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Ask Ate Anna by Linda PlenertMore on wolf whistles

by Linda Plenert

Dear Readers,

Last month’s column was about sexual harassment now being labeled a hate crime in Nottinghamshire, England. This change was made to encourage reporting, which will result in better support being offered to people who have been sexually harassed. One reason these incidents don’t get reported is because society, in general, isn’t very supportive of victims of sexual harassment – especially if the offender is a well-known public figure.

Common attitudes and beliefs actually encourage victim blaming while excusing the harasser’s behaviour. Even people who want to be supportive don’t always know what to say or do. This month’s column is a summary of ways to support someone who has shared an experience of being sexually harassed.

Firstly, don’t laugh or minimize the person’s experience or tell them they are overreacting. Don’t justify or make excuses for the harasser’s behaviour. By doing this you are basically telling the person that you don’t care about their feelings or about what has happened to them. It sounds as if you are more concerned with protecting the harasser’s behaviour than supporting your friend or family member. This can happen without you even realizing why. Ate Anna suggests that these behaviours are so much a part of our culture that we don’t see them for what they really are.

Show your support by listening as the person shares their story. They are not complaining – it is part of the process of dealing with their experience. Stay calm when reacting to what the person tells you. You may understandably react with strong feelings because someone you care about has been hurt. You might even want to do something to punish or hurt the harasser. It is more appropriate to ask the victim what they need or feel would be helpful.

Offer options, but don’t pressure someone to report the incident or confront the harasser. You are not the person who was harassed and, even if you have had such an experience, you cannot know exactly what this individual is feeling. As well, don’t try to speak on behalf of the victim – you are violating confidentiality. Reporting or going public about the experience is a very difficult decision. It actually takes away the victim’s personal power when others tell them which choices they should make. We each have our own way of dealing with situations like this.

Don’t try to make the victim responsible for the harasser’s future behaviour. For example, “If you don’t report this, it’ll happen to other women.” If the harasser continues the behaviour, they are to blame. As a society, we have to end victim blaming and work at creating a safer environment for reporting sexual harassment or assault.

On the other hand, don’t be afraid to intervene when you think you see something that looks like harassment. Interrupt and ask “Hey, is everything OK here?” You may feel self-conscious and it could be embarrassing if nothing was happening. But it is the lesser risk, and if someone is being harassed they know that others are aware of it.

Develop an awareness of your own behaviours. Many people either don’t think that how they behave is harassment or they rationalize what they say and do. If you are uncertain whether a joke or compliment would be appreciated, you can ask. If an interaction leaves you feeling “weird,” ask yourself why. Get another perspective by asking others for their opinion on what happened.

It is easy to sit back and ignore the problem of sexual harassment, or to let other people take on the challenge. If more people, especially men, spoke up to say that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable, we might begin to see a change in societal norms. It has been successful with other issues in Canada – like drinking and driving. When you see a friend catcall or invade the personal space of someone else say, “Hey, that’s not OK!” and do your best to explain why. Speaking up lets harassers know that other people don’t agree with their behaviour.

Speaking up also lets victims know that people are on their side. We all have a responsibility to consider the ways in which we unknowingly support society’s beliefs about sexual harassment simply by living out the status quo. While wolf whistles may seem harmless, they still send the message that women’s bodies exist to be judged and commented on by others.

Ate Anna encourages everyone to think about this issue and take whatever steps they can to encourage societal change and a safer environment for victims to report harassment when it does happen.

Take care,
Ate Anna

Ate Anna welcomes your questions and comments. Write to Ate Anna, Suite 200-226 Osborne St. N., Winnipeg, MB R3C 1V4 or e-mail info@serc.mb.ca. Visit us at www.serc.mb.ca. You will find reliable information and links to many resources on the subject of sexuality.

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