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How men can be allies in the fight against sexual harassment and assault

A USC expert offers ways men can become allies in the fight against violence, harassment and assault by supporting women and promoting awareness among their peers

End sexual harassment: People at a table
Having conversations with peers and citing problematic behaviors are steps that men can take against sexual harassment and assault. (Photo/Shutterstock)

In the wake of sexual abuse scandals across various industries, a number of progressive movements — including #MeToo and the Time’s Up workplace equality initiative — have arisen to encourage conversation and mobilize change around this issue.

At the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, Associate Professors Terence Fitzgerald and Erik Schott organized the university’s first It Ends event. Rape was long considered a women’s issue — women experience assault and rape at an approximately 87 percent higher rate than men — but it’s essential that men step up as allies. Fitzgerald offers a few tips that men can take today to help in the fight against sexual harassment and violence.

1. Initiate open and honest conversations with other men.

The first way that men can position themselves as allies to victims of sexual assault and harassment is by participating in challenging conversations — especially with other men.

In a safe setting, discuss what kinds of speech and behaviors are acceptable versus unacceptable, and don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions that perpetuate a hostile or dangerous environment for women. Open dialogue helps to break down stereotypes and harmful attitudes, laying the foundation for mutually respectful relationships and creating space for self-reflection and improvement.

2. Self-evaluate and extend empathy.

In addition to challenging their peers, men should strive to address the ways in which they themselves may be unknowingly contributing to a culture of disrespect.

Recent research in neuroscience shows that people naturally empathize most with those who look and act like them. To overcome this evolutionary bias, practice cognitive empathy — in other words, challenge yourself to see from the “other’s” perspective and reflect on your own attitudes, beliefs and behaviors surrounding gender and sex. Those who take the initiative to critically evaluate themselves may be able to identify and address unconscious biases that are guiding their actions, in turn becoming more empathetic allies.

3. Take personal responsibility for speaking up against harmful behavior.

Broad cultural change begins with individuals, which means that it’s essential for men to speak up when they encounter problematic behaviors in their daily lives. As reported in The Conversation, bystander intervention in instances of public harassment can help “shift responsibility for preventing sexual violence from victims and survivors to the broader community.”

If you witness verbal or physical harassment, intervene if you feel safe doing so. Taking a direct approach may involve telling the perpetrator to stop; attempting to create physical space between the perpetrator and the victim; or asking the victim, “Can I help?” or “Would you like me to stay with you?”

In some cases, the safest way to help may be to notify an authority, such as a security guard or local law enforcement officer. Never hesitate to call 911 if you are concerned for the safety of yourself or others

4. Understand your role in creating a more inclusive system.

Just as important as intervening in day-to-day acts of harassment, it is crucial that men understand the larger cultural forces at play that perpetuate these behaviors — and enact change on a systemic level.

Research cited by the Harvard Business Review reveals that many men identify as allies in the fight against harassment in private, but become uncomfortable expressing their support or intervening in public settings. Though many men worry about not knowing what to say — or worse, saying the wrong thing — what’s important is that they say something. Break the stigma by affirming that you are an ally. Victims of harassment and assault will likely be grateful for your willingness to speak up on their behalf.

5. Team up with allies.

Another important way men can act as agents for broader change is by teaming up with others who are committed to eliminating sexual harassment and assault. Sustain an ongoing dialogue with friends, peers and family members, with the ultimate goal of encouraging more people to become active allies for the cause.

Consider getting involved in local initiatives or community programs that are working actively to reduce sexual harassment and assault. Groups are listed on the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s directory of organizations.

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