Two years ago at Schiphol Airport. My colleague Kathy* and I are split up at the security checks during a transit. When I see Kathy coming through her side, she’s in shock. One of the security agents has just verbally harassed here. In a situation where she’s already vulnerable, some horrible guy had made several inappropriate comments.
A few weeks ago in the Spar. While I’m standing at the til, my friend Clare* is still fetching an item. She comes up to me, also in shock; a random guy just groped her.
I would wish that these cases are unique, one-of-a-kind situations and that my friends had really bad luck, but that’s just not the case. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, my wife Kim has started sharing a lot more of the weekly, if not daily, experiences she has with sexual harassment and misogyny. It’s been extremely eye-opening to me, and confronting at the same time; how could I have been so blind?
As a man, witnessing harassment puts you before a choice; how can we respond? There is no such thing as not responding; just walking away is a form of response as well.
How I want to react
In each case where I’ve witnessed harassment, my gut response is one that’s fueled by the anger at the observed injustice. There are several aspects to that. First of all, I feel for the victim. Harassment comes from a power position, and I’m angry at the perpetrator for abusing their power, whether it’s related to race, gender or something else.
I’m also selfishly angry at their misrepresentation of my kind. Almost every person that harasses someone else somehow has at least one overlap with me; it’s a guy, s/he’s white, they’re privileged, and so on. There’s an anger in identifying with the perpetrator and how they give us a bad reputation.
This anger results in different responses. My gut response would normally be one of verbal aggression; calling the guy out for his misbehaviour. I know other men who would resort to physical aggression if their friend or colleague were harassed.
In sum, my gut response – and that of many other men – is directed at the perpetrator; I’m angry at him.
How I should react
However, I don’t think that is the best response at all. When people are harassed, their safety and agency are threatened. Someone is using power to engage in a non-mutual relationship; whether this is verbal or physical, no consent was given by the person who is threatened.
By addressing the perpetrator, I’d be making the same mistake; I’d be taking the agency away from the victim and responding in her place. No consent was given; so not only would I address the situation poorly, I’d also be making it worse for the victim by using my power as a white male without consent.
I’ve learnt that the most important thing I can do in a situation like this is to recognise the victim’s agency. When something like this happens to a friend or colleague, I should respond differently.
So how do I (and we, as men) respond then? While exploring this topic further, I got input from our friend, Jeanne, who works at Rape Crisis Cape Town, on how we can give do this in a constructive way. Following the principles of empowerment, these things are important:
- Provide safety. The first thing to do in any situation is making sure that the victim is safe. Both physically and emotionally, they should feel like they are no longer threatened. This might mean guiding the person away from their current situation, removing the perpetrator, or calling the assistance of authorities.
- Respect. I can acknowledge the wrong of it and confirm that I am on her side. I can make her understand that she is important in this situation. I’m on her side.
- Choice/Agency. Now, help the victim explore options (if I know any). As in the moment she might be in shock, she at least can be reminded of the options before she makes a decision. For instance, reporting this to the employer of the security guard, leaving, confronting the perpetrator etc. and then leave the choice up to her. Whatever she chooses, I then have to respect.
- Support. Ongoing support is important. The shock from the event might mean that she needs time to digest. I should be available for support without forcing the issue. It is her choice to talk about this or not and I will respect that.
Given that this is not really my gut response, I have to deliberately choose to follow these principles. I’d love to say that I don’t get a lot of opportunities for this, but unfortunately, misogyny is very alive and kicking.
Given back agency to victims in any case I think is an important first step; we should first become allies of the victim rather than enemies of the perpetrator. I’m not sure that there’s is a cookie cutter approach for giving agency back, but I do think that acknowledging the infringement on their agency is a good place to start. Looking at the victim and just telling them that the perpetrator’s behaviour wasn’t okay is the first step. It shows that they have an ally and that the behaviour is not normative.
I’m not sure to what degree you can apply the above principles if you don’t know the victim at all. I’d suggest that in any case, you can help provide safety, and maybe show respect, but I’m not sure if it’s my place to continue with the next steps. One of the reasons for this would be that given my likely overlap with the perpetrator (e.g. they are male), I may come across as threatening as well. In that case, providing safety could mean removing myself from the environment.
An added challenge is I have a tendency to want to respond straight away, and that the victim, logically, is often in shock and needs time to process things. Sometimes this processing means that the perpetrator can get away with it; the victim is caught by surprise and has no response ready.
Again, here it’s good to try to be an ally. In Schiphol, there was a clear power structure; the security agent was an employee and his manager was closeby. It was a public setting and because the manager was around, we both were convinced that the situation wasn’t unsafe. Kathy and I chatted for a bit, and she was okay with me taking the initiative to file a complaint. She was still too shocked to do that herself so the fastest response she could give was giving me permission to respond on her behalf. This was the first time ever I made a sexual harassment complaint and it was a shocking experience to see how disappointing the response by all the men on the team was. Moreover, I’m fairly confident that if I hadn’t been there, they would’ve not taken Kathy seriously. Official institutions clearly suck at giving back agency.
In the supermarket, the guy was high. Clare had no idea how to respond, and neither did I. Moreover, neither of us was confident in the established safety. He was intoxicated and that made his responses very unpredictable. He walked away, much to both of our frustrations.
When I saw my wife Kim later, we had a long conversation about the topic of agency. That guy got away, but at least Kim could use this situation to educate me a bit more and make me even more sensitive to respond in situations like this.
The last few years have been very formative for me. I’ve learnt so much about power structures and injustices all around me. I still make a lot of mistakes in my responses. Heck, in some cases, I’m unwillingly an initial perpetrator myself. But in other cases, I’m often an enemy rather than an ally first.
As men, we need to do better. What are some of the things we could do differently to become better allies?
*Kathy and Clare are not their real names.
Edits. This post was not intended as a final product but as a conversation, so I’ll keep updating based on input I receive.
Edit 1. I had the word “flustered” in the text. Kim indicated to me that this word is used almost exclusively for women, and often in a derogatory way. That was definitely not intended. So I updated it to “shocked”.
Edit 2. As several people pointed out, the “choice/agency” point sounded patronising. I’m still not sure about the exact formulation but I’ve attempted to move my role much more from the initiative-taker to just being there to help.
Edit 3. My friend Lara asked the good question of how these steps/responses differ when you’re dealing with someone you know from when you don’t know the others involved.