is particularly interesting and disappointing.
“It makes sense that they might act out in some way, but to act out in this way - to try to make women feel smaller - really shows the underlying misogyny that still exists in our culture,” she says.
“It would be great if there was further research done in New Zealand. Right now, I personally don’t understand what motivates a man to hassle a woman.”
Of the Egyptian men surveyed, 64 percent admitted having sexually harassed women and girls in public. Most blamed women for dressing provocatively. More than four out of five said they did it for fun or excitement.
Many have a delusion that women want to be the subject of catcalling.
“How is that fun?” asks McPhillips.
She says in her experience alcohol is obviously another factor and so is the group-effect - a way for a man to “show off in front of his mates”.
“Many have a delusion that women want to be the subject of catcalling - that they want their body to be the subject of a guy yelling in a passing car - but the situation can change very quickly,” she says.
“If a man gives what he thinks is a compliment and a woman doesn’t give what he thinks is an acceptable response, it can very quickly switch to abuse.”
Street harassment can have a range of psychological effects, and can be triggering for survivors of sexual violence.
“It can make women think twice before going to certain public places, particularly alone, because it’s frightening,” McPhillips says.
“There’s an inherent threat as well in that if a man can verbally abuse a woman, he may also physically assault a woman. It’s a form of power, and that’s scary.”
Problems in the online world are well-known. A study last year found almost three-quarters of New Zealand women under the age of 30 have experienced some form of online harassment.
New Zealand was listed as one of six countries “fighting back against catcalling” by Complex magazine last year.
Under law, unlike many other countries, anyone who “uses any threatening or insulting words and is reckless whether any person is alarmed or insulted by those words; or addresses any indecent or obscene words to any person” can be fined up to $1000.
“Understanding Masculinities” also found three quarters of both the men and women surveyed in the Arab region still define women as wives and mothers first. There was little difference in the attitudes of younger and older people.
Yet the study concluded younger women in the region are yearning for more equality.