Harassment Against Women In Bars

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How often do men approach and touch women at bars without an invitation and how often is this recognized as a social issue? The answer is very often and almost never. This is due to the social construction of gendered behaviour and gender inequality. Gender throughout time has been socially constructed to create difference between men and women in our society. It is constantly created and recreated through human interaction, social life, and acts as the texture and order of that social life (Lorber, 1994). I chose to observe gender and how it produces gender inequality by analyzing the behaviour between men and women at bars. Although one often goes to a bar to connect socially with other people, these connections can often develop into sexual and romantic interactions that individuals were or were not willingly seeking out. For this reason, bars are commonly considered an open and social setting where individuals are not only able to initiate these interactions, but where these interactions should be expected. It is also very apparent that bars are a space for performances of hegemonic masculinity. As a result, many sexual interactions towards women are often unsolicited and leave women in a state of powerlessness. I argue that gender norms such as the stereotypical gender performance of aggressively pursuing women and the policing of masculinity create a context of hegemonic masculinity in bars that results in gender inequality through the act of predatory behaviour.

Consistent with Marcus Hunters argument in his guest lecture, the bar setting tended to be a predominantly hetero-dominate culture; thus not giving gender fluid individuals a place to go. Within the three bars I observed, there was a limited amount of space for gender fluidity, which demonstrates how bar culture can be exclusionary and segregated (Hunter, 2019). In one of the bars I visited, the women’s restroom door had an image of Caitlyn Jenner, while the men’s restroom had an image of Bruce Jenner. This sends a message that people who identify outside of the heterosexual frame are displaced, uninvited, and excluded from the bar culture. Consequently, I believe this privileging of heteronormative spaces allows hegemonic masculinity to take the dominant form of behaviour that is being observed at bars, and does not allow for more intersectional experiences and interactions to take place and be observed (Hunter, 2019). In addition, there was also a lack of racial diversity observed during my time at these bars. Not one of my excerpts below include a gendered interaction by people of colour. As a society, we can assume it is due to the fact people of colour are not interested in partaking in bar culture. However, the hyper-sexualization of women of colour and the criminalization of men of colour can also be the reason for the lack of racial diversity observed. If women of colour were to participate in bar culture, it would only reinforce the stereotypes of their race (Wade, 2017). In addition, Annette Ferguson argues that men of colour are not given the same leeway as white boys, especially in terms of viewing deviant behaviour as “boys will be boys.” I believe this argument extends to bar culture, as men of colour would be punished more severely for partaking in predatory behaviour against women (Ferguson, 2000). The lack of racial and sexual diversity witnessed within my six hours of observations fails to demonstrate how the presence of individuals outside of the heteronormative and dominantly white atmosphere could potentially impact my findings on gender inequality in the bar setting.

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During my time observing gendered interactions at different bars, one specific type of interaction remained consistent within all three locations: unsolicited sexualized interactions initiated by men. According to Lisa Wade, harassment and unsolicited sexual touching are not only accepted, but they are the norm in places like bars (Wade, 2017). The was the case for the first two interactions I observed, which occurred as a result of norms such as the stereotypical pursuit of a women through a predatory form of behaviour. The first interaction involved two women who were dancing. As one of the women goes low while dancing, a man approached her from behind and began grinding. He then placed his hands on her hips, pulled her back towards him, and began grinding again with their bodies now touching. The woman reciprocated the movements for a while, but then attempted to dance away towards her friend. The man, however, followed her and continued to “dance” behind her. This occurred once more until she finally turned around and put her hand up signalling for him to stop. The man then simply turned around and left. Given the women’s obvious reaction and attempts to shyly move away, and the mans clear disregard of her reaction insinuates this was an example of predatory behaviour. A similar type of predatory behaviour through a hyper-masculinized performance was also witnessed in the following scenario.

In this interaction, a fairly larger group of young men were near the corner of the bar, when I noticed they would take turns fixedly staring at a woman until they noticed and gave some sort of reaction. Most women would notice, get uncomfortable and move to another part of the bar. In one instance, however, it was taking a woman a longer time to react to the man making eyes at her. The man looked back towards his friends and smiled, then got much closer to her, intentionally crowding her space. Finally, the woman told him “can you fuck off” and then walked away. The man laughed and said “it’s all good my bad” and returned to his friends who were all laughing. As West and Zimmerman argue, people organize their activities for the purpose of expressing gender. In observing this interaction, it was very apparent the motivation behind the mans actions was to put on a show for his friends through a performance of masculinity (West and Zimmerman, 1987). However, it important to discuss why this behaviour, or expression of gender, seen in both interactions is so widely disregarded and seen as normal.

These two observations highlight not only the gender norms in place that allow this type of behaviour to be viewed as normal and acceptable, but they also highlight the structural contexts facilitating these environments that cause hypersexual masculine performances. In analyzing how gender norms are at play, these interactions demonstrate how “typical drunk guy behaviour” has come to be seen as a version of “boys will be boys” (Wade, 2017). It was very apparent security was witnessing both interactions taking place, but they failed to step in. Wade argues due to the expectations commonly observed in public drinking establishments, men tend to initiate sexualized interactions through very hypersexual performances that are not observed in other non-alcoholic public spaces. She states this is applicable to both men and women, however, due to the fact that sexually pursuing women is an imperative aspect of masculinity, men are more likely to initiate these encounters (Wade, 2017). Judith Lorber also argues the gender norms that facilitate this behaviour serve to differentiate the positions men and women have in a society, which Lorber would argue, is the main purpose of creating gender: to subordinate women to men (Lorber, 1994). As a result, I argue that the belief that regards predatory behaviour as typical male behaviour stems from gender inequality and the way we, as a society, have chosen to define acceptable “male” and “female” behaviour. These norms do not only affirm the fact that it is a men’s right to attempt sexual contact, but that it is the very definition of being a real man to perform these hyper-sexualized performances.

Furthermore, aside from gender norms, it is also important to note the structural contexts of bar culture that are facilitating this environment that causes hypersexual predatory performances to take place. Michael Messner argues structural frameworks, which assists in highlighting the ways gender is built into institutions through hierarchal sexual divisions, are useful in explaining under what conditions individuals in society mobilize to disrupt or reaffirm gender differences and inequalities (Messner, 2000). In the bar setting, an overarching structural factor playing a role in the interactions observed is alcohol. I argue drinking atmospheres are shaped by this idea of hegemonic masculinity that sanctions alcohol consumption and engaging in sexual interactions. I believe alcohol increases the chance a man will be sexually aggressive and aids in, but is not the reason for, the unsolicited sexual interactions against women. I also believe the bar setting facilitates the idea of women being more sexually available than they would be in a non-drinking setting. Alcohol, as a structural feature of drinking establishments, is an important indictor as to why these hyper-masculine and predatory interactions primarily take place at bars and demonstrates how structural features can sustain gender inequality in the ways men assert their dominance through unsolicited sexual behaviour towards women at bars.

In addition to predatory behaviour stemming from gender norms, doing gender in a predatory form is also sustained through policing masculinity. Lorber argues that if one fails to do gender appropriately, individuals will be held accountable (Lorber, 1994). Within the setting of a bar, to be held accountable for properly performing gender was often observed in terms of policing masculinity. Similarly, to the first two examples, these observations entailed unsolicited sexual contact. As I was seated near the bar, I overheard a conversation between two young men. The man sitting was insisting his friend go dance with a girl, but his friend seemed nervous. The man sitting down then said, “bro just go dance with her, don’t be a pussy.” Given the pressure from his friend, the man immediately went slightly behind the girl, who was already dancing with someone, and placed his arm around her hip and attempted to dance with her. Immediately, the woman did not reciprocate the behaviour, and just shrugged him away, to which the young man just went back to his friend who seemed to be laughing. This interaction, is similar to C.J. Pascoe’s concept of fag discourse, which she describes is used by boys to discipline each other. Faggots, she argues, represent “a penetrated masculinity devoid of power which threatens both social and psychic chaos” (Pascoe, 2005). The spectre of the fag as a powerful mechanism of discipline is a way of policing behaviours out of fear of having the fag identity permanently remain as a part of oneself (Pascoe, 2005). Pascoe’s argument is similar to what was observed at the bar though the words “don’t be a pussy.” This word like “fag,” is often used to call attention to a man who is not acting as a “man” should, i.e., not being masculine enough. Due to the fact it was obvious the young man was nervous, his friend was holding him accountable by policing the way he was displaying his masculinity. According to the gender differences society has constructed that determine how a man should act, being confident and dominant in your actions is a prime aspect of being masculine. As Pascoe states, boys assure others they are not a fag by immediately becoming masculine again in their performance (Pascoe, 2005). Almost immediately after the young man was called “a pussy,” he initiated male predatory behaviour at the expense of the woman. Predatory behaviour in this instance served the purpose of earning and displaying one’s manhood, while at the same time making sure he rejected the label of being a “pussy.” Therefore, it is not only the gender norms of bar culture that sanctions male predatory behaviour, but it is also peers holding one accountable by policing masculinity.

Through the process of observing men and women’s gendered interactions in a bar, it is very evident predatory behaviour is normalized in this setting, and cultivated through gender norms, and the process of policing masculinity. In all the scenarios observed at the bars, individuals were “doing gender,” and as I have witnessed, doing gender at bars most often maintains the privilege of heteronormative men in society today. This is an important indicator of how hegemonic masculinity is socialized, and thus, reinforces gender hierarchy and gender inequality. It is crucial this pattern of behaviour be acknowledged in order to shift the views on predatory behaviour from being the norm in bars to being recognized as an unacceptable display of masculinity that legitimizes the subordination of women. 


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