Conversations About Sexual Harassment: Breaking Down the Brick Wall of Defensiveness

Patricia Szima is a Second Year Political Economy student with an interest in gender equality -with a focus on the workplace. Enjoying the sunset on the beach, baking fudgy brownies, and playing Scrabble are her favourite activities.

[Featured Image: Two people in a conversation in which one topic appears to be marked as controversial. Source.]

‘I don’t harass women!’

The idea for this article came from a personal struggle. Why can’t my male family members make me feel supported and heard when I talk about the sexism directed toward women and about my experiences with sexual misconduct? Why do I feel as though I have to justify this awful powerlessness I feel? My initial idea was to establish a checklist that would entail all the necessary points you have to tick off when talking about your experience -rape, sexist comment, or any form of sexism- to receive a positive reaction. However, the more I read the more I realised that it should not be the victim’s burden, when exposing something so personal and intimate, to control how others process it. They do not have to justify why they feel offended, angry, intimidated.

First of all, in figuring out how to effectively communicate with men it is good to know what reactions can be expected -and this is what intimacy coach Valeria Chuba informs readers about.[i] Defensiveness and claimed inability to show empathy are among the primary reactions from men when confronted with sexual assaults, particularly with the #MeToo movement.

This is the case with #NotAllMen. This trend acts as a form of self-defence, as a ‘shield’ so men can protect themselves from the corrosive feeling of indignation. After all, they get the feeling that they are being associated with men who have done horrifying things. Men might also get defensive because of the tight grip of guilt. Remembering an instance when they did not use their power to hinder sexist acts or knowing that they are responsible for someone experiencing sexism triggers the urgency of making sure that he will not be persecuted.

Men are confused because the system that supported them for so long is now collapsing. Jessica Kean[ii], a gender studies lecturer at the University of Sydney explains defensiveness as the result of the inability to set apart individual experiences and actions from large-scale structural problems. “I don’t underpay women” as a response from a man shows how intertwined the concepts of interpersonal discrimination and broader systems that benefit some at the cost of others, are in his mind. Dismantling the reasons for defensiveness is challenging because of its complexity, but it is crucial, otherwise the true experience of the victim will never be fully understood[iii]. As long as he is focusing on his own situation even though he was not involved in the experience the victim is directly telling him about, he is not open enough to take in the message. They are primarily concerned with themselves when they only evaluate how they will be affected by victims speaking up. The main goal of the conversation -to share and provide a safe environment- are not prioritised.

The question remains -how can this wall of defensiveness be broken down? How can men be motivated to feel the problem of gender inequality and sexism more than a personal attack, which it isn’t, and see the bigger picture?

The first step is for men to face the statistics[iv]. The gender pay gap exists. In the US women over their lifetime make less than men. The median 50-year-old woman earns just 77.4% of her 50-year-old male colleagues[v]. Women are scarce in CEO positions. In Australia, they make up only 17% of the CEOs.[vi] One may ask how gender inequality and sexism intersect. An example is the story of a woman who was deprived of an income raise.[vii] According to her boss, her money was “just for fun”. After all, male colleagues are entitled to more since men are the head of the household. The problem arises from men not acknowledging or knowing that this is an issue of inequality. When investigating men and women’s perceptions of gender equality, 60% of women expressed that they believe men are treated better at work, while only 28% of men thought this, according to Australian research.[viii]

According to Dr. Kean, the focus should not be on how individual men behave toward women but on recognising that the problem is beyond the individuals. Social patterns and systems are to be discussed here. While I agree that we have to take a step beyond personal actions and experiences it is still crucial that men self-reflect on their behaviour. Fortunately, this is not a lost cause as some men have acknowledged the role they played in perpetuating sexism and admit that they have been consciously making an effort not to make comments and jokes that might trigger discomfort for women.[ix] This gives hope that change can be achieved.

Another issue is that men feel they cannot understand the experiences of women. Chuba[x] explains that our societal upbringing overwhelms people with the notion that men and women are inherently different because of their biological sex and their experiences cannot possibly overlap. Men are also discouraged from discovering their own emotions and vulnerability, which are crucial for developing a bond that enables them to feel and show empathy. If you do not let yourself live your emotions, you will never understand what others experience. One solution to this problem is for men to reflect on experiences that left them similarly powerless, hopeless, terrified, and ashamed -feelings that sweep over someone experiencing sexual assault/sexism.

In order for children to later understand and respect another person they should not be taught to follow harmful norms -those that associate masculinity with violence and suppression of feelings. There is room for improvement here, as parents rarely talk to their children about the romantic side of sex and what consent really comprises. [xi] Based on interviews 87% of young women aged 18-25 suffered sexual harassment and of all respondents -males and females- 76% never discussed with a parent how to avoid sexually harassing others.[xii] Also, to showcase the many cases classified legally as sexual assaults, college-aged men were asked to reflect on what they had already ‘tried’. 84% were unaware that their actions were illegal.[xiii] This has its roots in how rape culture is supported by stereotypes that dictate, what a man has to be like -the emphasis is on domination and aggression.

According to conventional wisdom, engagement in open discussions is the foundation of bringing about change. As astonishing as it may sound, 41% of men partaking in a survey have not even heard of the MeToo movement.[xiv] 47% of the men said they never had a discussion about it with anyone and 69% missed this conversation with female friends. Having a conversation about sexual harassment with a male colleague or friend would be on the other hand crucial to demolish the norm of sexual misconduct[xv]. Men also have the ability to intensify the voices of survivors and make a positive contribution by talking to and educating other men, showing that is not just a problem within a specific demographic but a problem of society.

As a final thought, bear in mind that some might not be receptive to such discussions despite good intentions. It is not your obligation to try repeatedly. It drains all your energy and that is just not worth sacrificing.


[i] Chuba, V. (2017) ’I’m a sex coach, and my male clients have had 3 main responses to all the harassment allegations recently’ Business Insider, 30.11.2017 Available under:

[ii] Faruqi, O. (2019) ’Why is it so hard for men to link their personal behaviour to gender inequality?’ ABC Life, 01.08.2019, Last modified: 08.06.2020 Available under: https://www.abc.net.au/life/why-men-struggle-to-link-behaviour-to-gender-equality/11314468

[iii] Chuba (i)

[iv] Farugi (ii)

[v] Sheth, S., Gal, S., Hoff M., Ward, M. (2020) ’7 charts that show the glaring gap between men’s and women’s salaries in the US’ Business Insider, 26.08.2020 Available under: https://www.businessinsider.com/gender-wage-pay-gap-charts-2017-3#womens-earnings-are-lower-than-mens-over-the-course-of-a-lifetime-6

[vi] Farugi (ii)

[vii] Chira, S., Milord, B. (2017) ‘’Is There a Man I Can Talk To?’: Stories of Sexism in the Workplace’

 The New York Times 20.06.2017 Available under: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/20/business/women-react-to-sexism-in-the-workplace.html

[viii] Farugi (ii)

[ix] Jahan, N. (2019) ’What men think about #MeToo’ The Daily Star, 13.09.2019, Last modified: 03.10.2019

Available under: https://www.thedailystar.net/star-weekend/gender/news/what-men-think-about-metoo-1798834

[x] Chuba(i)

[xi]Giese, R. (2017) ’In the age of #MeToo, how do we talk to young men about sex and consent?’ The Globe and Mail 16.12.2017 Available under: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/metoo-young-men-and-consent/article37341952/

[xii] Weissbourd, R., Anderson, T., R., Cashin, A., McIntyre, J. (2017) The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education

[xiii]Frost, G. (2018) ’Bringing men into the sexual assault conversation’ The AS Review26.02.2018, Available under: https://wp.wwu.edu/theasreview/2018/02/26/bringing-men-into-the-sexual-assault-conversation/

[xiv]Harman, J., Hansen-Bundy, B. (2018) ’What 1,147 Men Really Think About #MeToo’ Glamour, 30.05.2018 Available under: https://www.glamour.com/story/men-metoo-survey-glamour-gq

[xv]Mitchell, K. (2017) ’Here’s How To Talk To Your Male Co-Workers About Why “Me Too” Matters’

 Bustle, 19.10.2017 Available under: https://www.bustle.com/p/how-to-talk-to-your-male-co-workers-about-sexual-harassment-me-too-in-order-to-really-create-change-2952455

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