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  • Debbie Dougherty

Can Men Control their Sexual Impulses? Are Women who Flirt and Walk Away Sexual Harassers?

Updated: May 3, 2023

I girl with cow ears and a shirt that says Moo on it.
If Men see themselves as Bulls, do they see Women as Cows? Picture from Freya Clark archives. She was 9 years old.

Dear Dr. D.,What do you call it when a young woman flirts and teases a young man, getting him all aroused, then laughs and runs away, leaving him sexually frustrated and angry that it happened?

Very often, a man, is quite unable to control himself when the testosterone is flowing. Some get violent. some call names, some sulk, many things. just like a bull when he is kept from a cow in estrus. We are really unable to have much control over ourselves. Good man, or bad man. My question is, is the girl engaging in a form of sexual harassment? This isn’t a smartass post, but serious. And yes, you can use any part of this [for your blog].

Not Being Flippant.

Sometimes people send me questions through private channels. As long as I believe these are serious questions, I tend to take them seriously. I have a very diverse group of readers, so I get a diverse array of questions.

The question I address today is a variation on a question men have previously asked me, so I am guessing there might be some broader interest in my response.

The Research

Dear Not Being Flippant: Before I answer your question, let’s see what the research says.

Mythical Ideal Masculinity

This “young woman” who “flirts and teases” then runs away, is likely threatening a man’s masculinity. We know that in contemporary times, the mythical ideal masculinity requires ongoing proof of sexual virility and control. When a woman chooses not to engage in sex, it can be a threat to some men’s masculinity, producing anger and frustration.

Precarious Masculinity

Research suggests that current versions of masculinity are among the most precarious of identities. In a review of this literature, Vandello, J. A., & Bosson provide “evidence that manhood is seen as a precarious social status that is both difficult to achieve and tenuously held. Compared with womanhood, which is typically viewed as resulting from a natural, permanent, and biological developmental transition, manhood must be earned and maintained through publicly verifiable actions. Because of this, men experience more anxiety over their gender status than women do, particularly when gender status is uncertain or challenged. This can motivate a variety of risky and maladaptive behaviors, as well as the avoidance of behaviors that might otherwise prove adaptive and beneficial.”

We can see the destructive impact of precarious masculinity in the workplace as well. Check out this article in the Harvard Business Review describing the outcome of a series of studies showing that when masculinity is threatened at work, men “were more likely to engage in a wide variety of harmful workplace behaviors, including withholding help, mistreating coworkers, stealing company property, and lying for personal gain. However, women who experienced similar threats to their femininity may have been unhappy about it, but it didn’t make them more likely to engage in harmful behaviors.”

Gender, Power, and Sexual Harassment

In terms of sexual harassment, although all people tend to recognize that sexual harassment is about power, men tend to view power differently than do women. As suggested in your question, men tend to view their power in hierarchical terms. This is the first time I have seen a man compare himself to a bull, but I have seen many men refer to themselves as the alpha male of wolves in a wolf pack. Women, in contrast, tend to view power in more complex ways. Although they do view power as built into an organizational hierarchy, they also view power as gained through their relationships with other people, through having control over themselves, and by reframing a power hierarchy as people granting power to a another person (we have allowed you to have this power, and we can take it away). In other words, when in comes to sexual harassment, women understand power in more complex ways than do men.

Based on this fairly well-developed body of research, I am guessing that my women and nonbinary readers are viewing your question radically differently than many of my men viewers.

As to your question. . .

Dear Not Being Flippant: What would I call this woman?

I have a number of different possible answers, although they may not be what you are looking for.

  1. Naive. Women must be suspicious of every man they meet. The woman in your question was being naive in thinking that men will accept her decision not to engage in sex.

  2. Trusting. A woman has the right to change her mind at any time during an encounter. This is called consent and is critical to an equitable society.

  3. Rude.

  4. Caught in a Paradox. I believe she is straddling the virgin/whore paradox (I wrote about this in a blog post) where women are damned if the do/damned if they don't. If she actually goes through with the act, she will be slut shamed. If not, she will be called a dick tease. There is no right answer.

  5. Being. My research and my experience has shown that some men have a tendency to view women who are just "being," as harassing them. In my research, men claim women are harassing them because the women: dressed nicely, wore a nice perfume, said something funny, wore a name tag, spoke with them while working.

  6. Is it sexual harassment? It is possible, but probably not. Does it occur in the workplace? Is it deliberate? Does it prevent the man from earning a wage, maintaining a career, and being promoted?

In other words, while I am sure that the scenario you raise in your question does sometimes occur, I am also confident that the scenario you raise usually is more a product of male privilege and of precarious masculinity than it is an action taken by a woman.

Dear Not Being Flippant: What would I call this man?

It is probably also reasonable to ask what I would call the angry/frustrated man in that situation. You frame men as bulls who are unable to control their behavior. I find this framing to be problematic. Men are not bulls. Men are men. We expect more of them than we do of bulls.

Although it is natural for people to become aroused, and that aspect of our physiology is outside of our control, people (including male people), can choose how to respond. That is the main difference between a Bull in a Field, and a Man in Society.

So my answer as to what I will call this man depends on how he reacts to the woman who chooses to walk away. It is okay for a man to hope for a desired outcome, but not to believe it is his right to a desired outcome.

Here, the man has the choice to put his superpower in the room to respect a woman's choice not to engage, or to use his male privilege to coerce the woman to engage, or to punish the woman for choosing otherwise (name calling, physical force, sexual assault, stigma creation, reputation destruction, you get the picture). A good man will deal with his anger and frustration and walk away. A bad man (or a man who is acting badly) will choose not to control his frustration and anger and will enact bad behavior.

Remember, masculinity is about choices. It is not that a man is unable to control his frustration and anger, it is that he will choose not to control his emotions.It is a question of where control lies: Do the emotions control the man, or does the man control his emotions?

I actually believe, I need to believe, that men have the capacity for self control. It is the only way women can continue to interact with them in meaningful ways.

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Apr 13, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

But is flirting and walking away rude? Or just someone changing their mind? And who decides what is flirting? A lot of times the difference between friendly/charming behavior/flirting is shared context/intention and very nuanced. The letter writer (as we all do) has centered himself (and his reactions in someone else's behavior--this makes it very hard to see the other person's actions clearly. Also, and this is not a minor point, the framing of the letter comes from a very specific place of privilege without much self-examination--I'm turned on by women's behavior (not willing to label the example woman's actions flirting without more context) and I feel "rejected" because it didn't go as I would have liked, and why isn't this…

Debbie Dougherty
Debbie Dougherty
Apr 16, 2023
Replying to

Lot's of good stuff in this response Chris. As I reflect on your comment, I think I should have asked for more context from this question writer. There is likely a particular instance that was salient when he wrote the question.


Apr 12, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

It also seems to me that Not Being Flippant might benefit from knowing that sexual harassment happens to men, too, of course, but it looks different from “I got turned on and she/he walked away.” It is, as Dr. D says, much more complex than that. And maybe I’m the only woman who thinks this, but being sexually harassed isn’t about someone being turned on—I would have to say that is flirtation and definitely, as Dr. D said, rude. It’s unacceptable (unless you’re in a dance club), but not because it is sexual harassment.

Debbie Dougherty
Debbie Dougherty
Apr 12, 2023
Replying to

Yes! Great answer.

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