It Happens Here: Sexism, Harassment, Assault, and Apologists

This is the second appearance of a new semi-regular column, “It Happens Here,” challenging humanists to reflect on adversity and trauma in our own community, and advocate for positive change.

Walking into a humanist space shouldn’t immediately make you want to leave. Yet that’s what happened to me and two female friends the first time we went to a humanist meeting. And that’s what happens to too many people who step into our community.

Upon entering the multi-purpose room, we encountered a group of six twenty-something men and introductions were made. Almost immediately, they centered the conversations on themselves, ripe with mansplaining and boasts of superior intellect. My friends and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes as I plotted an escape to the food table. But then the conversation took a turn. One of the men in the group began to make blatantly sexist remarks about women in science, which then took a round-about course to troublesome comments on victims of assault. It felt like he had been waiting for an opportunity to enlighten us, and no one interrupted him. The others in the group silently nodded.

The misogynist comments didn’t really phase me. There were five other reasons I wanted to leave: each guy who stood in that circle recognized—at one point or another—that the newcomers were uncomfortable and that their companion was in the wrong. Yet they did nothing to intervene. Instead, they made it more difficult for us to see this space as one that we fit into. This is far too common in our community and it’s dangerous.

Grabbing a woman’s breast in public and being able to continue your day uninterrupted doesn’t just happen by chance. It happens in a world, in a community, that allows it. If humanists participate in a space where men are allowed to prowl for victims, where men authoritatively can say that female victims of assault don’t make good scientists, and—most importantly—where other men give them a wide berth, then we are fostering that behavior and reinforcing misogyny, plain and simple.

Women are exhausted. And we’re angry. Harassment and sexism serve as constant reminders of the world we live in, where some people matter more than others. We spend too much time and energy dealing with sexism, harassment, and abuse. The time we spend dealing with this crap is time not spent on our own development, on our own expansion as humans. Many of us are part of the humanist movement because it provides a course of action and is a positive outlet to affect change. But we aren’t going to stay if humanist spaces just add to our exhaustion. While women are certainly complicit at times, men need to take some responsibility. Men need to do a better job of making the humanist movement a space that energizes women, not exhausts us or turns us away.

How do we create a humanist space free from hostility? At a very simple level, we can all be engaged bystanders.

We’ve all seen behavior that makes us uncomfortable. We’ve seen a couple arguing on the street corner, not sure if they’re putting each other in danger. We’ve seen a parent get a little too aggressive while disciplining their child. We’ve heard a stranger mumble racist remarks. And we’ve heard someone blame assault victims for their assaults. Sometimes we want to intervene, but we tell ourselves to mind our own business or that it’s not worth the confrontation. However, for each of these moments when we don’t intervene, we’re telling the perpetrator and others around us that this behavior is acceptable. Worse, we’re telling victims that their pain is a nuisance to us.

There are safe ways to intervene in these scenarios in ways that de-escalate situations and make a meaningful difference. As the National Sexual Violence Resource Center notes, an engaged bystander intervenes as early in the process as possible when they witness harassment, threats, or sexual violence in order to make the environment less hospitable to would-be perpetrators.

The engaged bystander approach makes it a little easier to intervene and makes our communities inhospitable to sexist language and behavior. Here’s how to do it, and how the group I encountered could have handled it:

First, be direct. If it’s safe to do so, approach the situation and make it clear that a particular behavior won’t be tolerated in your community. One of the men at my meeting could have said to the person making offensive statements, “hey, what you just said is not okay“ or “victims of assault are never to blame for what happened to them.”  These sentences don’t leave room for argument and often a perpetrator is so surprised at being called out that they make an excuse and back off. More importantly, it demonstrates to other opportunists that they cannot get away with similar behavior.

If you can’t be direct, the next best thing is to distract the person and remove others from the situation. Again, someone from the group I encountered could have changed the topic and said, “Did you all try the pie Sam brought? It’s delicious,“ and another could have jumped in with “not yet, anyone want any?” Distractions like this would have shifted the focus and would have allowed an escape. It also would have presented an opportunity for others to join in. Getting more people involved strengthens the message that sexist and discriminatory behavior isn’t welcome, and it usually just takes one person to speak up to get others to recognize that they have the same power.

After taking an indirect approach, it’s still important that someone follows up. After we escaped for pie, for example, one of the men in the group could have called in the offender by saying, “I know you’re a better person than what you just said. Do you realize that was problematic?” And if they didn’t feel comfortable speaking up, they could have asked the person in charge of the meeting how to proceed. I don’t believe any of that happened, but if it had, maybe we would have returned for the next meeting. It’s important to note that I, too, failed to speak up in a meaningful way. But the fact that one person’s behavior was allowed to go unchecked by those with the power to make a meaningful difference, because they too had male privilege or because they were friendly with each other, has other ramifications.

In practice, intervention can be messy, but it works, and it gets easier. As more people in your community step up and model what intervention looks like, other people will start to feel more comfortable doing the same. Those who might have used gatherings to harass others will learn that such behavior isn’t welcome, but it only works if we take the first steps. More importantly, this work has to reach all the people who are exhausted by these kinds of aggressions, from misogyny to racism and all in between, intersected, and beyond.

The American Humanist Association must also lead by example, and intervention remains necessary even after harassment and assault have occurred. Last month the AHA board of directors rescinded the Humanist of the Year Award from 2015 recipient Lawrence Krauss after his employer, Arizona State University, conducted an investigation into sexual misconduct and harassment allegations against him and found him in violation of ASU’s sexual harassment policy. However, we can do better to make sure people’s actions don’t go unchecked long enough to receive those awards in the first place—and that starts in our communities.

It is our responsibility to take action to ensure we are reflecting the values we aspire to. As my predecessor so aptly affirmed, we attract who we cater to. If we allow humanist spaces to be safe for the kind of quiet sexism that keeps misogyny afloat, then we’ll continue to attract misogynists and it will continue to happen here.