July 14, 2022
How to stop sexual harassment
How can you recognize sexual harassment & what can you do to stop it?
What language can you use to interrupt a harasser?
How can you approach a stranger in a way that is respectful and fruitful?
We share strategies for being an ally, speaking up, and stopping harassment at the gym and beyond.
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This is a computer-generated rough transcript, so please excuse any typos. This podcast is an informational conversation and is not a substitute for medical, health, or other professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the services of an appropriate professional should you have individual questions or concerns.
How to stop sexual harassment
You’re listening to the Sex with Dr. Jess podcast, sex and relationship advice you can use tonight. Welcome to the sex with Dr. Jess Podcast. I’m your cohost Brandon Ware, here with my lovely other half, Dr. Jess. Hey, today we’ve got a serious topic. We are talking sexual harassment. Let me ask you, what do you know about sexual harassment? I know that it happens all the time, every day, to every woman out there, everywhere we go, everywhere. So you can never let your guard down. So growing up, did you learn about sexual harassment? Was there anyone who taught you how to not sexually harass people? The basics where you’re not I mean, my parents telling me to be respectful, but there was no kind of context. There was no examples, no role model behavior, no suggestions on what to do, what to say, how to stop it, anything like that. And I’m sure over the course of your lifetime, you’ve said and done things that were harassing. Yes, I have. So was it just when you think about being a kid or a teenager, was it normalized? And that’s not to make an excuse. You’re still responsible for your behavior, was it normalized? Yes, it was. In the environments that I’m reflecting back on, it was okay to speak about women in a misogynistic way.
Misogynist way? Yeah. I mean, these environments, it was encouraged, and no one stepped up. And I’m thinking a lot about group sports, hockey, some of my workplaces where it was primarily men, and just the way that it was constantly discussed and how no one really stepped up to say, this isn’t okay. When you think about some of those male dominated workplaces, there were women there. Yes, there were. And so do you remember seeing incidents of harassment, or was it more just like a vibe you remember? Not the specifics. It’s more a vibe. And the women worked at the so I’m talking about when I worked in warehouses when I was in high school and in university, and the women where I work tend to work at the front facing administrative coordinator roles. And the men worked in the warehouse, moving boxes and shipping trucks and doing things like that. So there was a separation of space, but in those maledominated spaces in the back, it was common to speak about women in a demeaning manner. When I reflect back on it, for sure, here’s what I’m going to suggest. I’m going to suggest that the women who are in the front heard you. Yes, of course they did. And I should also kind of go on and just add to that. It’s not just when I worked in warehouses and when I played hockey and when I played sports. It was most definitely in more corporate environments as well. Absolutely. Behind closed doors when women were out of earshot, or at least that’s what they assumed. And in some cases, I’m sure, if I really think back. They weren’t out of your shot. Like it was blatant. I think that’s an important distinction, that it’s not just, like, men working in warehousing. No, not at all. In real estate, you see it all the time. I’m thinking about a guy you worked for who looked like a penis, and I remember him telling the women in a meeting in front of your whole because you would come home and tell me what happened in your team meetings or your whole company meetings, that they’re going to make money because clients want to work with them because they’re hot. And I don’t know how we define that specifically, but that type of messaging that demeans you and tells you, like, well, you’re going to do well because you’re cute, honey. Over time, all that takes a toll. And the reason I’m bringing this up today is I had posted an article from my website. From my blog about sexual harassment in the gym. And I received a message on LinkedIn from a man who writes in and says. I work at a gym. And I saw your post on LinkedIn about sexual harassment. And I’m one of the few men on staff. But our membership is 50 50. I’d like to have a resource for our staff, and especially the men on staff, to understand what harassment is and how to address it. Is this something you’ve covered in on your podcast? And it isn’t something we’ve talked about? I do find talking about these types of topics, just personally, a bit draining because it’s what I deal with all the time. Right. I work in a field where people become confused or conveniently confused about what’s appropriate. Right. And recently there’s this idea that, oh, I can’t say anything anymore. No, you can’t say anything. You can’t harass people anymore. Oh, it’s really unfortunate, isn’t it? Well, then there’s the flip side of that that I do want to discuss, which is that people are afraid because they don’t really understand what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. And when you’ve been raised in a culture that has normalized harassment, there’s a lot of unlearning to do, and oftentimes we don’t realize what we’re saying. So I think, first of all, thank you for this question. I think it is important that we talk about it, and I thought we’d start with what harassment is. And harassment, I mean, it can be many things. It might involve layering or lewd remarks or gestures or exposure of your body or unwelcome advances. It could be cat calling or obscene language and jokes. It could involve stalking. It could involve spreading sexual rumors, whether they’re true or not. It could be touching without consent, obviously, persistent pursuit when someone has made it clear they’re not interested. So I think if we think about somebody walking up and grabbing your chest, we all know that’s not okay. But I think there’s an area that becomes confusing for people, especially genderbased, harassment, which can be more subtle, right? It might involve unwelcome critiquing or commenting about what you’re looking out at, what you look like, or in this case for the gym on your workouts, kind of gain the upper hand or bullying or intimidation to control an area or specific equipment in the gym, because he’s asking about a gym. And sexual and gender based harassment really go hand in hand because they’re both rooted in patriarchal norms of gender. And by the way, when we talk about patriarchy, it’s bad for everyone. Like, it’s not just bad for men, too. It makes men suffer as well. It stunts you emotionally, relationally, spiritually, in all these ways. It’s not good for anyone. And when it comes to the gym and other environments, I hear all the time people justifying their harassing behavior on the most absurd grounds. Right. When I posted about this topic on Facebook, separate from LinkedIn, two different crowds. Although I just have to say that I get way more sexual harassment on LinkedIn than Facebook. Yeah, that doesn’t seem like I’ve closed my Facebook messages so people can’t DM me. But folks on Facebook started going off about how women who wear spandex and make up to the gym obviously want the attention. Yeah. And I’m thinking, man, I always listen. I got these lashes on all the time. It doesn’t matter. I don’t go to the gym. But I do go. I go play sports like I have for tonight. I can’t say it with a street. I love the sport, just leave me alone. But I have makeup on from a shoot earlier and I’m not going to take the time to go wash it off. And even if you wanted to wear makeup there, why does it matter? Absolutely. One of my good, good friends, she always wears lipstick. The most beautiful, like just colored lipstick. She doesn’t wear anything else, and who cares? Is she like putting on lipstick? And that means something about her lips and where they should be. Come on. And this idea that it’s about the way they dress or they’re asking for it, the data doesn’t support this. Right? Like women are harassed wearing spandex and baggy sweats because sexual harassment is about power. And people also, we dress to express ourselves in many ways for many different reasons. Like, you might erroneously assume that someone dresses for external validation or attention, but they may in fact dress for comfort or their own confidence. So this first piece is knowing that harassment is about power. It can be subtle, it can be more overt. And if you see somebody, especially when we think about genderbased harassment, of course, sexual harassment can move in all directions. Like you’ve been sexually harassed. Yes, I have. Yeah, I know we had talked about it before. You don’t want to talk about the incident at the gym. But you did have an incident at a sex club where I think we could call it beyond harassment. I mean, we could definitely call it assault. Somebody basically tore your pants. I’m laughing about it now just because of the way that you described it, but yeah, I know somebody physically ripped my clothing off. And I know you were upset, like, you were pissed. I was more embarrassed. Those are the only pair of pants you had? That was it. I only brought one pair of pants. But in all seriousness, somebody did. And I think clearly it was meant to be not a joke. How would you describe what their thought process was? I don’t know. But I think when we think about harassment or being about power, oftentimes we think about the physical power men have over women, right? And so you’re not going to have the same fear that now, of course there’s a variation, but it is more likely that a man can physically overpower a woman. So you didn’t have that fear. But I remember you being upset and embarrassed and frustrated. And so even though you don’t have the fear, did you feel demeaned? Like, how did you objectified? Again, I think in the moment, I was more just embarrassed, and the entire situation was such that I was already uncomfortable before it happened. So that kind of just added to it. And then, of course, I have to play into the idea. Then it’s like, everything’s fine, right?
This patriarchal idea that everything’s cool, I’m cool. I’m not going to express any emotion. If it’s an emotion, it’s only anger, and that’s it. So that’s how I felt in the moment. I wonder about the power dynamic around sexuality there, where a woman might be led to believe not by you, but by patriarchy and by our culture, that men are lucky. Any man wants you to do that, right? And we hear about sexual assaults of men. And I remember posting about an article about a guy who was sexually assaulted by three women in a car just outside of Toronto. And there were all these awful, invalidating, victim blaming responses on Facebook. Like, a lucky guy, this guy was sexually assaulted against, obviously against his will, and it would have been very traumatic. And then to see those responses must have been even more traumatizing. So there may be this notion, like, I have seen that before, where women think that they can perhaps touch a man without consent. Right? We see this at drag shows. Sometimes there is no consent just because somebody is expressing their gender in a specific way or addressing a certain way. And so here’s the thing about harassment that I want to really think about. It can be prevented. We have to dismantle systems of oppression that not only intersect with gender, but also with sexual orientation, with age, with race, with body type, with more. And individuals can do this, can be a part of that, right? Individuals can stop this behavior. It’s really a choice it doesn’t matter how normalized it’s become. You can step in, you can speak up, you can make it awkward. When you witness harassment, you can run interference. Like if you see something happening again, this guy’s asking about a gym, but if you see something happening in the gym and you’re another dude, you can walk in people and say something like, don’t think she’s in the mood, dude, or like, she’s not interested, or not cool, or Is that really how you talk to someone? Or there’s a human being there, or give her some space. Anything I think that deflects away from what’s happening would be, I’m assuming would be helpful. Like, if you’re taking away from the interaction between those two individuals and kind of involving and like you said, inserting yourself will probably be helpful. Well, you had mentioned that before that sometimes just the physical insertion of another man who’s not participating in the harassment can be very powerful or somebody of any gender, but especially a man. I mean, I’ve read about that. Whether when it’s more about physical assault or something on a subway or just in public where it’s like, be present, show up, let people know that you’re there because it’s important, you can de escalate the entire situation. And I think if you have to question what you’re saying in that space, then you’re probably not saying the right thing. Right? Well, that’s a good point because and I know this can be triggering for people, you’re thinking, oh, I can’t say anything anymore. Well, if you are questioning whether or not it’s appropriate to say it, don’t say it. You have a lot of words. There are a lot of other words you can say at that time. And if you’re on the fence, just don’t do it. Because sure, I understand that you feel I don’t know if the word is distressed, but you feel limited or you feel tense or you feel worried that you’re going to say the wrong thing, but that degree of distress doesn’t compare to the outcome from actually being on the other side of harassment or intimidation or gender based bullying. So when you think about the language of just stepping in and saying to another guy, like, dude, she’s not into it or something, does that intimidate you at all or make you uncomfortable because you’re maybe starting something with him? Yeah, that’s the first thing that comes to mind, is the idea that this is going to result in an altercation. But again, depending on the environment, I think about the woman in this case, in this hypothetical situation and the discomfort that they might be feeling, not to mention if I am physically larger than the woman who’s being assaulted or harassed, I’m sorry, in this case, I hopefully can defend myself and seek help if it really escalates. And I think that’s a worst case scenario. Right. He’s probably maybe going to give you some words or be embarrassed and that sucks. Nobody wants to be rejected, but a lot of people just don’t want to be hit on at that moment in time at the gym. So, yeah, I think that language of like, yeah, she’s not in the mood, or that’s not cool, or Is that how you talk to her? Or if you work at the gym, because this individual who wrote in works in a gym, you ought to have a policy for how you manage this type of interaction. And that’s something that you need to work on and you need to advocate for. And this is a guy, a straight guy, as an ally, please do that. Don’t leave it to those who are most affected to have to advocate for themselves. I think being in that position, wonderful opportunity to try and create a culture where people do speak up when you see something, say something, come on and fall tonight little Brooklyn 99 reference for all the listeners that enjoy it. But I do think that that culture where you do say something, and even if it’s just to staff, like creating an environment where somebody can go and say, I think somebody needs some help, right? And I think that’s an important piece is looking at maybe asking your membership for their feedback on how they’ve experienced harassment.
Because if somebody’s like being really aggressive or being physical or saying things that are really lewd, I think those things are easy to identify. But when it’s something a little bit more subtle, a little bit more insidious, it can be harder to pick up on. So I would really suggest I’m talking about gyms here, but this could be any environment that is breeding grounds for harassment, which I guess is pretty much everywhere, but I’m hearing about it a lot in the gyms is do some elicitation research and ask your users, your members, your guests, your participants, like, what have you experienced so that you can be on the lookout for it? And that could be part of your staff training. And gyms can do a better job training staff to spot harassment and interrupted. And I think we also need to help people understand the consequences of harassment, right, and stop perpetuating the norms that uphold harassment. So we know that sexual harassment generally can lead to distress and fear and discomfort, and it actually leads to the changing of behaviors. So, for example, there was a poll of 1000 gym goers. Three out of four women after being harassed said they made changes to what they wore to their workout. 50% say they’ve stopped doing certain exercises, and more than one in three either change gyms or stopped going entirely. 44% of one group said they didn’t do anything. And nearly 80% of women would consider an all female gym to prevent sexual harassment, and it shouldn’t have to be necessary. And so thinking about harassment starts to chip away at mental health, at your physical wellbeing and your self confidence. And you may think that, oh, someone’s just being uptight because they supposedly can’t take a joke, but they probably have a great sense of humor and just not about their physical space, not about their sense of self, not about their bodily autonomy and their right to just exist and take up space in that space. And honestly, when people say stuff like, oh, you can’t take a joke, honestly, there are so many other things to laugh about that don’t threaten our sense of belonging and safety. So you need to get a better sense of humor. I also know that there are people probably who are now how am I supposed to hit on somebody? How am I supposed to and I think that there are subtle cues and there’s also a way to approach somebody where you make the request and if you’re rejected or if it doesn’t work out, that you can politely go about your day. And it doesn’t have to be awkward. It might be in that moment, but it doesn’t have to be moving forward. Yeah, absolutely. And actually, that’s what we really need to get to that. The flip side of harassment involves learning how to talk to people, how to approach others, how to gauge their interest. And it involves folks of all genders having the skills and the tools to be straightforward about what they want. No games, just clear communication and a willingness to be vulnerable at times. Right. So for example, if at the gym someone has on headphones, they probably don’t want to talk, right? I would think so. And people will say, oh, I’m just being friendly. Can’t we be friendly? Listen, if you’re only being friendly with folks to whom you’re attracted, you’re not actually being friendly. So please, please do not use friendliness as a guise for sexual advances. Being friendly is amazing. Please be friendly. But if you’re only friendly toward those with whom you’d like to have sex, so you’re not friendly to people of all genders and all body types and all ages, then you’re not being friendly. You’re making a sexual advance and you’re motivated by sexual desire. So don’t hide this is you to a T in the sense that you say hi to everyone and that’s great, but I agree. I think a lot of people don’t say hi to the elderly couple walking down the road. They don’t say good morning to the 16 year old kid on his way to whatever work. So when you start reflecting on your own behavior, as you said, it’s like, am I really being friendly? No, you’re probably not. And he or she has headphones on. Leave them alone. If they were interested, they take the headphones out. Absolutely. And here’s the other piece. If they don’t make eye contact, if they don’t want to chat with you, don’t take it personally. And don’t assume they’re stuck up like they might be shy, they might be distracted. They may be protecting themselves against the reality of harassment that they continue to experience. They may just want to blow off some steam in the gym without the pressure to make a new connection today and tomorrow. They might feel differently. Right? Like, I might wear my headphones one day and be a little bit more extroverted another day. Now, of course, I don’t want people to be afraid to say hello and afraid to talk to someone. I don’t want people to be afraid of that. But also know that you’re not really entitled to anyone’s time. So if you do want to talk, I would suggest make eye contact, say hello, ask how they’re doing. You might even ask them, like, you want to chat or you want to work out in silence, like, give them the choice. Because it can be hard for some people to assert what they want for many reasons. Like, I have trouble saying what I want, but you can always ask, right? And so if they’re responsive, if they make eye contact, if they answer with more than one word, then you might keep up the conversation. If they’re retreating, if you’ve got a one word answer that feels like just a nice city, if they seem like they’re shy and they’re not trying to connect after you’ve tried to speak to them or make a connection, just back off, right? You’ve made the overture. And if they want to follow up, they will. The other thing about a gym is it’s kind of an interesting space because you keep going there. So maybe after you smile and say hi a few times, familiarity sets in, and they may be more open to talking in a week or two weeks or in a month. And you know what? You get to keep going to the gym to get your gym on. Yeah. Sounds fun. And I think another side of this is that we also have to learn to manage rejection and not internalize it. It’s not about you. It’s about them and their whole life and the whole world that they’re navigating and living in. And I think a part of why we get so mad when people reject us is because we think it’s about us, but it’s not. It really has probably very little to do with you in that moment.
Sometimes circumstances, right, people aren’t interested, they’re not available, whatever it is. But I think I love the idea, as you said, it’s like if you’re going on a regular basis, it starts with maybe eye contact, it turns into sharing the same, I don’t know, machine, a quick hello, things evolve, and then it flows naturally. I’m not saying it always works that way, but there’s the possibility, right? The possibility is there. And I think we have to know that men are allies. Everybody can stop harassment, but men, really, because of your power in the world, you have the power to interrupt harassment and stop it from escalating. Right. Again, if you see someone who looks uncomfortable, walk over and interrupt with friendly conversation, like ask about the equipment, ask about the weather, make it a group conversation between the three of you. That’s great to disrupt the power dynamics in which women tend to feel intimidated or threatened or fearful. And I see men and women do this all the time, so I just think that it’s the superpower that we all have to go and make harassment, make it rather than the norm, make it the exception so that we can eventually eliminate it altogether. And one more thing for folks especially, I think, straight men who worry that they might be harassing women, consider this if you wouldn’t say or do it to a man, don’t say or do it to a woman, and then you won’t be harassing. And I think that’s kind of the bare minimum. Right. I think about compliments. Compliments are defined by how they are received, not by their intent. So you may intend something as a compliment, but if it’s received in a different way, that’s not working as a compliment. Right. You might want to say, like, oh, I love your figure. Okay, I get that it’s complimentary, but that might make a stranger uncomfortable. Right. We move through the world navigating safety very differently in terms of how I get home at night or where I walk on the street or where I park my car, or even how I enter an elevator, how I walk down a hotel hallway, what I wear, which irritates me because I want to wear what I want to wear. But I do adjust it, because sometimes you don’t feel like the attention or you don’t feel like the harassment, even though you don’t want hand lines. And when I see somebody wearing something that they may be very attractive, it’s like you can take a quick look, and then you can move on. You don’t have to leave. You don’t have to make it awkward. For sure. It’s super disrespectful and intimidating to be leered at, and you can absolutely notice and appreciate beauty without objectifying or making someone uncomfortable. I do it all the time. Yeah, but it’s the dogs. No, I didn’t make the dogs uncomfortable. Like, oh, my God, you’re so beautiful, can I pet you? Please? But I ask. You do ask. Although the dog doesn’t really tell me it’s okay. No, absolutely. No. I look at beautiful people all the time, but I don’t think I’m staring at them in a way that feels intimidating or objectifying. Yeah, I agree. All right. I think this is a good quickie and an important conversation, and I’m thankful to the folks or to the gentleman who wrote in from the gym. I hope you share this with your staff, your co workers, but also I hope that you advocate for training around sexual harassment to ensure that your staff. Your employees are supported in supporting your gym. Goers. All right, that’s all we’ve got for today. Big thank you to Adam and Eve.com for their support of this episode. Check them out. Adam and Eve.com code Doctor Jess to save 50% off almost any single item, plus free shipping and free goodies. Go get them. Have a great one, folks. You’re listening to the sex with Dr. Jess podcast. Improve your sex life. Improve your life.