Almost every woman who’s been catcalled has wondered, to herself or to friends, what men get out of the sport. Do they really think she’s going to stop, take out her earbuds, and hand over her phone number? How many instances of street harassment actually end in dates, sexual encounters, or loving relationships? Or do they just like watching women get uncomfortable?
A report released in May offers a bit of insight into why men harass women in public and what environmental factors predispose them to such behavior. U.N. Women and Promundo, a global organization that involves men and boys in gender equality advocacy, surveyed 4,830 men in four countries in the Middle East and North Africa: Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, and Palestine. Between 31 percent (in Lebanon) and 64 percent (in Egypt) of men admitted to harassing women in public spaces with actions that ranged from ogling and sexual comments to sexual groping and rape, and a large majority—almost 90 percent in Egypt—said they harassed women just because it was fun.
In almost every country the survey touched, better-educated men were more likely to say they’ve harassed women than their less-educated counterparts. This was an unexpected result for Promundo researchers, NPR reports, because men with more education usually have more progressive views about women and their place in society. One researcher proposed to NPR that these men might have high expectations for their own achievements but see themselves as failures because of high unemployment and an inability to keep their families safe from political unrest. They might harass women “to put them in their place” because “the world owes them,” the researcher suggested.
Women surveyed generally reported higher levels of sexual harassment than men admitted, from 40 percent in Palestine and 57 percent in Lebanon to 60 percent in Egypt. (For comparison, in a nationally representative 2014 survey, 65 percent of U.S. women reported enduring public harassment.) Populations of different countries varied widely in their opinions about how and when women are to blame for the harassment they suffer. Nearly two-thirds of both men and women in Palestine said provocatively dressed women deserve to be heckled, while 52 percent of men and 43 percent of women say women out in public at night are “asking to be harassed.” Nearly a third of Palestinian men and 23 percent of Palestinian women said women without headscarves “deserve to be insulted.” In Egypt, 74 percent of men and 84 percent of women would blame a woman for being harassed if she dressed provocatively; in Morocco, those figures are 72 and 78 percent, respectively. More than half of Moroccan women said women who go out at night are asking for harassment.
Often, when women advocate against public harassment, concerned men propose that some women like the attention, and because there’s no way to know which women will appreciate a catcall or take it as a threat, stopping men from catcalling will deprive some women of sexual affirmation. In every country the Promundo study surveyed, far more men than women said that “women like the attention” when men sexually harass them. In Morocco, for instance, 71 percent of men said women enjoyed sexual harassment, but only 42 percent of women agreed. Only 20 percent of Egyptian women said women enjoyed harassment, but 43 percent of men said they did.
Because the survey also asked men about their home lives, childhood development, and views on society, researchers were able to sketch a profile of men who harass women in public spaces. In addition to being young, on the wealthier end of the socio-economic spectrum, and generally more educated, harassers are more likely than their peers to have been abused at home or witnessed abuse against their mothers. Palestinian men who admitted to committing intimate partner violence were more likely to also admit to sexual harassment, as were Lebanese men who hold sexist beliefs about women. These results aren’t particularly surprising, but new statistics that appear to prove long-standing beliefs can offer some hope for progress: If there are indeed some commonalities among harassers, advocates stand a better chance of stopping harassment before it starts.