Responding Effectively to Sexual Harassment

By Alan Berkowitz, Ph.D.

Male bystander

With the cascade of revelations of sexual harassment and assault raising our awareness, many are asking “Why didn’t others do something?” and in particular “Why didn’t other men do something?”  Although men may also be sexually harassed (usually by other men) the majority are not and most men rarely fear sexual assault.  Yet men who witness other men harassing women or speaking offensively share similar fears, including retaliation, loss of social status, embarrassment, or thwarted career ambitions.  This results in men’s (and women’s) silence, thus enabling perpetrators to continue perpetrating, not to mention that our inaction weighs heavily on our consciousnesses.  Because men who offend may respect and care about what other men think more than they do women,  other men may have an advantage in interrupting sexism and violence against women.  In other words, preventing sexual harassment and sexual assault can be considered as men’s responsibility, although of course women have and will continue to take action.

One deterrent to responding is our surprise, shock, and discomfort with abusive remarks and behavior.  We now realize that these are more commonplace than once thought.  Thus, rather than seeing them as unusual, we must prepare ourselves to understand that they are commonly occurring.  Being emotionally prepared to perceive the injustices of the world – even if they do not impinge on us directly – helps us to be emotionally prepared to respond to them.  This is not only true for sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault, but for other injustices such as racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc.

There are many actions one can take in response.  First is to be believable allies who are safe for victims to report to.  By words and actions we can make it clear that we believe victims, are understanding, and will respond compassionately.  Exposing perpetrators supports victim healing and may also prevent future perpetration.  Second, when someone is uncomfortable with the words or actions of another person the chances are very good that others are uncomfortable as well.  Thus, it is important to talk to others to determine if your discomfort is shared and to explore possible responses.  Social science research confirms that a majority of men are uncomfortable with sexist language and behaviors but do not realize that other men are also, as well as that the majority of men would respect someone who intervenes but believe most others would not.  Knowing that you are not alone in your concerns and having the opportunity to share possible actions can empower us to respond effectively.

In particular, someone can intervene without suffering backlash. The science of ‘bystander intervention’ (now evolved as a state of the art prevention practice) offers skills and strategies for the majority of men (and women) who do not harass to intervene in the minority of men’s harassment and violence. Thus when confrontation is not an option, a bystander can respond to a sexist remark by: changing the subject; replacing a negative comment with a positive one; or using subtle sarcasm. In “How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down” (NYT-July 7, 2017) author Sam Polk shares sexist remarks he has heard on Wall Street and describes his discomfort and inaction. For example, at a Brazilian steakhouse a superior’s comment about the waitress: “I’d like to bend her over the table and give her some meat” was responded to by awkward laughter.  In this case one could use distraction to change the subject, saying: “I’m more concerned about getting good service for dinner” or “What do you recommend from the menu?”   A distracting remark can successfully shift attention away from the problematic behavior. Alternatively, re-framing offers a positive comment in place of a negative.  For instance, having previously eaten at the restaurant one could say: “Actually she is a great waitress” or “I’ll show my appreciation by giving a nice tip.”  A truthful, appreciative remark can undermine the negative comment and refocus attention on the positive.  Finally, subtle sarcasm can also be effective, such as “I think I will be ordering from the vegetarian menu tonight” or “Brazilian visas don’t allow that.”

Another example cited in the article was when a superior asked a new male employee if he: “got laid last night?”  A safe response could be “I was up working” or “we watched a movie” or even “you are right, I was laid up on the couch last night.” Safe, honest responses can change the terms of the discussion without enabling the perpetrator, let others know that you don’t agree with the remark, and offers them a chance to affirm your response.

When I hear men making negative comments about female colleagues – especially about their physical appearance or competence – I find it very effective to reply by mentioning a positive characteristic or accomplishment of the person, such as “Actually she just received the teacher of the year award” or “She is one of the smartest persons in my seminar.”  One could also say “I think that remark could be misunderstood.  You are a great supervisor and I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble for something you didn’t really mean.”

Confrontation, which may be difficult with a superior, involves strongly objecting to a remark or stating one’s feelings, such as: “I really respect you and I am disappointed to hear you say that” or, more strongly, “I would prefer if you don’t talk that way around me.”

Clearly, it is possible to respond to an inappropriate remark by undermining it and registering disagreement while avoiding confrontation or to create an uncomfortable situation.  Responding  provides the opportunity for other bystanders to register their discomfort, help to shift the conversation, affirm the positive remark, or share appreciation and respect for intervening. As we recognize the prevalence and pervasiveness of harassment and sexist remarks, we can view the opportunity to intervene as a welcome one.

Imagine if the majority of men responded to objectionable remarks by either changing the subject or undermining the remark.  This would move us closer to creating a culture in which such actions were not tolerated and rewarded and it could help reduce the guilt that many men feel about doing nothing.  Taking action individually or as a group is essential, along with more systematic responses that are needed from our institutions and organizations.

Most perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual assault begin these behaviors long before we meet them.  Yet our silence and inaction helps to create a culture in which it is easy for them to continue.  There are many elements of a comprehensive response, including creating safe reporting options, taking complaints seriously, understanding that false accusations are extremely rare, training law enforcement in effective and victim supportive investigations, ensuring swift and effective punishment, and the modeling of healthy interactions and sexuality.  We all have a role to play and it is the responsibility of everyone – especially men – to reverse the culture of harassment and assault by creating safety for victims to report, sharing discomfort with others, serving as healthy responsible role models, holding our institutions accountable and intervening in safe ways against offensive behavior.


photo_alanb_headshotAlan Berkowitz, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized expert in sexual harassment and sexual assault prevention and the author of “RESPONSE ABILITY: The Complete Guide to Bystander Behavior” and “How to Respond to Sexist Remarks.”  More information about his work is available at: www.alanberkowitz.com

 

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Gender Essentialism, Engaging Men in Sexual Assault Awareness, & Walk a Mile in Her Shoes®

By LB Klein, Jen Przewoznik & Jeff Segal

*This post first appeared on Stop Street Harassment.*

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Every April, men all over the country stumble through public parks in high heels to raise awareness for the gender-based violence movement for Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). Walk a Mile in Her Shoes has been a staple of SAAM programming since 2001, and has been praised for engaging tens of thousands of men in conversations on gender, power, and sexual assault in an accessible and fun way. Men have embraced Walk a Mile in Her Shoes®—it’s very often the SAAM event with the most men in attendance, and its popularity has raised necessary funds for rape crisis centers and other national and international anti-violence organizations. However, many activists and organizers have begun to voice serious concerns over the popular event.

It is vital that we consider not only the intent but the impact of our sexual assault awareness events. In Walk a Mile in Her Shoes®, men step into high heels to show their solidarity with women. Wearing high heels is therefore equated with being a woman. But while some women wear high heels, many do not. Furthermore, women are often targeted specifically because they express themselves outside of the normative societal expectations of their gender. By equating high heels and women, we remove gender non-conforming women from our conversations about sexual violence entirely, and reinforce the common myth that people presenting in ways considered masculine are not vulnerable to violence. Walk a Mile in Her Shoes® positions women as victims and men as perpetrators, but there are survivors of all gender identities, including men.

Walk a Mile in Her Shoes® also creates spaces where transgender people are marginalized. National transgender rights organization Forge (http://forge-forward.org/2013/04/walk-a-mile/) says participants in the walk should consider “whether they are re-victimizing more than a third of all victims by ignoring their very existence.” According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (http://www.thetaskforce.org/static_html/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf), 64% of transgender people have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Transgender women are often incorrectly and offensively described as “men wearing women’s clothing,” a description that is often used to justify violence against them. Transgender women, particularly those of color, are at disproportionate risk of experiencing not only sexual and intimate partner violence but also street harassment, police brutality, homelessness, joblessness, incarceration, and murder. It is vital for people working to end gender-based violence to closely ally with transgender and non-binary people instead of holding events that exclude and further marginalize them.

Walk a Mile in Her Shoes® has raised attention, awareness, and funds, but at what expense? We cannot afford to raise awareness by perpetuating an essentialist view of what people should wear or how they should look and act. The Walk a Mile in Her Shoes® narrative is accessible because it is reductive, and oversimplification in our work is dangerous. Of course, communities should still hold events to raise awareness, but we must be intentional about changing the norms that perpetuate violence instead of reinforcing them. Events that re-victimize, erase, or marginalize survivors do not have a place in our field.

So, what can we do instead to engage men during SAAM? We can hold events that encourage folks of all genders to work together. We can bring smaller groups of men together for meaningful conversation, or mobilize larger groups for fundraisers not built around reinforcing harmful gender norms. Perhaps, as Forge (http://forge-forward.org/2013/04/walk-a-mile/) suggests, we should hold events that encourage everyone to break stereotypes about gender and discuss how harmful gender norms perpetuate violence. Then, we will be raising awareness of the true message of the movement to end sexual assault: that to end sexual assault, we must change culture.


LB_Klein

LB Klein, MSW has dedicated her professional and academic life to ending gender-based violence, supporting survivors, and advancing social justice. She is a Consultant and Lead Trainer for Prevention Innovations Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. She is based in Atlanta, GA and will begin pursuing a doctorate in the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this August.

 

JenP

Jen Przewoznik, MSW has over 15 years of experience working with/in women’s and LGBTQ communities as an educator, trainer, technical assistance provider, practitioner, and program evaluator. She is founder of the Queer Research Consulting Collaborative, a project designed to consult with researchers studying LGBTQ issues. Jen is currently the Director of Prevention & Evaluation at the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault and co-chairs the NC Sexual Violence Prevention Team and the NC Campus Consortium.

JeffSegalJeff Segal, BS resides in NYC, where he works in the tech sector and moonlights as a professional dancer. He has been a part of the movement to end sexual violence for ten years. Jeff has four years of experience as a sexual violence crisis counselor, and currently is leading initiatives to make social dancing in New York a safer space.