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How Men Can Help Stop Sexual Harassment and Assault

Listening without pushing back is a great place to start.

by Gabe Zaldivar
July 16, 2019 | Our Future

Men are an inseparable part of the #MeToo movement, both as a portion of its survivors and as a massive population of potential allies.

One in three women will endure some form of sexual violence in their life. The number is one in six for men, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

The NSVRC also reports that “one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.”

But "ally" might not be the best word for what men can be to women in this struggle, said Wade Davis, a former NFL player who became the league’s first LGBT inclusion consultant and has since helped companies like Google and Netflix with workplace culture.

“Move past the idea of being an ally to being a solidarity partner,” he said. “One of the missteps men think about when they think of the #MeToo movement is that it’s something for women, but it’s actually for men.”

It’s an opportunity to listen on a broader scale — to literature, cinema and journalism created by women that has for far too long been ignored by men.

“It’s an opportunity for us as men to awaken to what women have always been experiencing," Davis said. "And they’ve written about and talked about it but we either chose to ignore or we were actual participants in their oppression."

Listen without getting defensive

One of the most powerful things men can do as solidarity partners is the simplest of acts: listening.

Illustration of diverse group of people. Sexual Harassment pbs rewire
If you're trying to change your own behavior, start from a foundation of respect for everyone.

Certified sex educator and counselor Mary Jo Podgurski said doing work to end sexual assault and harassment can be as simple as “being empathic and listening and holding space.”

Essentially, men are asked to “give the gift of (their) presence.”

It’s going to take some work — it can be hard to resist getting defensive during conversations about gender. But listening goes a long way.

"If a woman comes forth and tells you about a situation where she’s been harassed or assaulted, then don’t... take it defensively as against all men, but listen and be a support for her," Podgurski said.

More and more, women and men who have experienced sexual assault and harassment want to share their stories. And each story is an invaluable piece of an extraordinary picture.

“The more that men listen, the more that we’re going to work toward this culture change that the #MeToo movement has really spurred,” she said.

[ICYMI: The Movement Helping Men Rethink Masculinity]

Navigating backlash

Unfortunately, change happens slowly and tumultuously. Fear of losing some semblance of the status quo continues to hinder the movement.

A survey by discovered “60 percent of male managers say they are uncomfortable engaging in common workplace interactions with women, including mentoring, socializing and having one-on-one meetings — up 14 percentage points from last year.”

For some men, the questions have become: How am I losing power? How will I be affected? What could happen to me?

The backlash boils down to a perceived loss of access. Men are scared that with new expectations, there will be retribution for behavior that used to be seen as normal.

“Men are being held accountable,” Davis said. “We think of it as a punishment because we were allowed to, when you see a girl at a club, you come up behind her and just start dancing on her.

“We as men take that as a punishment but actually we’re just treating women like human beings now. Imagine that being our frame that you don’t have access to this person’s body is now you being punished."

Being held accountable and being mindful of your problematic behaviors and beliefs doesn't mean you need to be afraid to live your life. You can still flirt. You can still interact. And, yes, you can still mentor or befriend a female colleague.

Getting to the point of compassion, however, takes time.

Nurturing a culture of consent

Men have been given a playbook that is not only outdated, but dangerous, Davis said.

“We were taught coercion; we weren’t taught consent. Coercion means that a 'no' is just a question or an ask or a movement away from a 'yes.'”

Learning bodily autonomy, empathy and kindness starts at a young age. If you have children, emphasizing these lessons can help change the culture for the better.

“Broadly, consent is giving permission to do something,” said Elizabeth Jeglic, professor of psychology at John Jay College in New York. “Consent is something we need to teach our children at a young age as it pertains to their bodies.”

For example, we shouldn't tell our young children that they have to hug and kiss family members. They should be learning they have an irrevocable say over their own bodies.

“We have to teach our children that they have control over who is touching them," Jeglic said. "And that goes on through adolescence, and the message we want to convey is people need permission to touch you and to come into your space.”

Model good behavior for your kids, too. Show them that every person they come across has worth and deserves respect.

Hopefully that means children one day become adults who understand consent around touching and sex.

“Both parties being on the same page alleviates some of those ‘misunderstandings,’”Jeglic said. “You want somebody to have enthusiastic consent; you want them to be a willing partner.”

If you're trying to change your own behavior, start from a foundation of respect for everyone.

“You don’t have to love them. You don’t even have to know them well," Podgurski said. "But if you say, this is a person. If I push past what this person can give yes to — this person’s drunk, this person’s high, this person’s confused, this person’s scared — should I keep going.”

Getting on the same page is simple when you consider it’s really about respecting the other person’s body and having enough empathy to recognize the pain you could do to them by ignoring their boundaries.

If you're still confused about why #MeToo was important or necessary, remember “it is about healing for survivors,” Davis said.

And the first thing you can do to help is listen.

Gabe Zaldivar
Gabe Zaldivar is a Los Angeles-based writer who has covered all manner of sports for Bleacher Report and, as well as all manner of travel interests for
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