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What we're learning - Men Responding to Sexual Harassment and Assault

17 Nov 2017 12:44 PM | Craig Norberg-Bohm (Administrator)

Men Responding to the Harassment and Assault
By Rus Ervin Funk

The #MeToo campaign, along with the recent rash of allegations about sexual harassment and assault by both women and men, have created another opportunity for men, individually and collectively, to respond to sexual harassment and assault.  What we’ve seen is less than encouraging and suggests we need to do more as a movement.  It speaks to the need for us to better empower--and model for men--how they can respond to sexual harassment and assault in ways that are both proactive and more effective than  just expressing our support or outrage for victimized women or men.

Michael Flood, in Men Speak Up:  A Toolkit for Action in Men’s Daily Lives (White Ribbon Campaign, 2011), outlines a host of actions men can (and should) take in response to gender based violence. He categorizes them into three areas:

  1. Behaving nonviolently ourselves

  2. Taking action with other men and women

  3. Joining in collective action

He doesn’t suggest these steps are linear (i.e. behaving nonviolently is not meant to be a first step of men’s action that leads to taking action amongst other men and women). Rather his categorization is offered as a way to think about and offer men opportunities to act.

In 2017, Rus Funk and Lundy Bancroft, in their chapter “Addressing and Combating Intimate Partner Sexual Violence” (in Perpetrators of Intimate Partner Sexual Violence:  A Multidisciplinary Approach to Prevention, Recognition and Intervention, (Routledge, Press, 2017) identified five criteria men need in order to perpetrate sexual violence:

  1. A lack of empathy for women’s feelings and experiences.  Men who perpetrate sexual assault and harassment are well aware (based on the acknowledgements of men who have confessed to perpetrating) that what they are doing is causing distress and her lack of consent is obvious.   

  2. A belief system to justify his behaviors and actions.  Men who perpetrate must develop some kind of beliefs around how what he did was acceptable, which includes not being responsible for his own actions, that women are beneath him and that exploiting others sexually is acceptable.  But he must also come to believe that lying to her, about her and about his actions are also excusable.

  3. A vision of sexual assault or harassment.  In order to engage in the behaviors, men who perpetrate must first have a vision of those behaviors.  We know from ample evidence that the vast majority of sexual harassment and assaults are planned.  So we know that he must develop a specific vision for assaulting or harassing.  

A part of this visioning includes justifying or re-defining the assault or harassment as not assaultive or harassing.  

  1. A degree of perceived social approval for his actions. Men, like women, are deeply and inherently social creatures.  Our behaviors, and the beliefs and attitudes that lie beneath those behaviors, exist in the context of our social relationships.   Men who perpetrate believe that their actions are at least socially acceptable, if not socially encouraged.

  2. Trust that his actions will not be found it, and if they are, will not result in robust accountability.  

Examining these factors and identifying how these attitudes or beliefs are supported by broader social systems provides additional strategies for men to be involved and take action.  All of us, as men, have a role to play in the social systems of which we are a part (friendship networks, workplaces, our places of worship, etc.).  We can either contribute to, or counter, the social norms of those places -- including the social norms that are outlined above. 

Men’s lack of empathy for women and women’s experiences does not just exist within individual men.  Individual men’s lack of empathy is reinforced (in some cases required) by the social environments we’re a part of.  As such, we all have roles to play in creating social environments that enforce social norms that undermine these five preconditions.   

Taken together, these two documents offer an outline for ways that men can act (individually and collectively) more effectively to counter and combat sexual harassment and assault.

So when Michael Flood calls on us to “start with yourself,” we can explore our own responses when women or men allege sexual harassment or assault -- particularly when those allegations are directed at men we respect or honor, or men we know or love. We can train ourselves to hold onto our empathy towards her even while we struggle with the implications of those allegations.  Men’s current default response to sexual harassment and assault seems to be stuck in disbelief, denial and  victim blaming.  We can help to create a social norm that re-sets men’s default in response to one of empathizing with and believing women.  

When Michael suggests that we take action with other men and women, we can work within our social networks (friendships, relatives, co-workers, classmates, etc.) to clarify our intention to be more outwardly empathetic to all women and lay a new standard that we expect our friends, family, colleagues, etc to also express more empathy towards more women more often.

And when Michael suggest that we as men can take more collective action, that suggests we as men can organize public demonstrations of our support for women.  As an example, as a part of the annual Take Back the Night march and rally in Louisville, Kentucky,  for several years a group of men organized a “feeder march.”  That is, a separate march of and for men that joined with women at the rally site prior to the candle-light vigil.  In this way, men of the Louisville community were publicly demonstrating (both meanings of the word) our collective support for women.

I am, of course, am only using building empathy as an example.  We as men, individually and collectively, can and must work on all five of these criteria, in all three of the arenas described above.

As critical as it is for women to find the courage and be supported in speaking up about their experiences of being harassed and assaulted, we also need to generate the courage amongst men to actively challenge men’s harassing attitudes and behaviors.  This is what men can do -- and need to do.  

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