Feminism: How To Be A (Male) Ally

[Content Note: Rape Culture]

Lately, I've been reading a lot of comments on the interwebs from genuinely nice guys who want to know how to be good feminist allies in this shitty rape culture world we live in. And it's a more complicated question that it looks, since there's a lot of conflicting advice out there about white knighting (which in itself is a confusing term with about four distinct and sometimes mutually exclusive meanings) and helpful-versus-unhelpful anger and nice guyism and creepers and OMG PARALYZED BY THE POSSIBILITY FOR WRONGNESS.

So here is a Helpful (Male) Allies 101 post for men who would like to be helpful male allies as far as my opinion goes. Also, upfront, these posters are very cool. Just sayin'. 

1. How To Speak: A Day-To-Day Guide

First and foremost, let's talk about vocabulary. Vocabulary is very powerful -- it's the main tool through which we express ourselves. "That's a very pretty blouse" and "I love the way your tits look in that" are two sentences that can come from the same internal sentiment, but depending on your audience the difference in word choice can mean the difference between making a new friend or being slapped with a sexual harassment suit. Words matter, and they don't just matter at work or at church. You need to be aware of your words all the time, as well as the audience around you.

Speaking very generally here, I frequently feel like the men around me have not been socialized to take care with their words, particularly in social settings. Most of the women I know have been trained from birth to choose their words with care in order to avoid creating drama and hurt feelings, but a lot of the men in my social groups tend to run off at the mouth as long as they aren't At Work or At Church or Around Mother or otherwise in the presence of a specific constraining force. This needs to change; in order to be a helpful ally, men need to be aware of the power that their words have to create Safe and Unsafe Spaces.

There's the relatively obvious vocabulary stuff, like "don't use the word 'rape' to mean things that are not rape". Losing at a sporting event, or being beaten at a video game, or having to pay taxes is not the same thing as being raped. Don't conflate the two, and if you hear friends conflating the two, consider trying to steer the conversation away from rape to something more appropriate. "We got raped last night" can be politely countered with "oh, you mean you lost? By how many points?" That quick-and-subtle re-framing may be lost on your male friends (more on speaking up to friends later), but can be a valuable ally flag to the women in the room that at least one other person there is uncomfortable with the casual use of the word 'rape'. And that awareness of an ally's presence can help people to own their legitimate feelings, and can mean the difference between a Safe Space and an unsafe one.

There's more subtle stuff, too, like "don't analogize to things you haven't experienced". By which I mean, if you've never been raped or sexually assaulted, you really should shy away from using those things as metaphors, period. (Similarly, if you haven't experienced systematic racism, or significant disability, you shouldn't use those concepts in analogies because you will use them wrong and create an Unsafe Space in the process of doing so.) Remember that not everyone in the room has experienced the life of a Privileged White Male, and that -- for those people -- discussions of rape and sexual assault can be life-and-death serious and not just interesting intellectual exercises.

Once you've learned to pick your words precisely and with care -- and I want to stress that you need to acquire and maintain this habit in all-male groups as well as in mixed-gendered groups -- you can move on to applying those same speaking habits to broad concepts and topics of conversation. When someone brings up the latest rape or sexual assault "scandal" that is affecting the politician or sportsperson du jour or they comment on women being creeped on in social groups or at large conventions, you can respond to the topic with that same awareness that, social situation or no, your words are constantly working to create a safe-or-unsafe space. Consider working up a repertoire of calm, defusing statements that can be practiced and hauled out the next time someone starts victim blaming or questioning the reliability of rape survivors. Here are some sample ones for you to tweak to your own needs and vocabulary:

I believe it's in society's interest to take allegations seriously and investigate accordingly.
I think it's important to verify that our celebrities and political leaders are not predators.
I believe that victims deserve justice dispensed by the courts, and not handled internally.
I think the victim deserves compassion and respect during this time of investigation.
I believe history demonstrates that seemingly good people can commit terrible crimes. 

    ...and so forth. The goal here is for you to develop a script of common responses that you can reach for whenever you hear someone else making a space unsafe. These responses aren't intended to be avidly feminist or to set the world on fire -- these are actually deliberately bland and downplayed so that you can have something non-controversial on-hand to steer the conversation away from the unsafe minefields of grr-those-lying-bitches and over to safer platitude pastures of social justice and open-mindedness and high-ground and above-boardedness. In 90% of social situations, your job isn't to fight all the feminist battles; instead your goal is to quietly mold and guide the conversation away from the unsafe and into the safe.

    And let me repeat that: 90% of the time, your goal as a male feminist ally should be to focus on making a safe space for women, not on loudly confronting and/or converting non-feminist men. Those two goals are sometimes complimentary, but can frequently be mutually exclusive.

    A common mistake that a lot of people make when they convert to an ideology is to focus on the non-converts. That is, after all, where the newly converted person just came from, and there's a natural desire to share their new ideology with those people and bring them along. Unfortunately, when we're talking about an ideology like feminism, that effectively means that new feminist allies tend to focus on the non-feminist men in the room. On the face of it, this makes sense: the feminist man can convert all the non-feminist men to feminism! And then the group will be Super Safe! And the women will be so happy! But in practice, this tends to end very badly: the non-feminist men are probably not going to be won over instantly, the feminist man will struggle with burn-out, and the women in the group will face every social situation with the grim realization that it will be a big ideological battleground rather than a relaxing night out.

    Instead of focusing on the men, your goal as a feminist ally should be to focus on the women, and on how the conversation at any given moment is likely to affect them. If Bob is going on about grr-those-lying-bitches, and you confront Bob there in the moment, it's very possible that a big argument is going to erupt. That you're willing to get into an argument on the subject may legitimize Suzy's feelings of uncomfortableness, yes. But it will also very likely ruin everyone's evening, Suzy included. If you can instead steer Bob away from grr-those-lying-bitches while calmly asserting the point that you disagree, then you can legitimize Suzy's feelings, maintain a safe space overall, and all this while still enjoying a relaxing game of bowling.

    Keeping in mind a goal of maintaining a safe-and-pleasant space for both you and Suzy, there are two major push-backs to be aware of. One would be if Bob gets defensive and tries to start an ideology fight with you. If you say "I think the victim deserves compassion and respect during this time of investigation", and Bob rounds on you with a lot of rhetoric about how you shouldn't call her a victim until the court verdict is in and all these bitches are lying sluts and etc. etc. dialed up to eleven, then your fall-back position is calmly (and repeatedly) asserting, "That is my opinion. Am I not allowed to have an opinion?" to be followed (as needed) with repeated assertions that you're entitled to your opinion, that you're not trying to change anyone's mind so why is he so invested in changing yours, etc. The thing to remember here is that Bob is spoiling for a fight, and your job is to not give it to him.

    Two is more insidious and it's one of the main reasons why feminist women tend to worry about (one of the definitions of) white knighting. In the case of two, Bob will try to force Suzy into the conversation as a Token Women by demanding that she give her opinion. You see this often in the case of a feminist man speaking up against a sexist joke:

    Bob : [Tells sexist joke.]
    Andrew : [calmly] I don't think that's funny, Bob. I think it's gross and creepy.
    Bob : Aw, come on. Suzy didn't mind, so why should you? Suzy, you didn't mind, did you?

    The correct response here is to immediately deflect the attention away from Suzy. The joke is not offensive because there's a woman present to hear it and she needs to be protected from it; the joke is offensive because it is a gross and creepy joke that offended you. Immediately assert that your opinion is valid regardless of whether or not women are present:

    Andrew : Bob, I think the joke is gross and creepy. You can poll the whole room, but my opinion isn't going to magically change.

    ...then, if Suzy wants, she can choose to get involved. Or not, as the case may be. The point here is that part of creating a Safe Space is to ensure that the women in the room aren't forced into a Token Women position in order to explain or justify feminist theory over and over and over when they'd rather just be relaxing with a beer on their night off.

    As a side note, not everyone is going to feel the same as me regarding keeping a space pleasant versus using confrontation to assertively maintain a space. And that's fine! Your job as a male ally is to take time to privately sound out the women in your group, in ways that are within their comfort level, and see how you can make them more comfortable. If -- and this is an if that you need to be careful and considerate about -- you have the kind of relationship with Suzy where you can privately speak to her and ask her if everything is alright with her these days, then you may also have the kind of relationship with Suzy where you can privately confide in her that sometimes Bob says some offensive stuff in the group and you're never quite sure how to respond to it. And then Suzy can, if she wants to, say what she thinks on the subject. Communication is key here, as is listening. 

    2. How To Listen

    If you are a male feminist ally, sooner or later a woman is very likely to trust you with a personal account of sexual violence in her past. And for a long time, I've wanted to write a "how to listen to a rape victim" post, but instead I'll fold it into here. Every victim of sexual violence is a unique person, but here are some general guidelines that I think fit most situations:

    1. Actively listen. 
    2. Affirm that what happened to her was unambiguously wrong and not her fault. 
    3. Maintain the focus on her. 
    4. Work to minimize her discomfort.

    Actively listen means hear what she has to say without distractions or interruptions. If she's comfortable with eye contact, maintain it. Nod where appropriate, and make sympathetic faces. The point here is to convey, with all possible body language, that you are listening and that you care about what she is saying. The story she is trusting to you is a story that probably affects her very deeply, and it's a story that deserves to be heard with care and sensitivity.

    Affirm that what happened was wrong by saying so, clearly and distinctly. "That should not have been done to you," is something that should be said out loud. "He was wrong to do that to you," is another valuable thing that many victims need to hear. Most victims have been socialized to place the feelings of their rapist above their own; most victims have been taught to excuse and mitigate and apologize for their rapist's actions. You need to unambiguously state that what happened was wrong, should not have been done, and was absolutely not the fault of the victim.

    Maintain the focus on her. This is tricky, because each rape victim is unique and the response they need from you may vary from person to person. I have in the past said not to react with anger, because that puts the victim in the position of having to talk someone down from committing murder or assault, but I've since heard from rape victims who felt that anger in response to their stories was helpful and cathartic. So I will amend my earlier statement to say that expressing emotion, even strong emotion, is probably fine, but do it while remembering that this moment isn't about you so much as it is about the victim. Communication is very valuable here: "I'm going to kill him!" is very very unlikely to be helpful, but saying "I know this isn't about me, but I'm just so furious at him. Is there anything I can do for you?" is one way of expressing strong emotion while still affirming that you are there to help the victim, rather than she being there to talk you down from homicide or console you at being confronted with rape culture*.

    Working to minimize her discomfort ties into the above with remembering that the victim is vulnerable in this moment and that her needs should be met as much as possible. If she wants to cry, provide her the emotional support to do so without shame or feeling pressured to move on to a new topic. Conversely, if she wants to drop the subject, allow her to change the topic to something safer for her. Once again, direct communication is valuable: "I don't mind if you want to talk about something else, but I want you to know that if you ever want to talk about this with me again, you can." Letting her know that you are a safe person to speak to about her rape, and that you won't pressure her to drop it or to vicariously let you live out revenge fantasies or to otherwise co-opt her experience to fit your needs**, is valuable ally behavior.

    3. How To Maintain Awareness

    One in four women are victims of sexual assault or rape or attempted rape.
    One in thirty-three men are victims of rape or attempted rape.
    One in twenty men are rapists or attempted rapists.

    The next time you're struggling to watch your vocabulary, take a look around you. Is there a woman in the room? There's a one in four chance that she's a victim of sexual assault or rape or attempted rape. Does she have female friends or relatives in her life? If so, there's a very good chance that even if she hasn't been sexually assaulted or raped or attempted raped, she knows someone who has, and they've trusted her with that knowledge. If that doesn't help you remember to not conflate rape with losing a match in Soul Calibre, I don't know what will.

    Do you have male friends and relatives? More likely than not, one in twenty of them have committed or attempted to commit rape in their lifetime. There's a very, very low chance that you would know about this -- most rapists don't advertise that they're rapists, and when they do advertise, what they say is frequently brushed off as nothing more than a joke. You can be vigilant and look for creepy behavior, but ultimately you can't tell if the men in your life are rapists. Rapists can be progressive and can join feminist causes and can talk the lingo very well. Many rapists don't self-identify as rapists, and may not even be aware that what they do is rape.

    When you walk into a room, note how many women are there, and divide by four. Tally up how many men you know on a first-name basis and divide that number by twenty. Remember these numbers. That is why safe spaces are important and why changing your vocabulary is worthwhile.

    4. How To Speak Up Among Friends

    Although 90% of the time, your job is to help maintain a pleasant and calm safe space, there is going to be the 10% of the time when you have to confront a friend for making a space unsafe. Sometimes you can do this privately, and other times Suzy's evening is going to be ruined no matter what you do. This section is for both those times.

    If you can get Bob to duck out of the room and privately talk about his unsafe behavior, then by all means try for it. If the unsafe behavior is largely speech and vocabulary related, maybe you can appeal to his empathy with the numbers above: "Look, Bob, every national statistic says that at least 1 in 4 women are victims of rape or attempted rape. Knowing that, can you please stop the rape jokes? There are 12 women at this party and you're reminding 3 of them of a very painful time in their life that they'd probably rather forget." Even if the empathy tactic works, you're still looking at a Bob who cracks the rape jokes in an all-male group, though, which you really do not want to encourage. If you can, try to remember the position we outlined above: that rape jokes are offensive to you because they are offensive to you, and not because there are women in the room. Having a man unambiguously state, "Bob, I do not find rape funny, I find it distressing and uncomfortable and I don't want to think about it every five minutes," can mean a LOT more than framing this in terms of the fragile women and their sadfeels.

    If you can't get Bob out of the room, and you're dealing with a Captain Awkward level creep, then speak up loudly, quickly, and unambiguously. "Bob, what you are doing is sexual assault, and it's unacceptable," is a highly appropriate response to unwanted fondling, groping, or grabbing. Excuses about Bob's drunkenness or state of mind should be deflected with a repetition of the fact that his actions are sexual assault and unacceptable regardless, and without mitigating factors. Equivocation that it's all a misunderstanding or that the woman he assaulted led him on should be met with a response that sexual assault doesn't just accidentally-whoops-happen, and that sexual assault is a crime and unacceptable.

    As always, the goal here as an ally is to point out that Unacceptable Behavior is Unacceptable without putting the woman under the spotlight to defend herself or fight the battle at hand. If Suzy actively speaks up and says, "No, it's okay, it was all just a misunderstanding," you should listen to her while maintaining that the onus is on Bob to prevent future 'misunderstandings' and to verify that women want him to grope them before the groping occurs and not after. "If you're sure, Suzy, but Bob, don't let this 'accidentally' happen again," is a valid response here. And if Suzy doesn't speak up to defend Bob, but rather beats a hasty retreat because she's not in an emotional place where she wants to deal with a sexual assault, that doesn't mean the problem is solved and Bob can go back to what he was doing -- again, good ally behavior here is to call out that sexual assault is wrong and Bob is behaving in an unacceptable manner.

    If you can talk to Suzy privately after this, try to do so. "Are you okay with talking about this with me?" is a good way to verify whether or not Suzy is in an emotional place where she can deal with what happened earlier. If she is willing to talk to you, the same rules apply as in #2; actively assert that what Bob did was wrong and not acceptable, and find out what you can do to minimize the harm done to Suzy and prevent this from happening again.

    5. How To Speak Up Among Strangers

    Several people have asked, in light of this post, how to intervene in public situations where a strange woman is being harassed by a strange man. A full post on this would be extremely long and would have to cover a number of unique situations, but I would say that a good rule of thumb is to communicate your allied status to the woman, respond to her cues (verbal and non-verbal) as much as possible, and clearly maintain that you are not a threat and are not expecting compensation for your help.

    Let's take the example of the Creepy Conversationalist. A man has sat next to a woman on the bus and is aggressively demanding her attention and conversation. Her body language indicates that she is not comfortable with being aggressed upon in this manner, but this is one of those situations where she's being compelled by fear and social pressure to put up with the demands on her time and attention rather than 'make a fuss'. You would like to help. How?

    While maintaining a non-threatening tone and posture -- because you don't want to get into a fight with the man, and you don't want to intimidate the woman further -- make both of them aware that you are paying attention to them. If at all possible, insert yourself into the 'conversation' by responding to something the man says. If he's asking her what she's reading, for instance, you might pipe up with "oh, are you talking about books? I just finished reading..." By doing this, you are inserting yourself into the conversation in a non-threatening manner, and you are reminding the man that there are active witnesses to his behavior. You are also providing the woman with a potential ally and a way for her to politely 'participate' in the larger conversation without feeling like her participation will encourage her would-be predator.

    Once you've inserted yourself into the situation, your ultimate goal is to provide the woman a safe "out". If she's reading a book, you might cheerily come to the conclusion that she might want to get back to it: "Oh, one of those Harry Potter books? I've heard they're quite gripping. We should let you get back to reading, then." If she has knitting or something artistic to do with her hands or something that requires concentration (like journaling), you could note that such a hobby is probably demanding on the attention and that you should let her get back to it. This provides the woman the opportunity to accept your invitation to withdraw from the conversation, without breaching any social rules.

    A big part of interfering on behalf of strangers is that you don't want to come off like a worse threat than the existing predator. You can convey this by smiling warmly and non-threateningly, and by watching your eye contact: try to keep your eye contact largely on the man, maintaining eye contact with the woman only when addressing her and then transferring your attention back to the man. People tend to pay attention to the object that interests them most; by not staring at the woman, you are conveying that you're not trying to leer at her, and by keeping your attention on the man, you're expressing that he's the reason you are interfering.

    Remember to always provide as many "outs" as possible for a woman so that she can feel safe -- if you can, try to get the man to volunteer which exit is his (even a "I think there's an exit coming up, is it yours?" can work here to provide a binary yes/no) so that the woman can plan her strategy. If your exit is coming up and if you feel safe doing so, announce in advance that it is your exit -- if the woman feels safer with you than with the Creepy Conversationalist, she may choose to get off there in your company rather than try to disembark alone and possibly be followed by the creep.

    If you do end up in a situation alone with the woman, do not hit on her. Establish quickly and immediately that she is safe leaving you, and state plainly where you will be: something like "I live just down the block there, can I call you a cab so that you can get home safely?" is appropriate here. Do not try to give her your phone number. If she's your dream girl and you're really, really meant to be together, she will offer you her phone number without you having to hit on her and escalating her stranger-danger bells after a long night of being creeped upon. Seriously, please do not hit on her.

    This is a very specific example and it won't be applicable for all situations. But in general if you want to help a strange woman in a stranger situation, the following guidelines apply:

    1. Be assertive but not aggressive or combative. You don't want to start a fight or frighten her.
    2. Insert yourself into the situation as an active witness. 
    3. Engage the attentions of the man while providing the woman a way out from that attention. 
    4. Use your body language to convey that the woman is not an object of interest to you. 
    5. Establish where the man (and then yourself) are/will be located so that she can be elsewhere.
    6. Always provide as many outs (physical and social) for her as possible. 
    7. Do not under any circumstances hit on her during this time. 

    I've probably missed some stuff. Being a good ally takes time and isn't something that is done in a day. But for all the people genuinely asking how to do this, here's a start. Good luck... and thanks.

    * I mean "console" very literally. One of the men I trusted with my rape story literally broke down crying and I had to spend several hours awkwardly comforting him over being confronted with the awfulness of the world. This was not helpful for me, and made me reluctant to share my narrative with anyone else for a time, because it seemed too great a burden for other people to handle.

    ** For an excellent example of a man co-opting a woman's pain to fit his needs, I refer you to Margaret Atwood's excellent novel, Alias Grace (spoilers, as this is from the final chapter):
    On the whole, Mr. Walsh and I agree, and things go on very well with us. But there is something that has troubled me, Sir; and as I have no close woman friend I can trust, I am telling you about it, and I know you will keep the confidence.

    It is this. Every once in a while Mr. Walsh becomes very sad; he takes hold of my hand and gazes at me with the tears in his eyes, and he says, To think of the sufferings I have caused you.

    I tell him he did not cause me any sufferings—it was others that caused them, and also having plain bad luck and bad judgment—but he likes to think it was him that was the author of all, and I believe he would claim the death of my poor mother too, if he could think of a way to do it. He likes to picture the sufferings as well, and nothing will do but that I have to tell him some story or other about being in the Penitentiary, [...]

    I myself would as soon forget about that portion of my life, rather than dwelling on it in such a mournful way. [...] As for Mr. Walsh, after I have told him a few stories of torment and misery he clasps me in his arms and strokes my hair, and begins to unbutton my nightgown, as these scenes often take place at night; and he says, Will you ever forgive me?

    At first this annoyed me very much, although I did not say so. [...] When he first began this, I said I had nothing to forgive him for, and he shouldn’t worry his head about it; but that wasn’t the answer he wanted. He insists on being forgiven, he can’t seem to go on comfortably without it, and who am I to refuse him such a simple thing?

    So now every time this happens, I say I forgive him. I put my hands on his head as if in a book, and I turn my eyes up and look solemn, and then kiss him and cry a little; and then after I’ve forgiven him, he is back to his usual self the next day, playing on his flute as if he’s a boy again and I am fifteen, and we are out in the orchard making daisy chains at Mr. Kinnear’s.

    But I don’t feel quite right about it, forgiving him like that, because I am aware that in doing so I am telling a lie. Though I suppose it isn’t the first lie I’ve told; but as Mary Whitney used to say, a little white lie such as the angels tell is a small price to pay for peace and quiet.


    HattingMad said...

    I might have the spoons to deal with this today, so, let me try. *cracks knuckles*

    You're in a unique position, I guess, in that you can speak to other men who have (to paraphrase) Chris Brown type shit in their pasts (or presents, dog forbid). So that's a thing. But as far as being an ally...my thought is speak up. Be direct. Be open. Please. And then, don't be offended or hurt or anything if women/survivors/ect. can't trust you because of your past, or don't want you in safe spaces, or don't want you advocating for them. That's a choice they get to make, and please respect it. For an example of a guy who got this so, so very wrong, see "Anything Hugo Schwyzer has ever written".

    Dubbie5 said...

    All right, thank you! That was kind of what I was leaning towards in my own thinking but it's good to have some external clarity, you know? And you're absolutely right that while there are going to be women who are fine with working alongside men who've hurt women in the past, there are going to certainly be some who don't want men like me anywhere near their space and that is an absolutely valid reaction that I will absolutely take to heart.

    And yeah, I'd started out thinking Hugo was an interesting guy who had a similar situation to mine, but the more I read and learned the skeezier he came off. I don't think I'd make a very good blogger or public figure or anything like that, I just want to... on a personal level, I guess, do good and help where I'd done harm before. So I'll take what you said to heart.

    Thank you for your time and spoons!

    Dubbie5 said...

    This is a very insightful and constructive post, and I will take it to heart.

    I do have one question, and it's one that I personally struggle with-- do you have any advice for men who want to be allies but who have been on the "other side"--that is, harming women--in the past? Is it best to be direct and open about one's possibly checkered past, or should that sort of thing be brought up privately with people you trust?

    Ana Mardoll said...

    I feel that there needs to be a General Thread Notice here.

    This post was written because I saw people -- here and elsewhere -- saying "I'm a feminist guy, I want to help, how can I?" and this was my response. No post is for EVERYONE. If you are physically incapable of doing something suggested in this post, then that doesn't mean you're not a good ally; it just means that this post is not for you. You can be an ally in other ways: maybe by writing a blog, maybe by donating time or money or goods or services to the cause, or maybe just by being a "silent" ally in the sense that you don't wake up every morning and actively contribute to the marginalization of women by, say, cat-calling at them.

    Feminism is not like being a Batman-esque vigilante. It's not about riding buses every night, poised and ready to leap into Stranger Danger situations. IF you are present when a situation happens and IF you can intervene in the ways outlined above, then great! But if you can't, that's okay too -- it's not your *job* to single-handedly dismantle rape culture. This post was not written with an intent to erase people with disabilities... and given the history of this board and some of the comments going up here and elsewhere on the disabled posts, I would appreciate it if people didn't create the impression that the OP is pretending disabled people don't exist. (This comment is not directed at anyone, just a general thread note as the conversation evolves.)

    By all means, if you can't implement the above suggestions, use this thread as a place to talk about alternative ways to be an ally. But I would take it as a personal favor if this thread didn't simply become a long list of "Reasons Why I Can't Do What The OP Suggests". Asking for alternative ways to help women focuses on Women and how to help them; outlining why the suggestions in the OP don't apply to individuals takes the conversation away from Women as a group and focuses it on individual men and women. While that's a valuable conversation to have, it belongs in another thread, possibly one of the Open Threads. Thank you.

    swanblood said...

    Yeah, not wanting to derail also, but as an autistic female, I understand "Soul Calibur" anon very well (and, haha, I cringed about the typo too. Even though I also can be bad with language).

    In general, posts like this tend to confuse me from both directions, though I definitely understand that they're very useful for most women and most men. (Not sure where non-binary people fit into this. I'm not one, but I feel like they should have a place...) For example, I'm a "victim" of "rape", but I don't use those words and, from what I can tell, my attitude to what happened is very, very different than 99% of people. I don't even really know how to describe my feelings about it, because they don't exist in any other description I've found. The typical sexist way of looking at things AND the social justice way of things... both of them don't work for me or help me.

    So, I think this post is wonderful and very useful, but I also will say, there definitely are some people who fall outside this, both victims and helpers. (I know I can't do the "comforting eye contact and reassuring noises" thing even if my life is on the line.)

    Meruror said...

    Guest wrote:
    "Between that and the depression, with all the ways that affects your thinking, I think I may have an even worse case of "OMG PARALYZED BY THE POSSIBILITY FOR WRONGNESS" than most guys."

    Even if your case of being paralyzed is worse than most guys, you're not alone in that. I know the combination of depression and poor social skills very well. At this point in my life it has made me an unwilling hermit. As I write this, it has been about 10 days since I last spoke to another human being. This is not, I'm sorry to say, an unusual occurrence for me.

    My life has come to this largely due to an overwhelming fear that any conversation I involve myself in will inevitably lead to me saying something bad or inappropriate.

    I don't want to distract from the actual topic of this conversation, which is a very important one. I just wanted to let the anonymous writer above to know that, for whatever it may be worth, his story felt very touching to me.

    As to the blog post itself, I was very impressed by it. The advice given seems both sensible and highly useful. Though for the same reasons as the writer I quoted, I am uncertain if I'll ever have the opportunity to make use of it.

    Guest said...

    i am a male victim of repeated rape and assault (perpetrated by men) and have very severe ptsd and related paralysing anxiety and panic, which has disabled me. around others in person, the things men do or say that are wrong or upsetting or threatening to women can also set me off, especially if it involves unwanted touching or actions that are making the woman feel cornered and helpless.

    i do not like that my experiences have damaged me so much that opportunities i might have to spare someone else suffering tend to trigger me badly, set off panic attacks, or even flashbacks. i do not like the, even of it is true, "whoops, i'm too disabled to help," aspect of my life. a woman who does not know me does not know i have been through terrible things; she will only see a man who is too afraid (via body language, which may also be interpreted as simply being uncomfortable) to interfere with what is harming her.

    i try to privately speak to people as much as i can, to tell them i am always willing to listen and i empathise, but it is insufficient.

    i don't know what to do.

    Sarah said...

    This is pretty good, but I have to say I disagree about "redirecting" the conversation. (I'm female, btw.) If someone uses the word "cunt" or "slut," then I'm not going to be politely redirect the conversation to ensure his comfort is maintained, especially at the expense of my own comfort. Generally speaking, however, I find that I'm quite inclined to dispose of so-called friends who demonstrate their hatred towards women...or any other group, frankly. It's hard to make people around you feel awkward, but I'm not in this business to ensure that people retain their feelings of superiority. If a person wants to ruin my night by being an asshole, then I have no problem reciprocating in kind. I'm not saying to scream in the person's face, but I find that a polite and well thought-out explanation can do wonders. I'm not sure if you're advice on redirecting only applies to male allies, though.

    And, to quote a friend, "I personally want to move beyond the idea that I need to be "friends" with any of those types of people (homophobes, misogynists, racists, etc.) just because I can have a drink with them and manage not to spit in their face through the duration of an evening. Life is too short for that."

    John McKay said...

    5. How To Speak Up Among Strangers

    I don't know if this is helpful or not, but this a real life anecdote.

    My best friend and later spouse and I got on a bus one night and sat near the back of the bus. A younger woman took the seat in front of us. At a later stop, a homeless man got on the bus and sat down beside her. He was possibly fetal alcohol syndrome, not drunk or stoned. We watched him try to make conversation and her attempt to be polite. When we reached her stop, we watched her head toward the front of the bus. We watched him follow her. We hoped she would say something to the driver. She didn't, so we banged on the stop bell and shouted "back door, back door." This put the four of us at a crosswalk light. We ran up and my partner grabbed the young woman by the arm. I stepped. between the women and the homeless guy. The young woman looked surprised. My partner said, "We're together!" The homeless guy said, "I just want to talk to her." The crosswalk light changed and my partner pulled the young woman across the street while I blocked the homeless guy from following them. Did I mention that he was enormous? He probably outweighed me by a hundred pounds. Even as we jumped off the bus, I thought, "this is really going to hurt." Fortunately, I only had to maintain eye contact with him while the women walked away at a casual pace. When the light changed, I smiled, shrugged, then dashed through the traffic and left him alone on the wrong side of the street. He followed us for about two blocks from the opposite side of the street before giving up. The whole way, she kept apologizing for acknowledging his existence and trying to be kind to him. We tried to tell her she did the right thing, the situation was just wrong.

    Without my partner, there is no way this could have turned out well. If I had jumped off the bus and grabbed the young woman's arm and said, "Hi, we're together." There is every possibility that she would have pulled away, leaving two creeps to fight over her while she ran away, afraid of both of us.

    I don't think the homeless guy was a potential rapist per se, but I do think he could have misunderstood signals enough to become a sexual assaulter. I'm curious, does anyone have advice for a situation like this? Taking him aside and giving him a sincere Bob talking to would not work.

    Makabit said...

    To both Guests--we can only do what we can do. You can't make your own disabilities or past trauma not exist for the sake of doing some particular task of alliance perfectly.

    I don't know if this is at all helpful, but I think it's simply true. Your mileage does vary, and you have to work in your real world. Things like this are useful, but as always, they're meant for a sort of averaged-out person and experience. Most of us are not that person, not in all things, anyway.

    John McKay said...

    have so much I want to say. In too many conversations initiated by young feminists, I feel that my Y chromosome is not welcome, but , since this post is directed toward men, I hope what I say is productive. Wow, that sounds pompous. Anyway, forward. I think your post was a very very helpful contribution to this debate. I'm also very impressed at the quality of the comments since these discussions are so often ruined by trolls.

    I have lots of nit-picks about minor details of your post, but the big one is what you left out.

    "90% of the time, your goal as a male feminist ally should be to focus on making a safe space for women..."

    You left out the other 10%, which is to advocate for women. Feminist men need to strongly advocate for pro-women politics, company policies, and even the smallest local behaviors. Confront your local police, your school board, your college administration, your local TV station, newspaper, radio, or any other opinion influencing media or venue.

    So as not to dilute the importance of the other commenters , I'll use a separate comment to respond to each of them. I hope that's not too annoying, but it's too late to tell me not to.

    MaryKaye said...

    Anna wrote: I'd like to ask a follow-up question (and feel free not to answer if it's spoon-spendy): what's an appropriate response to someone telling you about something that sounds exactly like assault, when the teller is insisting that they personally didn't consider it to be assault?

    Captain Awkward #394 is this, exactly, and if you can stand to read it (content warning: familial rape) it really has a good discussion in both post and comments.

    The only problem is that in this particular letter the person being told is the child of the person telling, and there are all sorts of complications, so it may not generalize perfectly. But I think the take-home was that it's not helpful to try to force the other person into changing their definition--they may be coping the best they can. However, you can define the situation in your own mind in the way that seems right to you. If a person tells you an event that would have been rape if it happened to you, but she says not, you don't get to argue and demand that she accept she was raped, but you *do* get to regard the rapist as a rapist.

    Boutet said...

    Thank you so much for this post. Even as a female I often feel lost when it comes to number 5. I have intervened between my friends and strangers and between strange women and strange men several times and I always spend far too much time afterwards analyzing my actions and wondering if I should have just left it alone. I guess it's the socialization of women to not cause a fuss that makes me so uneasy with it. I end up wondering if I misunderstood the situation, or if I overreacted, especially if the woman takes the opportunity to flee. I start to wonder if she was fleeing the man or fleeing the awkwardness I created.
    I hope that I will continue to be able to get over my social anxiety in these situations for the most part. I do sometimes fail in that. I'll try to keep this post in mind when it happens to give me a sort of ... permission to intervene, I guess.

    Ana Mardoll said...

    I think the non-confrontational version of that scenario would be to rush over with something like "I'm so sorry to bother you but I see that you're a soldier? I just want to thank you so much for what you do for our country. My friend/brother/nephew/co-worker is in the National Guard. Where are you shipping to? etc. etc. babble."

    That usually is enough shielding for someone to say "Well-I-have-to-go-it-was-nice-to-meet-you-both-bye" and dart off to the ladies' restroom or something.

    Isator Levi said...

    I feel like I've failed in a recent thread on another forum to properly integrate and use the defusing, carefully redirecting stuff.

    And it's causing problems.

    I need to do better. I need to find a way to approach this from a clean slate.

    Jane said...

    Something similar happened to me. A friend disclosed something to me that was most definitely sexual assault, but since the guy didn't physically touch her she explained it away as not that bad.

    GemmaM said...

    Hugs, KNicoll. You sound like you're thinking perfectly reasonable things.

    That is all.

    philipp said...

    Thanks a lot for this post! It helps me to critically reassess my reactions (as a male) in situations where female friends told me about their rape experiences... Even though I would say, I tried my best in these situations to react appropriately, and would generally consider myself as being a rather sensitive person, I realize that I could have done better. Definitely gave me something to think about.

    Anna said...

    Another woman chiming in to say thank you for this post; it may be aimed at men but I found it helpful too. The "how to listen" part is something I've been wondering about, since I've never experienced assault myself but know friends who have.

    I'd like to ask a follow-up question (and feel free not to answer if it's spoon-spendy): what's an appropriate response to someone telling you about something that sounds exactly like assault, when the teller is insisting that they personally didn't consider it to be assault? On the one hand, I recognise that victims have a right to define their experiences in a way that they choose, and if they've chosen to define it as "not assault" I don't want to claim that I'm in a position to know better than them. On the other hand, a lot of the justifications I've heard for "why what happened to me wasn't assault" sound exactly like standard victim-blaming, and I'm generally not happy to let victim-blaming rhetoric slide.

    Ana Mardoll said...

    Hmm. Well, maybe something like:

    "Gosh! That sounds like sexual assault!"

    "Oh no, because [victim blaming]."

    "Well... I suppose, but if it were me in your situation, I wouldn't feel like that was fair at all because [dismantle victim blaming]."


    TW: More graphic example.

    The one I imagine happens most often goes:

    "Gosh! That sounds like sexual assault!"

    "Oh, no, I should have known better than be alone with him."

    "Well... I suppose, but I've been alone with lots of guys, and that didn't mean I was expecting to have sex with them. I don't think it's right for [the rapist] to assume that being alone with him is an automatic expectation of sex."

    In this script, you're signalling that you're not trying to argue, putting your own standards forward as your opinion, and giving them a third option without being pushy about it.

    JonathanPelikan said...

    Double commenting because I'm just so good at this-

    "and the women in the group will face every social situation with the grim realization that it will be a big ideological battleground rather than a relaxing night out."

    Reminded me of a line from Babylon 5, I think.

    "It's about ideology."
    "Of course! What isn't?"

    JonathanPelikan said...

    Thank you for this post. Not that I felt I needed it but, well. I dunno. Okay, yeah. It helps. I dunno. This is one of those 'yes, it's sort of common sense, yes, I know some of this, yes, say it anyway, because it's good to'.

    Not trying to say I KNEW THIS ARE YOU INSINUATING THAT I'M NOT A GOOD ALLY ARAGRWV (although, yes, I do get that way sometimes in a general manner) but rather more, I dunno. It's wierd. It's one of those things.

    (My most literate and comprehensible comment to date.)

    TheDarkArtist said...

    Fantastic and informative post, as always, and one that I really appreciated.

    I just wanted to share one experience that I had. I was never sure what I would do if I saw someone who looked like they were being attacked or assaulted. But, one night when I was picking my ex up from work, I was sitting in the car waiting for her, listening to music, and I heard some yelling/commotion and saw a guy and a girl struggling.

    Before I could even think about it, I was out of my car and on my way over there. As it turns out, they were together and play-fighting in the snow (they were probably 16 or 17) and they thought it was pretty cool of me to just come out and try to intervene in something like that. Little did they know that it was a) mostly just based on an immediate surge of anger and adrenaline and b) probably the wrong thing to do instead of calling the cops.

    I don't share that to toot my own horn or anything, but rather to say that it's weird that I felt no danger or apprehension in that case, but when it comes to telling a guy "hey, you're being creepy and acting like a grade-A asshole" I feel really awkward and weird. I'm trying to get better at it, though.

    cjmr said...

    Mind you, if I looked old enough to carry it off, I might also try, "Young man, you OUGHT to be ASHAMED of your self!"

    Leum said...

    No, it's not, but thanks for the link. This was in a list of rules to a younger self or somesuch.

    Ana Mardoll said...

    I remember that too. I think it was rules intended to be passed to a child. I wish I could remember the link for you.

    MaryKaye said...

    In situations where a woman is seated next to a creep, it sometimes works to say "Ma'am, would you like to trade seats with me?" This is one that I, as an older woman and not very attractive creep-target, use from time to time. It's possible that you will get hurt, but I haven't yet, and I also feel willing to risk it. (If you aren't, this is the wrong strategy for you, and that's okay. You're not required to get hurt on behalf of a random person on the bus.)

    One thing I've noticed is that when I get in one of these situations I spend *huge* amounts of energy before, during, and after, just trying to decide what the best response would be. I've heard this from a lot of other people, especially women but men also. It seems horrendously hard. Ana, I really like the attempt to provide 'scripts' so that these situations get a bit easier to deal with. This was a great article.

    A scenario I would have liked a script for:

    I was waiting at an airport for a badly delayed flight. A guy in military uniform was hitting on a very young woman--apparently a local from what she was saying--who was also waiting for the plane. He was pulling out all the stops in terms of "I might die so I need some nice treatment first" and "You're so pretty, surely you're not mean" and...a whole lot of high-pressure unpleasantness. He seemed to have dual goals of trying to get company from here then and there and trying to get her phone number/email address, which she repeatedly refused to give.

    I was miserable listening to this. I didn't know what to do and it was also directly distressing to me--it brought back lots of bad memories from when I was younger. (My stomach is in a knot typing this, and I have to say, comparatively speaking nothing bad has ever happened to me--no rape, nothing worse than groping. I can only imagine what it would have been like if I'd had more severe trauma in my past.)

    I didn't know what to do. I spent the whole flight wondering what I could have done. I don't have a good script for this one. In the given circumstance I would have been entirely willing to put myself at physical risk--there was security everywhere, and I'm a martial artist and fairly calm about being hurt. But I didn't want to make things worse for her and I didn't know what would make them better.

    cjmr said...

    In that situation (as a woman), I might try something along the lines of (to the young woman), "Hey, you look familiar, where do we know each other from?" OR "Aren't you [made up name]'s sister/daughter/neighbor? I haven't seen you in ages!" giving her the opportunity to pretend to recognize me, too, and move off with me to another (presumably safer) area. Or not, as she decides.

    amoebam said...

    Rape statistics are always going to be a bit fuzzy because many people who have been raped do not report it immediately, if at all.

    The precise number is hardly important anyway. The key point is that it's much more common than most men assume.

    Thomas Keyton said...

    Stuff to think about. Thanks.

    Also, Leum, is this what you're thinking about?

    I get that you don’t really mean that shit. I get that you’re just talking out your ass.

    But please listen, and please trust me on this one: you have probably, at some point in your life, engaged in that kind of talk with a man who really, truly hates women–to the extent of having beaten and/or raped at least one. And you probably didn’t know which one he was.

    And that guy? Thought you were on his side.

    Leum said...

    I wish I could remember where I read it, I know it was the blog of someone of Slacktiverse, but don't remember who, but it was one of the pivotal moments for me to understand why never to tell rape jokes or race jokes:

    Every time you tell a race joke there's a closet racist thinking to him/herself, "Yeah, that person knows what the real world is like." Every time you tell a race joke there's a closet rapist thinking to him/herself, "Yeah, that person understands what women are."

    Patrick Ingram said...

    Trigger: Sexual Assault

    In section 3, the first link says that one in four women are raped or attempted to be raped. The second link, however, puts that number at one in six. I'm a bit confused here.

    Ana Mardoll said...

    The 1 in 6 number at the link is for "American women". There are more women in the world than American women, ergo the discrepancy.

    Please also note that rape estimates are estimates based on extrapolation of what data we have. There is not actually a database somewhere with every woman on earth in it and whether or not she's a victim of rape or attempted rape.

    skirt said...

    This is a really excellent, valuable post.

    JarredH said...

    Good stuff. I especially appreciate part 5.

    Emmy said...

    This is great, and I really hope that the target audience takes the message on board (because there is a definite need for it!). I still remember the day that a very progressive friend of mine said something along the lines of "Oh, I doubt anyone cares about people using the word 'rape' when the play video games", and was genuinely shocked when I told him how disrespectful that is and how much it pisses of sexual assault survivours (myself included) - it had never occurred to him that it was just as bad as saying "retard" or "faggot". Thankfully, he took the lesson to heart and never needed to be told twice.

    wiki said...

    "Ally" sounds pretty cool. [REDACTED for misandry]

    wiki said...

    "Ally" sounds pretty cool. [REDACTED for misandry]

    depizan said...

    Yes, it's terribly cowardly to be a decent human being.

    Please move along.

    depizan said...

    Yes, it's terribly cowardly to be a decent human being.

    Please move along.

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