“It’s payback,” says the guy who squeezes my ass in the middle of a crowded bar. Moments before, I’d accidentally grazed his butt as I was reaching for my drink. At first I’m stunned, but as he’s on his way out, I snap out of my frozen state and call him an asshole, which he doesn’t seem to hear. Not long afterward, one of his friends comes back to apologize. His demeanor and tone feel both secretive and customary — as if this sort of thing happens often, and he is the designated apologizer.
Over the years, I’ve cultivated a number of male friends who understand that sexism is real and prevalent. But one thing I’ve noticed is how overwhelmingly difficult it is for a lot of them to extend their knowledge to the other men in their lives. They comprehend and agree with the issues, but they still refrain from having important conversations about them with male friends who engage in behavior that’s offensive — e.g., grabbing a woman’s butt in a bar.
The designated apologizer who wanted to save face for his friend is the perfect example. Though I appreciated the apology, it was ultimately fruitless: What’s the point of awareness if you’re not willing to call out the people you know who are participating in sexism and misogyny? Isn’t that pretty much the most important thing you can do to help?
I know what you’re probably asking: How exactly can this be done? Well, with the help of three close male friends, I tried my hardest to step my dainty little feet into your big heavy man-boots and figure it out.
No Matter What, Just Say What You’re Thinking
“When you call out something, you can become an ‘outsider,’” says Derrick. “So it’s easier to be passive. I’m able to call out things more easily now because I’m not afraid of the repercussions, but I didn’t used to be. Friends can be hard to come by, and I’ve lost friendships, been called names and been threatened [for pointing out certain behaviors].”
It’s not an easy task, carrying the burden of being the Debbie Downer (Danny Downer?) who has to say things like, “Just so you know, that’s incredibly offensive.” It’s true, there are stigmas as well as consequences that come with being the guy who “can’t take a joke,” is “totally whipped,” or whatever else guys say to one another.
“Social isolation or exclusion is a powerful force and can scare you into keeping your mouth shut,” Jason says. “I [often] feel caught between wanting to be liked and wanting to make sure I do what I think is right. But I stand by my guns, even though it can halt the flow of ‘banter’ and make things ‘serious’ for a moment.”
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing either — despite the fact that there are obviously stigmas and consequences that come with being the guy who seemingly “can’t take a joke” or who is “totally whipped”: “[In that serious moment], whomever did something sexist is forced to evaluate their own behavior,” Jason adds.
Furthermore, understand that, as a man, the consequences you’ll face are ultimately less damaging than what women and other marginalized voices experience in the same position. And as Derrick points out, “You will get some pushback by other men, but you’ll experience far less backlash than a woman would for saying the same thing.”
Keep Your Chill
“I was sharing a car with a new coworker I was assigned to manage,” Jason says. “At a stoplight, an obese woman was crossing the road in front of us when the new hire started laughing to himself. I asked what was so funny, and while I don’t remember the exact wording, the woman crossing the road was somehow likened to a cow. I was in complete shock, but I let him complete the car ride tension-free (though I was very much feeling it) and decided to wait until after lunch to bring it up.
“We got through the morning unscathed, and as we were walking back from lunch, I tried to get his attention to talk to him about the earlier incident. Before I could, however, a young woman walked past, and he distractedly turned his head. ‘Sorry, I was just looking at that ass,’ he told me. Again, I was in complete shock. But in the middle of the street, I calmly explained that our workplace has a zero-tolerance policy for that attitude and language, and that if I heard anything like that coming out of his mouth again he’d be out.”
In other situations, Jason continues, he tries to lightly poke fun at the guy in question by mimicking his douchey behavior in a way that will hopefully make him realize what he’s doing is wrong. Because the subject matter is serious doesn’t necessarily mean you have to approach in “attack” mode. In most situations you can try to keep the conversation informative versus accusatory.
One thing you can do is make some jokes, and reiterate that you’re on your friends side. Derrick adds: “Ask questions that make men think about their actions.” Approaching the conversation in a way that encourages introspection as opposed to full-blown reprimanding will have better, more lasting results in the long run.
If All Else Fails, Get New Friends
At the end of the day, do you really want to stay friends with someone who refuses to change their ways? My friend Kash says he’s had to end friendships with men who have done hurtful things to women and have been unapologetic about it. “Don’t defend your homies because they’re your homies. If they did fucked-up shit, you [have to] cut them off.”
Better still, says Derrick, “You will eventually meet other dudes who understand what being a good ally looks like, and help call out bad behavior — and they’ll become your new friends.”