Last Sunday, the Internet was suddenly flooded with #MeToo, as women of all ages and backgrounds shared achingly painful stories of sexual harassment and assault. And among those posts, I heard my male friends—good, decent men—asking: How can I help?
The next day, I wrote an essay on Facebook to answer these decent men. By Friday, it had been shared nearly 70,000 times.
Here’s a summary of my essay, which describes concrete ways that men—in fact, people of any gender—can help improve the climate for the women around them.
1. Practice this phrase: “That’s not cool.” Say it to other men who are saying disrespectful things to or about women.
2. Read and follow feminist writers. I like Ijeoma Oluo, Lindy West and Roxane Gay. There are so many; follow a few. Even if you find a topic “exhausting” or “too angry,” try to put aside that discomfort and keep reading anyway. A telltale sign of privilege is being able to ignore a system that benefits some while it harms others.
3. Signal-boost female voices. If you’re sharing an article about a social issue—especially a sexism issue—find one written by a woman. Same goes for other groups: Boost articles about race by IBPOC writers (Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour); and articles about disability by writers with disabilities. A great rule of thumb when seeking commentary is the classic revolutionary slogan: “Nothing about us without us.”
4. Amplify women’s voices at work. If a woman’s contributions are being dismissed, interrupted or claimed by others, speak up. “That’s what Monique said.” “Hey, Zahra has a point.”
5. Be mindful of how you introduce women, particularly at work functions. At medical conferences, women introduce male doctors as “Doctor” 95% of the time; but men introduce female doctors as “Doctor” only 49% of the time, which unfairly downplays the women’s equal credentials.
Don’t mention appearance when introducing female colleagues: “This is the lovely Janet.” Instead, make a point of introducing women (and others from marginalized groups—racialized, young-looking, and disabled, etc.) by using their full job titles and accolades: “This is Professor Maya Campbell, our department head.”
6. Don’t call her sweetie. With colleagues and strangers, avoid diminutive nicknames like hon, baby, darling, girl, young lady or kiddo. It’s condescending to use pet-names at work. Using preferred names shows respect.
7. During sex, seek enthusiastic consent. If your partner hesitates, stops reciprocating, avoids eye contact, becomes quiet, tense or frozen, or otherwise slows the tempo of any sexual encounter, then you should STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING.
Revise your idea of consent. The old model is, essentially, “go for it, until someone yells stop”. But having a history of trauma, (like, say, a #MeToo story) can actually cause people to freeze up in response to stress. This makes it difficult for them to say “no,” even when they want to stop. So keep in mind that no means no … and frozen silence also means no.
Flip the paradigm. Instead of charging ahead until you hear “no,” pay attention and proceed only when you receive a clear “yes.” Yes can be verbal—or it can be an enthusiastic action, like ripping off an item of clothing—together.
8. Don’t use gendered or misogynist insults. Words like bitch, cunt, or slut only target women. Sissy, fairy and cuck demean feminine traits as lesser, weak, and undesirable in men. Avoid those words. If you must insult someone, focus on their actions, not their body or their gender.
9. Free kids from rigid gender roles. For boys and young men, you can role-model that activities and traits traditionally coded as “feminine” are valuable. Challenge dismissive ideas around what counts as “girl stuff.” Delight in stories with strong female characters. Give a toddler boy a baby doll and praise his gentleness. Race trucks with a little girl. Give kids the tools and confidence to challenge and defy gender stereotypes.
10. Don’t focus on little girls’ looks. Many people’s first interaction with a young girl is to compliment her cuteness, prettiness or clothing. But this tells her—and any boys nearby—that beauty is her most interesting trait. Instead, ask little girls engaging, gender-neutral questions, like “What kind of toy is that? What subjects do you like in school? What’s your favorite animal? Hey, what are you reading?” There are so many things to talk about.
11. Give extra space after dark. If a woman is walking alone at night or in a secluded area, please recognize that she’s probably nervous. So, if you’re walking behind her, slow down to increase the distance between you. Or, if you want to pass, cross the street before you speed up. It’s a small courtesy that will make many women feel safer.
#MeToo is a heartbreaking illustration of how many women have already been harassed or assaulted. Women (and LGBTQ+ people) frequently experience hostile, intimidating interactions on the street. It is logical for people who are regularly harassed by strangers to be wary of any stranger who approaches in an unsafe environment. So please—give extra space.
12. Teach your elders to do better. An “old-fashioned” sexist or racist comment might seem harmless from a beloved elder relative at a family gathering. But as people enter the health care system, they are largely cared for by women and POC, who don’t deserve dehumanizing treatment. Please call out sexism, racism and homophobia—at all ages.
13. Don’t be dismissive or argumentative during conversations around types of oppression that you don’t personally experience. Keep an eye open for our culture’s gross habit of putting the onus on oppressed persons to dredge up their pain for our inspection — only for us to then minimize their experience as “over-sensitivity” or “just a misinterpretation.”
Asking respectful questions is acceptable— but nobody owes us answers. So ask humbly, and when people engage, discuss their responses sincerely, and treat their time and energy as valuable, because it is.
Be aware that “asking questions” sometimes veers into “demanding answers,” which are then rapidly dismissed, attacked with nitpicky complaints or deluged with bad-faith questions. This is actually a bullying tactic, used to demean, assert dominance, grind patience, and derail conversations. Keep an eye out for it, and shut it down when you see it: “I’m starting to wonder if you’re asking these questions in good faith. We were talking about X, not Y, so this feels like a deliberate attempt to change the subject.”
Instead of expecting others to educate you, do a little reading. A great strategy is to find, say, three articles written by people *from the demographic in question* and look for patterns in their analyses. Oppression is a widely-accepted and statistically-supported phenomenon, and a lot of insightful people with lived experience are talking about it.
14. Accept discomfort. Changing broken systems takes work, and it won’t always feel good. Conversations about sexism, racism, transphobia, privilege, cultural appropriation and other social issues are all related (look up “intersectionality” to learn more), and these are complex issues that stir up our emotions. But discomfort is an important sign that we may have something new to learn.
So when discomfort arises around these topics, the best response is to accept the feeling — and keep the discussion going anyway. Try not to change the subject, or make your own feelings the center of the conversation. Sincerely try to understand other groups’ experiences. Apologize for mistakes. Be willing to change. And above all, keep listening. It’s hard. It’s worthwhile.
Thank you for being decent. We see you.