Good Guys & Responding to Womens’ Sexual Harassment

A friend of mine over on Facebook posted link to this article, Why Women Smile At Men Who Sexually Harass Us, which is a good article full of things that are tiresomely familiar to virtually all women and apparently continue to be surprising to many, perhaps most, men.

I think it’s a good article for men to read, because what prompted her writing it was how the author’s boyfriend, who is, by her estimation, one of the good guys, responded not only to her being harassed, but to her *reaction* to being harassed.

Here’s the thing. There are very few men of my acquaintance that I wouldn’t consider to be among the good guys. Men who would never dream of behaving in the ways described in this (or so very, very many other) articles, who find it appalling that anyone *would* behave in the way described. And that’s good. That’s great. That’s wonderful.

It’s also amazing how very easily they–these good guys, these men who are absolutely trying to Do Right–miss the mark in how to react when this kind of thing happens to a woman they’re with, or even when they hear about it happening.

Women respond the way we do because we’ve learned, whether consciously or not, what to do to ensure the most positive outcome for ourselves when we find ourselves in these kinds of situations, and honestly, women aren’t kidding when that #YesAllWoman hashtag trends. We have *all* found ourselves in a position of being harassed, and smiling uncomfortably and trying to ignore it and being polite when we’d rather scream or kick or run but there’s no one to hear (or listen) or help fight back (because we’re mostly smaller and mostly aren’t going to win a physical altercation) or anywhere to run to.

I came across this quote a few days ago and I think it’s hugely relevant to what I’m about to say here. It’s talking about cat-calling, specifically, but you ought to be able to see how it applies more broadly:


Because what gets me, and what gets me every time, is how enraged and how immediately prone to violent threats so very many men* become when shit like this happens. How they react by escalating, or thinking women should escalate. How THEY wouldn’t respond with a tight smile (except that’s not true, because almost all the time when we’re confronted with racist or sexist or homophobic or misogynistic behaviour that’s exactly what we *all* do), THEY would confront the guy–and how in that situation they sometimes do.

First off, that’s looking at the situation from the male point of view. It’s making it about the male friend’s (completely happenstance, because he’s not always going to be there) position in the scenario, and right there, that stops being helpful, even when a man is really, really trying to be one of the good guys.

But second, and more relevantly to what I’m coming at here, is that if men want to be any actual use in that kind of situation, they need to stay calm instead of getting snarly and confrontational. They need to say “this isn’t okay” without bringing on the aggression themselves. Yelling, threatening, puffing up, all of that is absolutely no use, because then you know what the woman who is being harassed has to deal with?

Two men who are behaving like shitheels. One of them is her harasser and one of them is nominally her friend but who is in that moment making the situation worse for her. Because now somebody is Trying To Defend Her, but doing so in a way that could in fact potentially bring on violence, and so instead of the tension of politely ignoring the first jackass, she’s now trying to defuse and manage a situation that’s been magnified, which is what she was trying to avoid in the first place.

Honestly, going silent is more helpful in the immediate than getting confrontational, because what people who act like this are *looking* for is a reaction. But in the long term, and I’m not just talking about street harassment but about general sexist(racist/homophobic/misogynistic) commentary, *by far* the most useful thing men (in particular men, because broadly speaking men listen to other men more than they listen to women) can do is say, “That’s not cool, why would you say something like that, I can’t stand here and listen to you talk that way about somebody,” in as casual a manner as possible, and do it every single time. Not when there’s something big at stake, but when it nominally doesn’t matter.

It’s *incredibly* difficult. It’s so. very. hard. We’re trained not to make a fuss. Women are trained even more than men, but generally we’re all socially conditioned to keep conflict to a minimum and let it blow over while we maybe exchange uncomfortable looks, but that will never. ever. change. anything.

Years and years ago a friend of mine, who is generally an extremely good person but came from a culture where this was considered okay, used ‘gay’ as a slur. I called him out on it. Told him that wasn’t appropriate and I’d thank him not to use that term again my house or my hearing. We were both, frankly, mortified by me saying it. But a couple weeks later he said to me, “Ever since you said that to me I’ve had to think about EVERYTHING I say,” and that’s the point.

And that was with somebody who was a good guy. He was able to hear it from a woman and respond appropriately. Huge numbers of men can’t or won’t heed that kind of commentary from a woman, which is why we need men to say it too, all the damned time, in a calm and reasonable manner, until it stops being necessary. Which isn’t going to happen in our lifetimes, but it won’t happen in *anybody’s* lifetime if we just let casual sexism(etc) go because it’s more comfortable to not speak up in a calm, rational way.

I’m not saying anything new here. I don’t know that I’ve got enough reach for it to get out of my echo chamber. But it’s a thing that seemed important in the wake of reading the linked article, and if it makes anybody take a deep breath and reconsider whether they’re about to be helpful or not, it’s certainly worth posting.

I swear to God if I get one “not all men” on this I will drop an anvil on you.


  1. This is so on target. It would be lovely if men learned to stop harassing, and if they learned how to protect us when it does happen.

  2. In talking w/ my kids about how to combat bullying, I’ve always pointed out that the bystanders have the most power. (Their attention, approval, and acquiescence is a huge part of the bully’s motivation.)

    And that they don’t need to make a BIG deal about it, or start a fight. But that every time someone starts, they should say, “Not cool, dude.” And frown a little and shake their head. And then turn away.

    The meta-message in their manner is, “I’m cool; I’m powerful. You’re not cool.” Getting mad and combative actually gives the power to the other person.

    But you’re right–it’s very, very simple: Those of us who are the “good guys” (in the larger definition of “good guys,” not just “men who support women”) need to just quietly speak up: “Not cool.” “Don’t use those words around me.”

    THAT is how you start to change the culture. Set a standard, and enforce it quietly.
    But–every time, not just when it’s happening to someone you actually know.

    1. I think that’s a wonderful thing to teach your kids, and I admire the tactic hugely. Smartly done! Thanks for the comment and for the approach you’ve suggested!

  3. After reading this article , it has helped me understand the situation that women go through and how to respond when it happens to my wife, or eventually my daughter. I also work in a place where teenage boys use the word ” gay” to describe things that they don’t want to do or to them are stupid. I hope that by using things I learned from this article I can help a generation that thinks it’s ok to say such things. Thank you for posting this.

    1. You’re welcome, and thanks for not only reading it, but seeing how you can apply what it says to the situations around you. That makes having written it so very, very worth the time!

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