Women Don't 'Fight Back' Against Harassment as Much as We Think We Do, and That's Just Fine


There’s a pesky voice that pops up, without fail, any time a woman complains about street harassment or sexual harassment in the workplace or rape culture in general: “Well,” it says, “did you scream for help/tell him to fuck off/punch him in the nads? Why not? Sounds like you didn’t hate it that much.” Or from men, specifically: “How’s he supposed to know you don’t like it if you don’t tell him? I guess I’ll just never talk to women in public ever again [sad turtle-face].” And more insidiously, from women: “Well, if some man said that to ME, I wouldn’t take it. I’d fight back. He’d regret it.” Oh, please. Do you criticize car accident victims for being too corporeal?

It’s classic victim blaming—as pervasive as it is antiquated to those of us steeped in this conversation all the time. As though what happens after a verbal or physical assault has any bearing on the nature of the assault in the first place. As though the 20/20 hindsight of a complete stranger who wasn’t even there somehow relieves the perpetrator of responsibility. Unfortunately, what we think we WOULD do or SHOULD do has very little bearing on what people actually do. And science is backing that up.

A new study suggests that when women are sexually harassed, we react more passively than we predict:

Pointing to the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court, the researchers note that Anita Hill testified she had been sexually harassed by Thomas during his tenure as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She testified that despite being harassed numerous times years before, at no point did she confront Thomas about his behavior or take any action against the harassment. Her claim of repeated sexual harassment and perpetual inaction led to public suspicion with and condemnation of Anita Hill.
Far from being an isolated incident, the case illustrates a trend that prevails even today.
“If we can increase the accuracy of our predictions and realize we won’t stand up for ourselves as often as we would like to think, we will be less condemning of other victims,” Tenbrunsel says.

Bottom line: The way that a woman responds to harassment is irrelevant. And when we judge people based on preconceived, made-up notions about how they “should” act, we wind up punishing them for things they have no control over.

It’s really easy, and really comforting, to presume that when faced with a scary situation we would react the “right” way. We’d do it better. Like, my lizard brain is 99% convinced that I could kill a man by bonking him with my car keys. And I make my living calling out gendered bullshit in as public a forum as I have access to. But, in my day-to-day life, as much as I’d like to talk back to every creep who tells me to smile; or bitch out every dude who honks, pulls a u-turn, and blocks my path with his car while I’m jogging (happened the other day); the truth is that I pretty much don’t. For a couple of reasons.

1. Because scary.

Look at how violently people react to generic discussions of harassment on the internet, and then tell me a woman isn’t justified in feeling intimidated by speaking out in real life.

And 2. Because the socialization to “be nice” is incredibly powerful.

No matter how conscious I am of my space and my feminist ideals, I always feel a pull to be nice to people. Always. Especially in situations where the man believes (genuinely or not) that HE’S being “nice” by pulling me forcibly on to his lap at a bar and telling me I give him a hard-on (that also happened!). It’s a scam. It’s a silencing tactic. It’s bullshit. It’s not “nice.” But my knowledge of that paradigm doesn’t make it any easier to fight back.

It’s easier to just walk faster and move on. Because talking back isn’t satisfying—it just draws more attention in your direction, attention that’s more overtly negative. So you get punished twice: first you get harassed and then you get called a bitch. It’s scary.

Women who want to talk back? Great! Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. And it’s certainly important for women, as a group, to make it known that this is not okay. But no matter what we say we “would” or “should” do, our visceral reactions in the moment are a whole different ballgame. And what you think you’d do when faced with a scary dude on the street or an intimidating authority figure at work, might not be exactly what you think. So instead of criticizing victims for being passive, maybe we could focus on criticizing perpetrators for being aggressive? Just a thought. Thx.

We’re more passive than we predict when sexually harassed, new study shows [Eurekalert]

Photo credit: lisafx / Stockfresh.

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