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5 Things Men Can Do to Help End Sexual Harassment and Assault

  • Practice

Men can become better allies in the fight against systemic violence, sexual harassment and assault by supporting women—and promoting awareness among their male peers.

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

The need for change is especially dire on college campuses: according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 23.1 percent of female and 5.4 percent of male undergraduates experience rape or sexual assault during their college years. Even more alarming, 80 percent of these incidents go unreported to university authorities or law enforcement.

At the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, we are committed to joining this conversation and facilitating change on our own campus. To this end, clinical associate professors Terence Fitzgerald and Erik Schott organized the university’s first ever It Ends event in April to encourage dialogue and work to end sexual harassment and assault at USC.

Because women experience assault and rape at an approximately 87 percent higher rate that men do, this has long been considered a women’s issue—but it’s essential that men step up as allies. Fitzgerald offers a few actionable 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 themselvesmay 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 day-to-day lives. According to 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 dorm R.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 whatto 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 eradicating 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. You can find groups in your area on the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s directory of organizations.