How to Not Sexually Harass Women: A Guide for Men

This post is targeted to men. I realize that sexual harassment is sort of a four way street, and it can happen with any combination of genders and numbers, but I want to focus on the one-on-one, man-harassing-woman scenario.

The reason for this post is two-fold. First, I want to boost the signal (mentioned in my previous post) of Elise Matheson’s encounter with this problem. Anyone who has not read her post about sexual harassment and what to do about it should do so.  Seanan McGuireJim HinesJohn ScalziMary Robinette KowalChuck Wendig and Brandon Sanderson have all re-posted it on their blogs.

Second, as a man, I know it is entirely possible to do this without consciously intending it. I know this because I’ve done it. I was younger, and definitely dumber, and I regret it immensely now. My harassment was not particularly ‘severe,’ but it was wrong.

Let’s be realistic. I knew what I was doing, just as any man must, but I didn’t really ‘get’ that it was wrong at the time. I didn’t understand the impact it could and would have in a woman’s life.

Sexual harassment does not happen on accident. It is a conscious decision. My point is that men can find themselves making this decision by degrees and end up going further than originally intended.

It’s easy to go to extremes, to say, “All men are just predators,” or, “If a woman is harassed, it’s because she asked for it.” Neither of these statements are true, but our society has these undercurrents flowing through it (and sometimes they’re even said out loud).

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make amends, but I do know I can raise the signal to help other men stay vigilant about their own actions.

Let us begin by defining terms. Sexual harassment:

“…is bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors.”

(Paludi, Michele Antoinette; Barickman, (1991). Academic and Workplace Sexual Harassment. SUNY Press. pp. 2–5. ISBN 0-7914-0829-9.)

This definition is referenced in the Wikipedia article on the subject of sexual harassment and seems clear and concise enough for my purposes.

This post regards the first part of that definition, namely sexual bullying, one person exerting force upon another in a sexual way.

What constitutes sexual harassment?

Unfortunately, this is somewhat nebulous. For unintentional harassers, this can easily start with a misunderstanding on the man’s part, a belief that there is some sort of chemistry or bond between him and the woman.

There’s an easy way to draw the line, however: if you sense any discomfort on the part of the woman with whom you are interacting, politely excuse yourself from the interaction.

If a woman tells you that you need to leave her alone, then obviously you have crossed a line. “Please stop” is a clear indicator. Should a woman state it for you so plainly, just, please, stop.

When I say stop, I mean just that: stop. Then leave. Do not stick around trying to deliver an elaborate apology. You may perhaps say a quick “I’m sorry,” but you are not entitled to any more. You will only make the situation worse by dragging out the encounter.

However, she may be too nervous or frightened to express this vocally.

As the venerable Seanen McGuire has tweeted many times (and it can’t be said enough), “No” is not always verbal.

If a woman is constantly trying to put space between you and her (and you keep moving toward her), this is a sign that she is not comfortable.

If a woman tries to excuse herself and you don’t allow the conversation to end, you are pushing into the boundaries of her personal space.

If a woman flinches away if you try to touch her in any way, that’s a pretty clear indication that you have gone too far.

Perhaps this would be a good time to make clear some things men just shouldn’t do.

  • Do not touch people you ought not touch.

Personal space is important, and touching, even light taps, can quickly become invasive. Again, Seanen McGuire points out a good way to gauge how much contact is proper.

Ask yourself how well you know this person (and how well this person knows you), and think about whether you are familiar enough for any extended physical contact. If you’re not sure, then you have your answer. You might think that a quick tap to get someone’s attention is okay, but if there is any lingering doubt, err on the side of caution and simply use your voice to get her attention. A simple “Excuse me, I’m a fan…” or “Excuse me, I’m interested in what you’re talking about…” can be more effective than an undesired touch.

  • Do not corner people.

If someone is standing off in the fringes of a crowd, especially if this person is distracted (by a phone, for example), understand that she (or he) is by herself (or himself) for a reason.

This applies to anyone. I saw Neil Gaiman at WorldCon last year just after he unexpectedly (at least unknown to me) showed up. As much as I wanted to go and introduce myself, he was standing off to the side of the hotel lobby, tapping at his mobile. It was not the right time or place, and I let the ‘opportunity’ pass. Non-celebrities (and future-celebrities, you never know) deserve the same respect.

Also, don’t try to start a conversation in the wrong place. No-fly zones include: bathrooms (inside or just outside), hotel hallways, outside the convention areas (in the city, for example), sparsely-populated convention rooms (if she is the only other person in the room, you should probably just leave). Use common sense and avoid any inherently-threatening situations.

  • Do not try to drag out a conversation with an unwilling participant.

This is just good manners. Keeping it in mind can not only save you from embarrassment, but also help you avoid any potential harassment.

Allow conversation to come to an organic end. If it is a fellow convention-goer, it’s fine to mention that you’re a pretty big fan of that series she’s examining at a publishers table. If it’s an author or editor, it’s good to let them know that you really like their work. Further conversation might come from this, but if not, part with the person on positive terms.

(This is a lesson which I learned at WorldCon last year, as I accidentally over-extended a conversation or two. I am lucky in that those involved are very considerate people and didn’t seem to take away a bad impression after dislodging from my excited ramblings.)

  • Do not make profuse apologies to those you may have violated.

If you realize you have crossed a line, the only proper course of action is to step back and end the situation. The more time you spend with the woman, who is already uncomfortable, frightened, and most likely looking for a way out, is to be the one who steps away.

Sticking around and trying to clarify your intention or position will only make matters worse.

If you misread the signs and excuse yourself from the conversation unnecessarily, it’s really not the end of the world. You have committed your due diligence in controlling your side of things. The conversation was going great, and maybe you will talk with her later. Let her approach you. Be sure to stay in a place with a lot of people around and that you don’t force your way into her space. Don’t try to strike up another conversation if she’s clearly uncomfortable; it’s simply time to leave her alone.

A lot of this might seem like common sense, but in the rush of a convention or conference, men need to be actively aware of these boundaries. It’s easy to go a little too far, and once the threshold has been crossed, some men might decide it’s okay to go further.

Again, sexual harassment is not an accident. It happens by choice. As men, we are responsible to choose to act with honor in our dealings with other people, especially women. Use this to help gauge your actions, to make it easier to decide to do the right thing. The only person you can control is you, so use that control to make your slice of the world a little brighter, not to bring pain to those who would be your sci-fi / fantasy extended family.

Choose to make this amazing community a better place.

Please feel free to re-post this if you think it may be helpful to your viewers. This post is personal and doesn’t really have any factual basis behind it, but is a summary made up from my experiences and various discussions I have heard on the matter. Input, if constructive and helpful, is most welcome. 

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