One of the defining themes of 2017 was our national reckoning with sexual violence like harassment and assault. Starting in January with the inauguration of our (self-admitted) Perpetrator-in-Chief, 2017 was the year the spotlight turned to the harassment of women in Hollywood, restaurants, even the automotive industry. The #MeToo movement flooded social media feeds on Facebook and Twitter, and this cultural moment shows no signs of slowing down, spreading to countries like Italy, France and Israel. Two things have become clear: sexual misconduct is rampant, and it’s on all of us to stop it.
Of course, that’s harder than it sounds. (John Oliver has his own TV show, and even he feels like he failed in his attempt to hold an abuser responsible.) So, what can you do to change things and #Make2018SuckLess?
I’ve been working with communities on a grassroots level for more than five years, raising awareness and teaching people how to prevent street harassment, workplace harassment and sexual assault in their daily lives. I’ve learned that in a difficult or threatening situation, it’s often easier for someone who isn’t directly involved to speak, and it means a lot to victims when others speak out or show support. It’s up to everyone in a friend group, workplace or industry to determine the culture, and whether it’s one that permits harassment or makes a stand against it. As the saying goes, it’s on us.
The good news is that perpetrators of abusive or harmful behavior are relatively few in number; there are more of us than there are of them. Becoming a better bystander is a way for us all to do our part to make our offices, parties and streets safer by not tolerating harassment, and to send a clear message of support to victims. We all want to do the right thing; here’s how to be a better bystander and supporter in 2018.
See something, say something
If you see someone in an uncomfortable interaction—whether at a bar, on the bus or in the break room—walk up, look them in the eye and ask if they’re okay. They’re fine? Great, you can go back to your IPA/podcast/bottomless inbox. But if someone looks visibly upset, they may be grateful for the opportunity to get out of a tricky situation. If the direct approach feels too intense, you can always make up an excuse to pull them aside, like a malfunctioning copier that only they can fix. Once you’ve created some distance from the person who may be responsible for making them uncomfortable, check in to see if they need further help.
Offer support afterwards
There are a number of reasons why you might not be able to intervene when you see harassment happening—your safety and the safety of the target chief among them. But even if you can’t stop sexual violence in the moment, you can still help. For many victims, the most upsetting or traumatizing part of sexual harassment or assault isn’t the fact that it happened, but how they are treated after the fact. If everyone in a subway car pretends they didn’t see anything, it can make you feel like you dreamed it up or exaggerated the incident. If it were really that bad, someone would have said or done something, right?
To combat that crappy feeling, if you see something happening that’s not right, seek the victim out afterwards. Let them know what you saw and that you don’t think what happened is okay. Ask if they’re alright or if they need anything. It won’t make the abusive behavior go away, but it will make the victim feel seen and supported.
Stand up against rape jokes
Call out shitty rape jokes when you hear them. This goes for everyone, but is especially important for guys. Other men are more likely to be taken seriously when they speak up to one another, especially on this topic. Sometimes all it takes is a guy saying, “That’s not funny.”
Why is this so crucial? Because hearing rape jokes and other demeaning statements about women is a risk factor for men who perpetrate sexual assault. So when they hear someone joke unchecked about how some girls rape easy or about bringing chloroform to a first date, they don’t take it as a harmless joke. They take that as validation that their behavior and attitudes are okay. Plus, most rape jokes punch down, a basic no-no in comedy.
Cut crappy people loose
If you know someone who routinely hurts or scares women, should they really still be in your life? Sometimes this is difficult or impossible, like if the person behaving badly is your boss. But being an abuser should come with consequences, and one of those consequences is not getting to hang out with cool people like yourself, or more people they could hurt.
This sounds simple, but this mindset changes how a person views both the high-profile cases in the news and interactions they witness in their own life. If you believe women, it means not asking what she was wearing, if she was drinking or whether she might have encouraged harassment or assault. Believing women also means being more concerned with the health and safety of accusers than with the reputations or careers of the accused. Finally, to believe women is to trust our perceptions of what happens to us.