How do men respond to women’s rejections of them, including sexual rejections? While most respond in appropriate ways, some respond with hostility and abuse, and this is shaped by common norms of masculinity and male sexuality.
There was substantial media attention in mid-March to the reactions of right-wing media personality Piers Morgan to member of the British royal family and former actress Megan Markle. I was approached to give media commentary, and put together the following notes.
I first comment on Pier Morgan’s response to Megan Markle and the common gender dynamics of men’s responses to women it represents. I then comment on men’s hostile and abusive responses to women's sexual rejection e.g. in dating and their patriarchal foundations.
The gender dynamics of men’s responses to rejection
Morgan’s reactions are a perfect example of three common gender dynamics. The first is that some men feel entitled to women’s attention and affection and respond with rage when this is not offered or withdrawn. Some men feel entitled to have their needs met by women and believe that their needs or desires take precedence over women’s.
That sense of entitlement is visible in the widespread belief that women *owe men* – a smile, an explanation, kindness, love, time, a hug. At its most extreme, this sense of entitlement is played out in lethal violence against women by men aggrieved by what they think women have kept or taken from them, such as mass killer Elliot Rodger.
Morgan’s reactions also typify a second common gender dynamic: attacks by men on visible or powerful women. Women who take up public space, whether as journalists or policy makers or celebrities, often face misogynist abuse and threats. Women who challenge or question men in any way, especially publicly, or who set any kind of boundary, may then find themselves under attack.
The third gender dynamic is portraying women as malicious liars. There is a long history in Western cultures of women being portrayed as hostile, vindictive liars, and this plays out today in community willingness to believe the myth that false allegations of rape and domestic violence are common.
Hostile and abusive responses by men to sexual rejection
The most well documented examples of men’s hostile reactions to women’s rejections come from dating. It is likely that most men respond neutrally to women’s rejections of their expressions of sexual interest. At the same time, studies find that for women, receiving abuse and threats from men after ignoring or rejecting their sexual advances is a common experience. A 2014 survey by the Australia Institute found that one-quarter of women (25%) had been threatened after rejecting the sexual advances of a stranger.
Aggressive and abusive responses to sexual rejection are common enough that a popular Instagram page, Bye Felipe, is dedicated to them, as is a Tumblr page, When Women Refuse. Analysis of men’s abusive and hostile responses finds that they involve attempts to shame women for their bodies and sexualities and to assert men’s power and domination over women (Thompson, 2018).
In PhD research in Queensland, some young women described the misogynist abuse they received after ignoring men’s messages. Some received multiple messages threatening rape in excruciating detail, were called “sluts” or lesbians, or suffered other intrusive responses (Gillett, 2019, pp. 70-71).
And a US study analysed over 50 cases in news reports in which women were attacked, even murdered, for turning a man down, whether in response to casual sex, a marriage proposal, or even a refusal to acknowledge an advance at all (Thacker, 2019).
As Jessica Valenti writes, “Hell hath no fury like a man rejected. […] “Whether it’s the guy who follows you for ten blocks because you refuse to “smile,” the bar-dweller who calls you a bitch after you won’t give him your phone number, or the ex-boyfriend who leaves threatening voicemails post-break-up—most women have experienced the unpleasant aftermath of a man who’s been refused.
“Anger from rejected men is such a regular part of women’s lives that many of us have strategies to preempt any nastiness: We invent boyfriends, wear fake engagement rings or give out fake phone numbers. We smile and act flattered, are polite when we don’t want to be, and leave relationships saying that it’s all our fault—anything to prevent a potential swell of rage.
“Because we know that rejected men are dangerous men. Maybe he’ll release revenge porn after a break-up, or engage in workplace retaliation after denying unwanted advances. Or maybe the worst will happen.”
Men’s hostile responses to women can be lethal. For women living with a man’s domestic violence, the most dangerous time is when she tries to leave him, with some men responding with fatal violence. Men left by women also may also respond with stalking and other abusive behaviour.
The threat of hostile and violent responses by men involves a cost for women and girls in general. It means that women do not actively resist unwanted sexual advances from men or opt for more passive efforts to avoid them. They put up with abusive and derogatory behaviour, as the potential cost of calling it out may be far too high.
Hostile responses to sexual rejection are more common among men than women. In a US study, both men and women felt feelings of rejection, but only men responded with hostility (Andrighetto, Riva, & Gabbiadini, 2019).
The sources of hostile responses among men
These behaviours are the entirely unsurprising result of how many boys and men are socialised.
Many men have been taught that their needs, interests, and views come before women’s. Some men are deeply invested in traditional notions of masculine honour: men should be in control, given power and respect, and any challenge to or questioning of this must be met with aggressive retribution.
When it comes to sexuality, men still often are socialised to believe that they deserve sexual gratification from women. They are entitled to sex, to sexual access to women. In sex and relationships, men often are socialised to disregard women’s boundaries or wear them down. To see women as goals to pursue, as prizes to be won rather than human beings with their own desires and needs.
Media also contribute to norms of male sexual entitlement. Popular films and TV show romanticised portrayals of men pursuing women, with men’s so-called ‘romantic gestures’, stalking, and harassment ‘winning’ the woman’.
Research on men’s responses to romantic and sexual rejection finds that some men are more likely than others to respond aggressively.
- In two US studies, men who believed in traditional ideas of masculine honour also believed that a man would, and should, respond aggressively when his romantic advances have been rejected (Stratmoen, Greer, Martens, & Saucier, 2018).
- In another US study, hostile views of women, such as desire for sexual dominance over women, were a key influence on men’s aggressive reactions to sexual rejection (Woerner, Abbey, Helmers, Pegram, & Jilani, 2018).
Andrighetto, L., Riva, P., & Gabbiadini, A. (2019). Lonely hearts and angry minds: Online dating rejection increases male (but not female) hostility. Aggressive Behavior, 45(5), 571-581.
Gillett, R. (2019). Everyday violence: Women's experiences of intimate intrusions on Tinder. (PhD). Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. Retrieved from https://eprints.qut.edu.au/131121/
Stratmoen, E., Greer, M. M., Martens, A. L., & Saucier, D. A. (2018). What, I′ m not good enough for you? Individual differences in masculine honor beliefs and the endorsement of aggressive responses to romantic rejection. Personality and Individual Differences, 123, 151-162.
Thacker, L. K. (2019). The danger of ‘no’: Rejection violence, toxic masculinity and violence against women. (Masters). Eastern Kentucky University,
Thompson, L. (2018). “I can be your Tinder nightmare”: Harassment and misogyny in the online sexual marketplace. Feminism & Psychology, 28(1), 69-89.
Woerner, J., Abbey, A., Helmers, B. R., Pegram, S. E., & Jilani, Z. (2018). Predicting men’s immediate reactions to a simulated date’s sexual rejection: The effects of hostile masculinity, impersonal sex, and hostile perceptions of the woman. Psychology of Violence, 8(3), 349.