How to speak up about sexist talk
I originally wrote this in my log, and cross-posted it to Medium. But I think that writing I put a bit of time into should go here.
You’ve probably seen the #MeToo hashtag on social media, with women sharing it if they’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted. It was started (without a hashtag, I think, but definitely the same phrase and purpose) 10 years ago by Tarana Burke, but got a boost from Alyssa Milano after she read commentary about Harvey Weinstein’s abuse finally being revealed.
I’ve noticed that a lot of guys are surprised and disappointed to learn how many of the women they know have experienced this problem. If you’re one of those guys and you’re looking for ways to help support women with harassment, or to prevent it from happening in the future, there are a lot of articles out there with good advice. I like this one from Nicole Silverberg at The Guardian: Men, you want to treat women better? Here's a list to start with.
One of the most frequently listed ways men can help is to speak up when a guy (or a group of guys) you know start discussing women in a sexist way. Like, if they start giving ratings on their looks, or point out which ones they would or wouldn’t have sex with. But there’s not a lot of guidance on exactly how to do that. Speaking up in front of friends or randoms isn’t as difficult as the harassment women put up with, but it isn’t easy either.
I really want more guys to speak up about this stuff with their friends, so I’ve got a few tips to share. I’m often the person in a group who speaks up about crappy things, including sexism, so I have some experience with this.
1. Understand the purpose of speaking up
Knowing why you are doing it makes it easier for you to decide in the moment what approach to take. The goal of speaking up isn’t to completely convince That Guy to become a full-time feminist ally (because ahahaha, as if). It’s to get him to realise that not all men think the way he does. He’s assuming that your silence on the topic means you agree with him.
So even the most vague comment is better than nothing. He’ll still be That Guy, but now he knows you don’t support treating women like objects. It puts an end to at least one sexist conversation, and discourages people from starting similar talk with you next time.
It also reminds other guys that this kind of talk is crappy, even though it’s so common that it happens without anyone thinking about it. They might be too intimidated to say something themselves, but now they know you’re the kind of guy who sticks up for people.
2. Prepare some stock phrases
Have a few phrases you can say without having to think about it too much. The usual suggestions are “ugh, not cool” or “dude, cut it out”. I also like “nobody cares about your boner” followed by a change of subject. I saw on Twitter the other day that someone told a guy in a restaurant “cool it, Harvey Weinstein” which gets heaps of points for being topical but might not work so well in a few weeks when the media has moved on to the latest scandal. There’s a good article for dealing with similar conversations in the workplace: "We don't do that here" by Aja Hammerly.
Try to remember some of the conversations like this you’ve heard or been part of in the past. Imagine what you could have said to put an end to the conversation, and keep it in mind in case you’re in a similar situation in the future. It doesn’t have to be the most persuasive thing you’ve ever said. Funny is good, but not essential. Just anything to indicate that you don’t approve.
3. Be prepared for resistance
Most likely That Guy will give one of two cliched responses: he’ll say he’s just joking, or that he thinks you’re less of a man now in some way. Don’t bother responding to whatever he says as if it’s a real justification for his behaviour. It isn’t, and he doesn’t care anyway. He talks crap about women because he can, and now he’s wondering if he can’t and stalling while he figures it out.
This is another place where some stock phrases might be useful. Shrug and say “yeah whatever you reckon, dude” in the most bored voice you can do. Or just repeat that it’s not cool, or give him your most unimpressed face. It’s not a debate and you don’t have to listen to him.
If he gets more aggressive than that, or he doesn’t want to drop the topic, walk away. Yes, that might mean leaving a social event early, but more likely it just means going to talk to some other people instead. You’ve already achieved the goal of pushing back on his attitude towards women in the moment it happened; there’s no need to fight about it and no-one gains anything from that. Walking away also underlines the message that people won’t tolerate his behaviour.
However you choose to respond to the pushback, it’ll be easier if you’ve considered what you’ll do beforehand. Even a vague plan will be enough in most situations.
A final suggestion
One more idea for you: if one of your friends is the first to speak up and say “not cool”, make sure you back them up. Join in and say “yeah, I’ve had enough of this” or “why do you think we care?”. Or give him a high five, or whatever works in that group. Your friend is probably feeling awkward about it and could do with a little support.
The men who are predators and abuse their power over women are using society’s general disrespect for us as camoflage. If we can remove the camoflage, it’s easier for everyone to see who is dangerous.
Speaking up when people say sexist things is not going to fix misogyny and abuse – but it does help, and lots of people will appreciate it. I hope these tips help someone figure out how to speak up when they know it’s the right thing to do. Remember – it doesn’t have to be done perfectly, it just has to be done.