[Content note: sexual harassment and assault]
This is something I hear from guys a lot–they’ve witnessed another guy in their space or social group acting in a “creepy” or inappropriate way towards a woman, but because she’s smiling or even laughing along, they figure she’s fine with it and they don’t intervene.
I hate to break it to you, but even without knowing the woman in question I can say that there’s a very high chance that she’s not fine with it at all.
Women and AFAB people are socialized from an early age to politely smile, nod, and laugh along in response to men who annoy, scare, and even violate us. Sometimes this is a survival mechanism, like backing away slowly from a predatory animal or playing dead. Every day there’s a news story about a woman or trans person who was injured or murdered by a man after telling him to stop talking to or harassing them. Often, even smiling and nodding isn’t enough.
Even when it’s not a matter of life or death, it’s really difficult to explain to cis men what it’s like when you’ve been trained for your whole life to ignore your own boundaries. For many of us, smiling and nodding isn’t even necessarily a conscious and intentional strategy; it’s a reflex, something that happens as naturally and automatically as breathing. Of course, it’s not “natural” in any meaningful sense of the word. But it feels that way, and that makes it really hard to unlearn.
For many of us–until we do manage to deliberately and effortfully unlearn this shit–telling a man “leave me alone, I don’t want to talk to you” is unthinkable, not just because it’s scary and potentially dangerous but because we don’t even think it. Ditto for just ignoring the man completely. It often takes hours, weeks, or years to realize that a particular interaction was uncomfortable and violating, to finally recognize the discomfort, fear, and anger that had hidden beneath the polite smile all along. That can happen with harassing comments and it can happen with rape.
For most of us, it’s not because we read some articles about feminism and changed our minds. It’s more like realizing that a house that seems stable and well-built actually has crumbling foundations and a rotting frame. It’s not that the crumble and the rot wasn’t there before. We just didn’t see it.
So yes, when you observe a man leering at, making sexual comments to, or otherwise appearing to sexually harass a woman who is gamely playing along, there’s a chance that she’s okay with it or even enjoying it. What’s much more likely is that she’s very uncomfortable, or will soon realize it, but she’s not showing it because she’s been taught not to show her negative feelings towards men or even recognize that they are there.
So let’s talk about “white knighting,” since men are always telling me that they chose not to stand up for women’s safety and autonomy in order to avoid being “white knights.”
First of all, I’m not convinced that accusations of “white knighting” are necessarily being made in good faith, i.e. by women or other marginalized people who are upset that male bystanders tried to help them deal with a harasser or assailant. Most of them seem to be coming from anti-feminist men who are trying to delegitimize and ridicule male feminists. While there are many important conversations to be had about the motivations and missteps of male feminists, none of those conversations are going to be initiated by people who do not believe that sexism exists or that it oppresses people who are not cisgender men. These people are trying to create a safe space to further marginalize and terrorize women and trans people, and male feminists who take these “white knighting” accusations seriously are giving them exactly what they want.
Second, it’s not a choice between “literally do nothing” and “force the woman to accept your patronizing and uninformed assistance.” Yes, there’s a shitty history of men “protecting” women from other men (men they may be interested in) because they assume that women have no agency and how dare another man take “your” woman. We have to push back against that, but without using it as an excuse to let harassment and assault happen in our spaces.
I can’t tell you how to do that. There is no flowchart for exactly how to intervene successfully when someone is being creepy. There are simply too many variables.
Instead, here are some strategies you could try when they seem appropriate.
- Talk to the women and trans folks in your life about what (if anything) they would want from you if you witness them being harassed. Be proactive about this. Don’t wait for it to happen to them. It already does.
- If you did notice someone being harassed but didn’t do anything because you didn’t know what to do, check in with them later about their experience and what they might’ve wanted from you.
- If you see someone you know being harassed, step in and say, “Hey, can I steal you for a moment? I had a question for you.” If they say, “I’ll catch you later,” they’re probably fine. If they come along, ask them if they need an out.
- If you don’t know the person being harassed, and you’re a man, it’s a little tough. Offering to lead them away is unlikely to feel comfortable for them because they don’t know you either and you could be even worse. If the space has an organizer–i.e. a party host or conference staffer–ask them to check if the person is ok. You could also ask a female friend to do the previous suggestion.
- If you know the person who is harassing someone, find a reason to pull them away for a conversation. Tell them what you observed and why it’s inappropriate. This won’t be a comfortable conversation, but it’s extremely important and can make a huge impact. One of the biggest contributing factors to sexual harassment and assault is that many men think their male peers approve of it. Rain on that parade.
- Talk to the organizer of the space. Ask your friend to stop inviting the harasser to their parties. If you’ve observed harassment, you don’t have to wait for one of the victims of it (there are almost certainly more than one) to speak up–they may not, because they have no reason to expect to be listened to. If someone started a fistfight, you’d kick them out without waiting for the punched person to tell you they don’t like being punched.
- Avoid speaking for the person being harassed–when appropriate, center your own feelings. Tell the harasser that you are uncomfortable with what they’re doing and that it’s creepy and wrong. That’s one way of letting other guys know that you personally disapprove of harassment rather than just wanting to look good in front of women, and helps prevent them from trying to drag the person they’re harassing in to defend them.
- Review the Geek Social Fallacies and remember that no one is entitled to any non-public space. That’s why you don’t have to wait for an Official Complaint to kick a harasser out of your space. Ask yourself–is this the kind of behavior I want at my event/in my friend group? If not, take steps to make it stop.
- Confronting harassers is not safe or accessible for everyone. So if you can’t do it, do some of the other things listed here. But you can get better at it by roleplaying with a friend or practicing out loud on your own. This can be a great project for a few progressive guys to do together.
- Let others know what you’ve observed so they can potentially intervene too if it happens again. Just like those who get harassed, many bystanders stay silent because they don’t want to “gossip” or “trash talk.” But letting someone know what you’ve seen or heard someone doing in your shared space isn’t gossiping. It’s giving people information they need to help keep each other safe.
- If you interrupt a situation and the person you thought was being harassed says they’re fine, take that at face value. Yes, they may not feel safe telling you or they may realize later that it’s not fine, but you have to respect their autonomy. Apologize for interrupting and let them know you’ll be nearby if they need anything.
It’s important to remember that bystander intervention is fundamentally a harm reduction tactic–it will not remove the problem, just reduce the harm that the problem does. The only thing that will stop sexual harassment (or at least reduce it to its lowest possible baseline) is a massive cultural shift in how we think about sex, boundaries, and gender.
So don’t beat yourself up if you try all of these strategies and nothing seems to “fix” harassment. It won’t. It may, however, make some cool women and nonbinary folks stay in your social group who would otherwise have quietly left, and it may prompt a major attitude shift in a few of your guy friends that will keep them from harassing anyone else. That’s a small win in the great scheme of things, but it’s a massive win for those individual lives.
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