The Funny Thing About Sexual Harassment. And Then the Unfunny Thing.

Tell you a coupla stories:

When I was about 16, I worked part-time as a stock boy and gofer at the central office of a chain of health clubs in Houston.

One of my not-quite-co-workers was Bobby, a big black guy who was the right-hand man of the distribution director. The performance of our duties would normally almost never put Bobby and I in the same room together, but I saw him everyday anyway.

He would often come into the stock room where I worked, passing deliberately close to me as I was bending over packing or unpacking a box, and sometimes – in a space wholly adequate for both of us to pass without touching – would manage to brush up against my backside with his hand.

I would occasionally catch him quietly watching me from the doorway of the stock room as I worked. At some point during almost every day I was there, he would come in and study me silently for a moment and then ask in a gravelly voice “Did you get anything STRANGE last night?”

I was unbelievable shy at the time, and painfully naïve, so I bore all this in silence. But damn, it made me uncomfortable.

A handful of years later I was employed at a supermarket deli-bakery, where I worked alongside Maria, a heavyset woman close to 6 feet tall.

Picture me in comparison: I was 5-feet-3-inches tall (still am), strong but slight of body, weighing in at a soaking-wet 135 pounds or so.

Maria referred to me as “honey.” Stalking into the store with the sturdy gait of a linebacker, when she saw me her broad hips would take on an alarming sway. She simpered at me frequently, scarily coquettish little smiles that would appear anytime we had to talk to each other in the course of our work.

It probably sounds comical. It would have been comical if she also hadn’t been physically aggressive. If she cornered me in the narrow walk-in or the stock room, she would angle her body so that I couldn’t get past without brushing against her ample bosom or butt. If necessary, she would abruptly lean or back toward me to make that happen. At least once a day she would sneak up behind me while I was waiting on a customer across the counter and goose me, pinching my buttocks or squeezing my thigh, causing me to jump.

Apparently accidentally, she would sidle into my bubble of personal space as we worked side-by-side with customers across the counter, but when I would take a step away she would move toward me again.

I would catch her standing behind me at times, staring at my back or my legs, and she would murmur a sensually appreciative “MM-mm-MM!” Or she would stop in the middle of the deli-bakery when we were alone, fix me with a bold stare and say bluntly “I’m ready.”

I quickly got to dread those days when Maria and I worked together, and I learned to never enter the walk-in without checking to see that she was busy with a customer at the far end of the deli-bakery.

But we’re talking 1970s, and Texas, an era in which sexual harassment didn’t exist except in men’s jokes, and the idea of a pickup-truck-driving, cowboy-hat-and-jeans wearing, virile young man reporting a woman for it … well, you would never live it down among your coworkers, peers, or even your own family. They would have brayed like jackasses every time you passed.

There was nobody I could tell about it. Nobody.

It was a stressful job in quite a few other ways, and the absolute last thing I needed was an overbearing woman – who, even today when I think of her is a sort of anti-Viagra – grabbing my ass at every opportunity.

Probably in neither of these cases was I physically in danger. Like I say, I was fairly strong as a kid, and it’s likely I could have fought off any more determined advance from either of those people. Looking back on both of them from my gray-bearded viewpoint, the stories are even a bit funny. Hell, if I told ‘em just right, they’d be hilarious.

But then again … I’m a man.

Now a third and final story, a darker one, that happened just a month or so back.

I live in an apartment building with a coin-op laundry room in the basement shared by all the tenants. I was set to do laundry there one Sunday, carrying my clothes  basket down the three flights of stairs and unlocking the basement door to descend one more set of stairs. This time, a rare occurrence, someone had already engaged the machines. One load of clothes tumbled in the dryer, another load sat completed in the washer.

No biggie. I put my laundry basket down and trudged back up the stairs, where I set a timer for 20 minutes and did some other work. Twenty minutes later, I went back down the four flights of stairs to the laundry room. The dryer was finished with its cycle, but the clothes were still in it. As were the ones in the washing machine.

No biggie again. I went back up the stairs, and back to my other project, setting my timer for another 20 minutes. Down the stairs again, I found the clothes still there.

Back up the stairs, only this time I wrote a note: “Jeez, get your clothes OUT. I’ve come down here twice hoping to use the machines.” I put my name and phone number on it and trotted back down to leave it on the washing machine.

Ten minutes later, the phone rang, and it was someone shouting. A female voice came out of the earpiece in a wail of sound I could not understand a single word of. “BLAR-BLARGH-LALA-BLARGH-RAHR!! RALA-BLAR-GRAH-BLAH-RAR!!”

“What? Who is this? I can’t make out what you’re saying!”


“Stop shouting, I can’t understand you!”



Sudden silence.

Cultured accent, quieter (Oops, one of my neighbors. Someone I like, even.): “The clothes in the laundry room are mine! You could have just moved them!”

“What?” I protested. “I’m not going to touch somebody else’s clothes!”

More was said, but most of it has escaped my memory. The bit that sticks is me saying “I couldn’t understand what you were saying! It was just this roar of noise. Could you understand me?”

A silent beat. “I understood ‘shut the fuck up.’ ”

“Um. Well … all I could make out was shouting. I had no idea even who it was.”

I waited a few minutes and went down to the laundry room. She was still there, folding clothes. Oops, again. I tried to explain again:

“Look, I’m really sorry. It’s just that all I could hear was shouting. I couldn’t make out anything you were saying.”

She stood there, silent and whitefaced, shaking with anger. Oh boy, did she want to say something. Lots of somethings. But she said nothing.

I suddenly realized she was staying quiet because she was alone with me in a small basement room with no witnesses. She was afraid to speak. Afraid of me.

Me! Little shrimp of a guy, gray beard, pot belly. But also, stocky, muscular.


I absorbed that in silence for a sinking, guilty moment.

“Again, I’m sorry. I feel like a really rotten bully for shouting at you like that.”

I saw her on the sidewalk outside a week or so later. Her eyes slid off me, and I didn’t push it. I walked past without speaking.

Short as I am, little as I’ve been my whole life, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of someone being afraid of me. These days, a reasonably-healthy 15-year-old could probably outlift me on the weights. But all those evaluations have me comparing myself to other MEN.

Put me up against a female – compare my physical strength with that of a slight woman, a sedate academic and only a few years younger than me – and I’m the muscular bullyboy on the beach of life, unaware I might be kicking sand on the 97-pound weakling.

And this woman knew it. Couldn’t NOT know it.

There is an imbalance in … well, strength, but also the capacity for physical violence … between human males and human females, something of which I have to assume all women are always aware.

If you’re a guy reading the following, some part of you will think “This is a sample of statistical data on the subject of violence against women.” If you’re a woman, you’re more likely to think “This is about ME.”

Fact #1: 18.3 % of women in the United States have survived a completed or attempted rape. Of these, 12.3% were younger than age 12 when they were first raped, and 29.9% were between the ages of 11 and 17.

Fact #2: 22 million women in the United States have been raped in their lifetime. 63.84% of women who reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked since age 18 were victimized by a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, boyfriend, or date.

Fact #5: Almost one-third of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner.

Fact #6: The National College Women Sexual Victimization Study estimated that between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 college women experience completed or attempted rape during their college years

Fact #27:  Somewhere in America a woman is battered, usually by her intimate partner, every 15 seconds.

Fact #31: Globally, at least one in three women and girls is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime.

I bring all this up because there’s a current storm of discussion in the atheist blogosphere about sexual harassment of women attendees and speakers at conventions, and the necessity that explicit anti-harassment policies be put in place by conference organizers.

There’s the inevitable male pushback, those amiable guys who can’t imagine themselves harassing women – Hey, it’s just a little harmless flirting! If that! – and who insist, essentially, that the women are blowing the thing out of proportion.

I’ve stayed out of the discussion, mainly because I didn’t do my homework by reading up on the details of several noteworthy harassment incidents in the past half year or so, but also because I didn’t think it was my issue.

It’s not central to what I’m doing in the field, I have only attended one event so far (lack of money rather than lack of will), and because of a decades-long ordeal of shyness in my early life, I’m probably in the last 1000th of a percent of males interested in harassing women.

And honestly, I was slow to warm to the subject because I had a hard time … well, seeing the importance of it. Feeling it.

Thinking about these incidents from my own life, though, I see it. I see that it’s important to say something about it.

When you get right down to it, the issue belongs to everyone in the freethinker community. If we really believe in equality as one of the freethinker social imperatives, this is something that MUST be addressed, examined, nailed down with clear directives, both in our public events and in the community we’re building. The men in the movement MUST understand the experience and desires of the women.

Calling the first two stories to mind clarifies for me some of the discomfort of sexual harassment. Calling the final story to mind makes real for me the unhappy fact that women are forced by our human sexual dimorphism to be physically wary of men. All. The. Time.

In a way that most of us men can’t imagine, women are always making certain allowances, taking certain careful steps, to maintain a bubble of security. In the best of social situations, they feel safe. In anything less than that, they are aware of the possibilities of … well, all sorts of less-than-happy outcomes.

For we men, life varies from the very occasional crossing-a-busy-highway consciousness of danger to the thousand more laid-back situations in which we can relax and enjoy the ride.

But for most women out in mixed company, the proportion of safety-to-danger is reversed. They’re crossing that busy highway all too often. Looking both ways, checking their peripheral vision, banding together with other women for safety, planning, thinking, checking and re-checking the traffic. Thinking of escape routes. Imagining ways to defuse difficult situations. And just learning to bear up under the continuous wave of whippy-tailed doggy eagerness men project at them.

Even based on my own little experience of harassment, I can barely imagine what that must be like. But I CAN imagine that it’s important.

The point being made by the women in the vanguard of the skeptic/freethought convention issue is “We shouldn’t have to deal with this at our own public events. Feeling safe among our own people is the bare minimum of what should be expected.”

And, you know …

… they’re right.

Thoughts on “Privilege”
Beta Culture: Seeing The Brackets
Zoning Out on Liberal vs. Conservative Issues
Looking Past the Bright Sun of Crazy
  • throwaway

    Might I be among the first to thank you for speaking up about this. Ya done good!

  • Emrysmyrddin

    Thanks for this – I hope that it clarifies the issues in the minds of some who still just don’t get it.

  • richard l.brandt

    Really nice posting.

  • Dave

    You pretty much hit the nail on the head there. It took me a while to “feel” it as well and I still mostly “think” it. I am fortunate to not have been physically intimidated often, being six four helps shape my experience of the world. But that also means I don’t have as much experience to look back on and I have to work harder to understand.

    But the understanding is coming and it is helpful to have other men’s thoughts about it. I write that recognizing that privileged people often try and make “it” about them. That isn’t what I am trying to do here. I just wanted to say thanks to another person who was thinking about how being male shapes our experience and how it takes some effort to get into a different head space. Reading how you did it helps me get better at it.

    Like you say, I can barely imagine what it is like, but I can imagine it is important. Thanks for helping me get a better grasp on the importance.

  • embertine

    I do think this is a great post, and I think you have really hit the nail on the head when it comes to how it feels to be harrassed. HOWEVER:

    I do think that too much is made of the difference in physical strength between men and woman, and that the social expectation that women are weak not only does not reflect the reality, but actually helps to create this culture whereby men are the aggressors and women are the victims.

    I am 5’6″ and although overweight, I am not a big woman. Nevertheless, I used to shovel stone and lift timber and so on for a living, because I am a landscaper. Although I am not now particularly fit, I know I am strong because I have had to use my strength to get my work done.

    I guarantee you that most woman can lift more, kick and punch harder and generally BE STRONGER than we think we can. So why don’t we use that strength? Because everyone knows women are physically weak.

    I am not in the least saying that women who are harrassed, attacked or even raped SHOULD fight. The consequences of doing so can be unpredictable and can escalate the situation further.

    What I am saying is that part of the reason that certain men target us in the first place is because of the expectation that we cannot or will not fight. If those same men thought they were going to be injured by an opponent who was a mere 5% weaker than them then they may think twice.

    • Hank Fox

      Embertine, thank you. Points well worth making.

    • Sara K.

      I agree with Embertine, and I want to add that the problem is often not physical strength, but authority.

      For example, while I am not a martial arts master, I have had some training. Most importantly, I know that in hand-to-hand combat, the most dangerous organ is the brain. Strategy is more important than brawn. Most men do not think much about their hand-to-hand strategy, thus I think I would have the advantage if I had to get into a one-on-one hand-to-hand fight with most men in the world. For example, if a man (or even two men) tried to attack me, the first thing I’d do is try to bust his knee. The problem with aiming for the crotch is that most men are very protective of that area, whereas most men do not think to protect their knees. If his knee is busted, he can’t chase me. If for some reason I cannot escape, busting his knee would make it easier to get a strike at his eyes and/or throat. If I can get a good strike at the eyes and/or throat, he probably will not be able to bother me anymore.

      If there are more than two men, or if he has a weapon that changes the situation, but that has nothing to do with being female – anybody would be in deep shit if they had to fight 1-vs-5, or fight unarmed against somebody with a knife, gun, etc. However, even in those situations, the brain is the most dangerous organ – I know of one case where two people with knives tried to rob an unarmed person, and the unarmed person managed to kill one of the people with a knife while severely injuring the other robber, and a woman I know once managed to, unarmed, intimidate a man with a gun into leaving her alone.

      The one time I was sexually harassed (it was very minor – not as bad as the sexual harassment you’ve experienced Hank), it was by an older man. I could have easily overpowered him in hand-to-hand combat – but that did not matter. He was in a position of much greater authority than myself, and that is why I did nothing (eventually, I didn’t need to see him ever again).

      Focusing on physical power takes attention from what I think is the much bigger problem – that males are privileged in our society and often have more authority than females.

  • tielserrath

    This is a great explanation – I hope a lot of men will read it.

    I also hope you don’t mind if I link to it.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    Thanks for this, Hank. Unfortunately, the people who need to read your message are the ones who steadfastly refuse to understand anything but their own needs and desires.

    • Dave

      Sure, the really hard core men won’t read this, but a lot of self defined “liberal feminist men” will and a good number of us need it. So, as one man who though he was cool with it, but who had missed the point, I respectfully disagree. Some men who need this are reading it and it is changing minds.

      In Greta Christina’s book, she talks about how atheists rarely change the mind of the deeply religious, but frequently change the mind of the people on the edge. The same applies here.

      And Hank, why can’t I find your book for sale in electronic format?

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  • Syl

    Thank you, Hank, thank you.

  • georgemontgomery

    Very nice post, Hank. Sometimes, trying to explain stuff like this to certain of my friends is like talking to the furniture.
    Related to #5 embertine, back in 1969 I arrived home fresh from Marine Corps bootcamp. I tried to impress my stepmother by arm-wrestling her. I couldn’t beat her. You see, although she was of small stature, she had spent 20+ years as a waitress, carrying those armloads of food plates. She was strong!

  • raymoscow

    Well put, Hank.

  • maureen.brian

    Thanks for doing that, Hank, and thanks for doing it so well.

  • JoeBuddha

    Speaking as an outsider, it seems that there is a fundamental problem here. You’re saying, “Everyone is equal”, but for some of your fellow free-thinkers, the unconscious assumption seems to be “All MEN are equal”. Because everyone is equal by definition, there can’t possibly be a real problem and these women are just trolls and drama queens trying to sabatage your meetings and scare other women away from your community.
    I see no real difference between this and Christians doing evil and hateful things based on the evil and hateful parts of the bible while pointing to the good and moral parts to say that no, their religion CAN’T be evil and hateful.
    Just my $.02 (and it may not really be worth more than that…)

    • throwaway

      I see no real difference between this and Christians doing evil and hateful things based on the evil and hateful parts of the bible while pointing to the good and moral parts to say that no, their religion CAN’T be evil and hateful.

      What the actual fuck are you alluding to or trying to imply? Because I’m willing to defer to your explanation, but right now it seems like you’re saying that atheists who are doing the right thing and are pointing out that they’re doing the right thing are only doing it as an apologia for atheism only. If that’s the case, you can shove your $.02.

      • Sethra

        I don’t think JoeBuddha is saying that. He said:

        “You’re saying, “Everyone is equal”, but for some of your fellow free-thinkers, the unconscious assumption seems to be “All MEN are equal”.

        He’s clearly stating that there are two groups, one of which doesn’t see a problem – and those are the people he’s comparing to religious wingnuts who pick and choose morality based on personal preferences and bigotry.

        • throwaway

          Ah you’re right. I’m sorry Joebuddha for misinterpreting what you said. Jumped the gun due to sleep deprivation.

          • JoeBuddha

            What I like about lurking at freethought blogs: Folx are quick to jump down your throat if you’re being an idiot and just as quick to own up and apologize if they find out they were wrong. Something I aspire to and too often fall short of.

          • throwaway

            Cheers Joe! If I bump into you at a skeptics convention I’ll buy ya a beerverage of your choosing to solidi(liqui)fy the apology. :D

          • Sethra

            No worries, throwaway. I always recommend a bit more caffeine for those moments. I think my coffee is calling right now, in fact!

    • Erin

      …but for some of your fellow free-thinkers, the unconscious assumption seems to be “All MEN are equal”. Because everyone is equal by definition, there can’t possibly be a real problem and these women are just trolls and drama queens trying to sabatage your meetings and scare other women away from your community.

      This is the problem right here. Everyone is equal and those making the noise are trying to make sure that everyone is treated equally. Those with the “all MEN are equal” mindset are too blind to see a) that not everyone is currently treated equally and b) that a harassment policy wouldn’t apply just to men but to everyone attending the event in reference to all forms of harassment – not just sexual.

  • CT

    Thanks, Hank. I’ve been trying to talk about this with my boys, both teens, and with my oldest I’m having a hard time explaining.

    And your first paragraphs made me super angry — my head would explode if I thought someone was doing that to my kids. I already had to talk to one of the cousins (not related you know how it is in the south) to keep his damn daughter from plopping her ass down on top of my son every time he sits down at a family picnic. his response was that she didn’t mean anything by it, they’re cousins and cousins just do that. I’m sorry?! cousins just sexually harass each other? jeez, I didn’t get that memo and I’m sure if it were in the reverse he would punch my son in the face.

    sorry, mommy bear explosion there…. /rant /little embarrassed

  • Sethra

    Wonderful post, thank you! I’m sorry for the harassment you experienced and that you had nowhere to turn. People like that make life incredibly stressful and unpleasant.

  • Timid Atheist

    I’ll just add my voice to the chorus of thank you’s. It’s good to see that someone else gets it. And while it may not be your issue or affect you directly, it’s still nice to see you come out with your opinion. Often times women feel alone in this because men don’t want to “white knight”. But adding your voice in support isn’t white knighting. That only happens when you try to take over the subject and make it about what you can do for others.

    And I always enjoy reading your writing because it’s so easy to relate to.

  • AJS

    But the thing is, every time you as a man defer to a woman towards whom you have no dishonourable intentions, you are subconsciously reinforcing her anti-man prejudice. That little part of her mind that assumes the worst goes off and does its stuff, and if you behave in certain ways you end up making the situation worse.

    Maybe she felt uncomfortable being alone except for a man in that basement launderette; but she had no reason to, because you are not a danger to her. Yet by pandering to that discomfort, you have not only validated her fears, but also increased the probability that the man who does stay in the room with her will pose a threat.

    By standing your ground, you would at least have given her an experience of being in a situation where the only other person present was a man and nothing bad happened. If you pose no threat, don’t act like you pose a threat.

    It goes without saying that women have a right not to be “hit on”. But the other side of that coin is, men have a right not to be assumed to be about to hit on someone.

    • researchtobedone

      The problem is that assumptions can’t be made either way, and without being able to be certain that you’re in a zero-risk situation, the safest thing to do is safeguard against the worst-case situation as best you can.

      Read this:

    • Peno Malaputo

      Actually, no.

      Men do not have that right, previous behavior considered.

      • Cornelioid

        “Previous behavior considered”? I don’t particularly see how anyone has the right not to have things assumed about them. The other side of AJS’s coin is that men have the right to not be “hit on”.

    • Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

      You have no idea how stupid you sound. No matter how many times I’m alone in an enclosed space with a strange guy* and he does nothing, I’m not going to let my guard down the next time. Because next time I might end up raped or dead or both. I can’t afford to relax. Sexual assault is not rare enough for me to forget about the danger** and it’s not like I can even report it and expect justice if it happens. You don’t live in my world.

      *I do let my guard down with men I know and moreso with guys I’ve been intimate with, but even then, I have to be careful.

      **I’ve been groped by strangers and harassed and kissed when I’d indicated I didn’t want to be, and physically threatened with rape by someone who I’d considered a good friend. Though I myself have never been raped, most women I know that I’ve talked to about the subject have been–maybe 80%. Most of those never reported it.

      • WMDKitty

        This. (Minus the personal details, of course.)

      • im

        While that poster was stupid, this IS still kind of a tragedy.

    • Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle

      you are subconsciously reinforcing her anti-man prejudice

      anti-man prejudice, huh.

      So, if we take no precautions and get raped, it’s “stupid bitch should haveknown better than to be alone with that guy!”

      if we take precautions, it’s “anti-male prejudice”.

      because, no matter what, what’s really IMPORTANT here is that women are wrong. And they lie. And they’re wrong. About everything. And they lie. About eveything.

      • AJS

        Well, what else can you call it when a woman assumes that a man is intending to harm her just because he is a man? How, if most men are not sexual predators, is that not the very definition of prejudice?

        • Ms. Daisy Cutter, Gynofascist in a Spiffy Hugo Boss Uniform

          My safety >>>>>> your hurt fee-fees.

        • Blueaussi

          “Well, what else can you call it when a woman assumes that a man is intending to harm her just because he is a man?”

          It’s like defensive driving. That guy with his blinker on is most likely going to turn, so it’s probably safe to pull out; but if I’m driving defensively I should wait to be sure he;s going to turn.

          ” How, if most men are not sexual predators, is that not the very definition of prejudice?”

          Most dogs aren’t biters, but it’s just common sense to approach a strange dog with caution. Does that mean I’m prejudiced against dogs?

        • Erista (aka Eris)

          Alright. I’m going to ask what exactly you think women should do when faced with a situation like Hank described. There are the two options that people generally put forth.

          The first is to assume that the man means her no harm.

          The second is to assume that he may or may not mean her harm, and that she cannot tell until which it is until A) He does something to harm her B) the interaction ends.

          Now, let’s say that the woman goes with the first option. She firmly believes she is safe in his presence and takes no precautions to safeguard herself against him. If the man rapes her, how would you view her actions? Would you view them as perfectly justifiable, or will you declare that she should have taken precautions?

          Or let’s say that the woman goes with the second option and decides he may or may not mean her harm, and she takes precautions accordingly. If the man did not in fact mean her harm, you have indicated that you find her actions offensive.

          Given the fact that women are not mind readers, we cannot magically discern which men mean us harm, and thus only apply the second option to men who are inclined to rape and apply the first standard to men who are not inclined to rape. So we have to pick one to apply generally, both to men who want to rape and to men who do not. Which do you want us to go with?

    • MyaR

      It goes without saying that women have a right not to be “hit on”. But the other side of that coin is, men have a right not to be assumed to be about to hit on someone.

      Except these are not equivalent. One is a physical act, one is a mental state. And no, you do not have the “right” to determine what other people’s mental states should be. If you would like to have this happen less frequently, get to work getting men to stop sexually assaulting and raping women. Then we will live in a society where women don’t have to be on guard, and it is actually unreasonable for a woman to assume a certain level of danger whenever unknown men are around.

      • AJS

        If you would like to have this happen less frequently, get to work getting men to stop sexually assaulting and raping women.

        That is more easily said than done. Suggestions welcome. What can I, as someone who does not do that sort of thing, do to help bring this about?

        Then we will live in a society where women don’t have to be on guard, and it is actually unreasonable for a woman to assume a certain level of danger whenever unknown men are around.

        Yes. That is certainly the sort of society in which I would like to live. And even if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, we owe it to succeeding generations to try.

        So, what should I be doing?

        • Cornelioid

          What can I, as someone who does not do that sort of thing, do to help bring this about?

          Audiences are a good start. Chat the topic up on Facebook, or reddit, or your blog. Are the people you follow downplaying the significance of these issues? If so (and someone surely is), share a contrary view, or let them know what they’re missing. Or, if you’re thinking about attending an event, ask if they have a policy in place. Or read a bit more into it; i’ve been surprised at the unintuitive things i’ve learned.

          I’m new to all this, though, so others’ll have better ideas.

        • Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

          You can start by not blaming victims and potential victims for being wary. That’s a rational reaction to the situation we’re living under. Then you can follow up by not telling men to pretend that we don’t live in a culture where rape and other violence by men against women happens frequently. You can, with your newly-risen awareness, do your best to put the women you come in contact with at ease by not cornering them in spaces with no escape, crossing to the other side of the street late at night so they don’t think you’re stalking them, and backing off immediately if they don’t consent to a proposal of social or physical intimacy.

          Once you’re not making the problem worse, you can graduate to making it better by calling out condonation of rape via rape jokes, objectification of women, slut-shaming, victim-blaming, gendered slurs and all the rest of the trappings of rape culture.

          • Rory

            Greg Laden suggested the ‘cross to the other side of the stret thing’ in a blog a year or so ago, and I was SO resistant to it at the time (I’m a guy). Why should I have to go out of my way to satisy someone who’s afraid of me for no reason?

            And the simple answer, as you and some other folks have stated above, is because we live in a world where it’s entirely reasonable for a woman to be wary when a guy approaches her at night. She doesn’t know what your intentions are, so her default has to be wariness. And if you’re a guy who doesn’t want to inflict unnecessary hardship on other people, that means you do what you can to not put someone in that state. If that’s in any way unfair, it’s far less unfair than the fact that a woman can’t walk down the street without haivng to be constantly on guard.

            So thanks to all the folks who keep explaining these things. Some of us are damn slow to get it, but you’re getting through.

    • Marnie

      AJS: If someone stands too closely to you at the ATM and doesn’t steal your identity or PIN number, do you assume that in all future instances where someone stands too close to you at the ATM, they will not try to get your PIN number? Is that how your mind assesses risk? Is it the responsibility of people at ATMs to teach you to not be so worried about losing your personal financial information because while it’s wrong to try to take someone’s PIN number it’s also wrong to think someone wants your PIN number? Do you owe other people the right to feel trusted even when you are in a more vulnerable situation?

      I can’t think of anything more paternalistic than a man trying to teach me a lesson about how I’m allowed to assess danger especially if he has just done something that could be reasonably considered threatening such as yelling at me. If you genuinely go through life trying to teach women a lesson every time they don’t show complete trust and warmth to you, you are a bully. If you genuinely feel it’s equally bad to be considered a potential risk as it is to feel you are in a potentially risky situation, then you have no right locking your car, stopping delivery of your mail when you are away, keeping your wallet somewhere hard to pick when you are in a big city, or taking any other precaution normal people take all the time to avoid known risks. Throughout life, you have considered people you don’t know well, potentially risky and you will continue to do so. Telling women they aren’t allowed to seriously consider a type of risk that impacts a huge percentage of the female population and that she has a very good chance of having been subjected to already, makes you sound like sociopath. That’s not reasonable skepticism, that’s someone asking women to put themselves in greater danger so that he can feel better about himself.

      • im

        While I generally agree with what you are saying, I do still think that it’s kind of pathetic how much women’s fear (a subset of people’s fear in general) helps perpetuate this state of seige.

        Personally, I am all for removing fear from the human experience once the technology is available.

  • Roxane

    Well done, Hank, and powerfully written.

  • Rabidtreeweasel

    AJ, it is perfectly logical to be afraid of seine who yelled at you. That ‘little part of her brain’ telling her to be cautious serves a very important purpose. Had Hank not been Hank, and had she not made herself scarce, things could have gone very badly for her. It is incredibly telling when women are expected to treat every man she meets like an Adonis, lest she offend someones ego.

  • Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    AJS: Are you seriously saying that he should have done her a favor by making her feel uncomfortable without actually raping her, for her own good?

  • Onamission5

    Thanks, Hank, sincerely. The more time I spend on FtB, the more hope I have that my own efforts out here in meatspace are not in vain. Posts like this help refuel my resolve to not give up.

    @AJS: In other words, you really, really don’t get it.

  • TX_secular

    AJS-it’s more of a Type I vs Type II error problem. As women, we tend to err on the side of assuming bad intentions because the cost of assuming that a man is harmless when he is not is very high.

    As for women being stronger (as strong) as men, some are but as Hank points out the average man is stronger than the average woman by virtue of sexual dimorphism.

    Excellent post!

    • Onamission5

      It’s not even so much that we outright assume bad intentions as it is that we can’t outright assume good ones, given the combination of statistics, past experiences, and a lack of knowing who it is we’re dealing with. The cost of assuming good intentions and being wrong is disproportionately higher than the cost of being wary. I don’t assume that (for example) the guy who just yelled at me in the isolated laundry room is a rapist. I am very aware that without more information I can’t know whether he is or not.

      So, what you said, but with clarifications. ;)

      • sezit

        Great post!!
        Two things I keep seeing on this subject –
        1. men telling women how to assess danger.
        2. women’s fear of men is only regarding rape, and rape is rare, so we shouldn’t worry.
        My responses:
        1. Don’t give advice when you are not the expert! Women are the experts on this subject. If you have not lived as a woman, you CANNOT know what it is like to be constantly wary or afraid. The way that works for you is not available to me.
        2. Men are more prone to violence, period. Angry men more so. Aggression, intimidation, violence, and sexual violence are on a continuum. Some men even hate having their opinions challenged by a woman. That can be enough to escalate anger to intimidation or violence, and I have seen guys go from calm to full-throttle lunatic in a micro-second. Any anger or aggression from a man can be very scary, and makes me IMMEDIATELY wary.
        Last – what can you do to make it better? Publicly call out anyone who you see acting in an intimidating manner. In person or on-line. Publicly agree or thank those who stand up against harassment or simple-minded advice.

  • Risa Scranton

    Interesting stuff. Although I’m not exactly clear on why upon hearing a female voice shouting incoherently you felt you should shout back in a hostile manner — why not just say, “I’m sorry, I can’t understand you” and hang up??

    • jamesskaar

      ‘why not just say, “I’m sorry, I can’t understand you” and hang up??’

      that’d be very rude… not even giving the person the opportunity to adjust the way they were speaking, so that they’d be clearer, just… hanging up? he did say to her that he couldn’t understand, and gave her time to adjust, she didn’t use that time constructively.

      ‘female voice shouting incoherently you felt you should shout back in a hostile manner’

      this is presuming that he -knew- from the start it was female, it may have been a mental edit that leaked into the story, from later finding out it -was- a woman. thing is, should ANYONE take the abuse, of having to stand there and be hollered at? waiting for someone to finish blowing off their steam, ranting and raving, shrieking, hollering, being ‘hostile’… regardless of gender, that’d be giving that person too much power over your personal space.

      should he, because it was a woman, have let her continue? did he say that he felt it was more acceptable to holler and hang up -because- it was a woman? considering his experiences, he may have been a bit ‘gunshy’ of loud women, reacting, not out of genuine anger, but of fear. he did say he was unused to the feeling of someone being afraid of him, of having the feeling he was always the tiny weak one. someone feeling justified in treating him like that could easily tweak the idea in him that they’re large, powerful, dangerous, and after his hide.

  • Jason Thibeault

    Well done, Bruce. I’m sad that you experienced what you did, but glad those experiences helped shape the good man that you are today.

  • rork

    It was good for me. Thankyou.
    Women making inappropriate advances at me never scared me. Men have. And it’s not cause I’m scared of sex with men. It’s not cause they are stronger. It’s cause of the chances of violence. Women can’t hold a candle to them (as a group).

  • lilandra

    My husband had his butt grabbed at a TAM 2 years ago. Although he didn’t want the woman to do that, he doesn’t think of it as harassment. He made it known with a scowl that it wasn’t permissible and it never happened again. He is a large man though, so he doesn’t really have fears of being raped even by men. He thinks he would be considered a wuss, and would consider himself a wuss by calling it harassment. Men are kinda socialized that way. It actually bothered me more than him because she was using the pretense of friendship when she had different motives. I wonder if it is right though the way we look at unwanted female advances differently.

    I am sorry that you endured this treatment at your job where you couldn’t escape it. It sounds as though it may have been a form of bullying.

  • chrisclarke

    Great post, Hank.

  • toyotabedzrock

    You example is pushing the idea that the burden of being a male means we have to walk on egg shells.

    You own example seems to show that you did nothing wrong.

    She called a strangers phone number, and you apologized. Assuming you didn’t act aggressively in that small space then you did nothing wrong.

    She was harassing and verbally battering you.

    • tigtog

      You example is pushing the idea that the burden of being a male means we have to walk on egg shells.

      Since half the human race is already walking on egg shells when interacting with the other half of the human race*, why should your half of the human race not get to share the burden?

      * Simply walking down the street is an exercise in walking on egg shells for women – men hollering, men ordering one to smile, men offering random compliments and then snarling if one doesn’t react nicely enough for their taste. Not all men, far from it – but one never knows which men will do it where and when.

      • lilandra

        It’s not right to bully people no matter what sex the victim has to be.

        • lilandra

          Sorry not “has” meant happens to be.

        • Ms. Daisy Cutter, Gynofascist in a Spiffy Hugo Boss Uniform

          It’s not right to pretend bad manners are on a par with oppression. It’s rather concern-trollish, actually.

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  • Viola

    Hank, thank you for understanding this. I think it can be really hard for men to wrap their heads around this fear. The first time a man tried to rape me was when I was in second grade, and it really changed how the world looked to me.
    And just for the record, even if someone isn’t capable of – or intending to – physically overpower you, it’s still creepy and degrading of them to be sexual with someone who clearly doesn’t want them to.

  • NanceConfer

    Next time, get a laundry basket and move the clothes out of the washer.

    And don’t leave your phone number for strangers to call you. Especially strangers who will probably be pissed off at you for correcting them about their laundry management.

    • AJS

      Coming from a culture which has a very strong historical taboo against interfering in Other People’s Business (and which nowadays considers a washing machine in the home even more essential than a car on the driveway. It lives under the worktop next to the kitchen sink; there are hot and cold stop valves, a waste pipe and a dedicated power point already provided in every newly-built house or flat. I’ve known people who had mono TVs or no TV at all and slept on mattresses on the floor, but still had a washing machine, even if they barely had enough clothes of their own to fill it without getting naked. Laundry is an intensely personal matter to us Britons), I can see why Hank was reluctant to do this.

      Touching someone else’s laundry, who isn’t a close friend or family member (or a complete stranger you are never going to meet again, in certain circumstances such as on a campsite in a holiday atmosphere), is generally a bad idea: there’s the possibility that you might be discovered. You might be accused of (attempted) theft, blamed for any damage whether or not you had anything to do with it, and that’s before you get to the unsavoury rumours about being a knicker-sniffer.

      I would have to be seriously pissed off to ignore the (admittedly cultural) reasons not to move a stranger’s washing out of the machine. (And, with hindsight, probably would have ended up being caught in the act by that shrieking harpy …..)

      • Ernst Hot

        I agree. And really, if you don’t want to make women uncomfortable, messing with their laundry that may or may not contain underwear (Schrödinger’s underwear!), is probably a bad idea ;)

  • Suzanne

    Thanks for this. I’m a 5’7″ 200+lb woman who was raised on inconsequential flirting. There’s very little I’m afraid of and I do fine and even often enjoy some situations other women find scary. But I still watch where I’m going, check who’s around me, and spend the majority of my life doing what many men would consider odd things like making sure the cars I walk between in a parking lot aren’t too close together. There’s a whole layer of life for women that many men don’t notice. Thanks for helping point it out.

  • beleth

    Powerfully, persuasively written, Hank. Thank you.

    I don’t know what else to say.

  • LM

    Good point – but why shouldn’t we take it seriously when men are harassed at work? Why is the story of a young man being sexually harassed “funny”?

    There are two separate ideas here – 1) that women have reasons to be afraid of being alone with male strangers, which is true; and 2) that women are more at risk for sexual harassment in the workplace than men. I agree with (1), but I’m not so sure I agree with (2). Yeah, as a man, you could probably physically fight back – but there are other ways to make your life hell in the workplace. The reason we do not approve of sexual harassment is not because it places the victim in physical danger – most office harassers do not go all the way to rape and physical assault. It’s because it creates a hostile work environment for the victim – i.e. the victim comes to dread working together with the harasser, is constantly vigilant so as to never be alone with the harasser, etc. This is not funny. This is not OK.

    Note that there are other nonphysical ways for a woman to intimidate a man that can work very very well. One guy I know was forced to have sex with a woman who said “If you don’t have sex with me, I’ll call the police and say you attempted to rape me”. He did not want to get arrested, so he had sex with her. This is rape, plain and simple, and he will never report it. Getting a man blind drunk (way past the ability to consent to sex) and then having sex with him is also rape. We do not hear about these cases because men are socialized to not report rape or sexual harassment, and because it is not taken seriously. Hank’s own example shows this – he was sexually harassed in a very blatant manner at work, and he never reported it to HR, the culprit was never fired or disciplined, and no one found out.

    How many young college-age men have been raped by women? We don’t know – those numbers are wildly underreported. How many men are sexually harassed at work? We don’t know.

    I’m a woman, by the way, and a feminist. I get the physical intimidation factor, and I am certainly warier when walking alone in dark alleyways than a man would be, and I would be nervous when alone in a laundry room with a male stranger who just yelled at me. But I don’t think that anyone should be sexually harassed at work or that anyone should be raped.

    • Jason Thibeault

      Yes, we absolutely should take it seriously — and I think that’s pretty much Hank’s point, is that strong harassment policies would protect all of us, not just women.

    • Ms. Daisy Cutter, Gynofascist in a Spiffy Hugo Boss Uniform

      Why is the story of a young man being sexually harassed “funny”?

      Who said it was? Certainly not feminists, who would like to see the gender roles behind such assumptions broken down.

  • lucindapoe

    I disagree with this completely. I realize there are women out there who spend their whole lives afraid of men. I am not one of those women. Nor do I believe we have some innate right to more consideration for these things than men do just because they are physically stronger. That platform is preposterous.

    Nobody has an inalienable right to be comfortable in public. This is part of the condition of being a social species with individual members. And by suggesting we do, we encourage the sense of entitlement, the hypersensitivity, and reinforce the paranoia.

    I’ve never been afraid of men. I’ve received plenty of unwelcome sexual attention, flirts, strange guys wanting to talk to me, even outright propositioning. In the worst case of these I simply said, “The offer is flattering but I not interested, thank you.” No, the offer wasn’t flattering, it was pretty gross, but I was going to retain my manners even if someone else wasn’t able to. The example of what someone else does, does not effect what I myself do.

    When unwanted sexual attention gets in the way of your ability to do your job, it’s sexual harassment. We have pretty good laws on the books to protect against that. But in the recent 1 very loud, very vocal case of the convention speaker who couldn’t stop sounding off about this couple propositioning her for a 3some, it was not a case of sexual harassment. She met this couple once, they spoke with her once, and she will likely never hear from them again. This does not prevent her from doing her job. Her complete obsession with her perceived victimization might though.

    • Cornelioid

      embertine makes a good point about the strength and psychology considerations here, which i think most people here would agree that you’re right about.

      It don’t see anyone claiming that we (men or women or anyone) having an inalienable right to comfort in public. Check the last full paragraph of Hank’s post. Do you agree that we have a responsibility to make our community as welcoming as possible, given that our long-term goal is to win over practically everyone?

      As for the (several) individual cases being talked about (check Jason’s timeline), the conference organizers decide what behaviors are tolerable at the conference, and the conferencegoers decide (even if only implicitly, without reading the rules) whether to be held to them. And this whole debacle is evidence enough that these things need to be talked about.

      The example of what someone else does, does not effect what I myself do.

      This seems spot on, but it applies to you, too. If other people who’ve experienced sexual harassment react and respond differently than you do, there’s not much room for anyone else to moralize to them.

    • Carlie

      Well, aren’t you a special little snowflake. Not like those other crazy bitches at all, amirite?

    • Ms. Daisy Cutter, Gynofascist in a Spiffy Hugo Boss Uniform

      Y helo thar Chill Girl™.

      Do you also prefer to hang out exclusively with men, because “other females” are “stupid dumb bitches”?

      I really hope the pats you get on your pretty li’l head from teh menz are worth it if, FSM forbid, you’re ever the victim of sexual violence, because they’ll turn on you in an instant.

    • ischemgeek

      I’m not saying anyone has a right to be comfortable 100% of the time. I’m saying everyone has a right to leave a casual conversation at any time, decide where they will go, when they will leave a room, who gets to touch them and what they do with whom. And they have the right to know that asserting those rights will not be met with verbal, physical, or sexual abuse.

  • Cornelioid

    Bravo, Hank.

    Also, who’s Bruce?

    • Jason Thibeault

      It’s a Monty Python reference. Sort of an inside joke.

  • dogeared, spotted and foxed

    Thank you, Hank.

    It’s impossible to explain this to people who don’t get it. (I haven’t read the comments yet but I’m guessing that you’ll have a few that will back up that statement.) This gets very frustrating because the people who really don’t/don’t want to get it are always eager to try and “logic” you out of it. As if a lifetime of necessary socialization can be hand-waved away with mere opinion.

    When somebody does get it, there’s a delicious relief topped with tasty dollop of hope. All the nonsense seems bland in comparison for a little while. It’s so very nice.

    • lilandra

      I agree. I hate to bandy about the word “privilege”, but I’ve noticed that if some people grew up protected from harsher realities, they have trouble understanding much less empathizing with people who were less fortunate. In some cases, you can grow up with every advantage and still be victimized because of a number of factors luck being one of them.

  • samoanbiscuit

    Thank you very much for sharing your own experiences. I am bookmarking your awesome post for reference later when someone mocks the concept of “safe space”.

  • c2t2

    Yay, Hank! It sounds like you’re starting to get it.

    I can’t imagine how a man must feel when he realizes that virtually all women are afraid of him, all the time.

    Maybe it’s because I used to be as strong as a guy (long story), but when I’m near an adult man, even one I’ve known my whole life, there is a deep knowledge that he could easily overpower me, if I tried to escalate I could be beaten to death, if I pressed charges my life would be destroyed and he would almost certainly walk free. Therefore, the only reason he doesn’t do whatever he wants is out of sheer politeness. Oh, except he has been socialized from birth to be aggressive and demanding. Politeness is for women.


    I am really tired of relying on courtesy, so I’ve been chewing over an idea the past few years: maybe every person capable of driving… be required to carry a gun. If you can be trusted with a car, you should be able to handle a pistol, right? And then all people would be equally dangerous.

    Probably a bad idea, but some assholes might reconsider their behavior if they know everyone around them is packing heat.

    Note of context for that deranged downer of a comment: I was sexually assaulted last week by the maintenence guy, so I’m less than objective right now. (Please nobody advise me to go to the authorities. They would not help. I’ve had my place broken into and cleaned out multiple times, and the police told me that because I lived in a low-income apartment complex that is overflowing with crime, they wouldn’t even bother to write a report.) Anyway, I escaped unharmed and it’s not like he’s the first guy to force himself on me.


    Less than objective.

    PS sorry about the ramble. It’s really late and I’m probably going to be embarrassed as hell in the morning and delete the comment.

    • Jefrir

      I am really tired of relying on courtesy, so I’ve been chewing over an idea the past few years: maybe every person capable of driving… be required to carry a gun. If you can be trusted with a car, you should be able to handle a pistol, right? And then all people would be equally dangerous.

      Probably a bad idea, but some assholes might reconsider their behavior if they know everyone around them is packing heat.

      One problem with this that stands out immediately – if someone is strong enough to physically overpower you, they are probably also strong enough to take your gun off you and use it against you.

      Very few rapes and sexual assaults happen in a way that would be prevented by the victim being armed. The stranger lurking in the alley is really not the norm.

      • c2t2

        You’re right that it wouldn’t stop someone once they’re determined to be a predator. But in my experience people try to rationalize that they aren’t really doing anything wrong… “I just BORROWED the (whatever)” or “I knew she wanted it, and she was just playing hard to get” or “He shouldn’t have been bragging if he wasn’t looking for a fight… we just got carried away.”

        My theory is ‘guns for everyone’ would be an excellent deterrent, since the stakes are so high. Even hardcore predators might think twice: “How many liberties am I willing to take with her body?” “Should I mug this person? Just how badly do I need the money?”

        They don’t ask themselves, since preying on already marginalized people has almost zero chance of consequences. Add “possible death” and they’ll think twice.

        Bonus points that predators are often able-bodied adult men, and their victims usually children, women, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Add firearms and suddenly *poof* the power differential dissappears!

  • Gwynnyd

    For me the difference between living my life afraid or having to always be on edge and taking precautions, and just living my life is the quality of the people around me.

    I am very fortunate in having found people in my life who *do* have my back. If someone made unwanted advances or tried the scummy head games of harassment, I *know* that I can say, “Hey, back off. That makes me uncomfortable.” and I will be supported and in return I’d support any one of my friends in a similar situation.

    A person behaving in a manner that made anyone in the group uncomfortable who does not stop it immediately should not be welcome, regardless of what else they could bring to the group.

    I think that’s a lot of what’s missing and why it feels so much like betrayal from the conference organizers.

    And, of course, in situations where the group is not present, I do always take those ‘reasonable’ precautions. Because until the greater society starts as routinely condemning misogynistic asshattery as my friends do and as most of my coworkers have done, anyone has to.

  • Ms. Daisy Cutter, Gynofascist in a Spiffy Hugo Boss Uniform

    Thank you very much for this post, Hank.

  • Stan Brooks

    Thanks Hank for an astute and reasoned post, and to Embertine for her observation. This was a needed addition to the conversation.

  • ednaz

    Excellent post, Hank. Just excellent.

  • feedmybrain

    Harassment is something that I’ve only ever thought of from my perspective, if at all, until the TAM issue came up.

    I’ve had my eyes opened. This is another good post that adds to my enlightenment.

  • ischemgeek

    I’ll add you to my mental list of people who get it.


  • Will

    This was the first time i’ve read your blog. I frequent FtB but usually only pharyngula. You blog title caught my attention so I clicked it. It really is wonderful. As a fellow ‘blue collar atheist’ I really appreciate the colour and candor of your entries. This post really hit hard with me. It bothers me that many people comment with such inanity under what is obviously an important issue for both men and women.

  • Erista (aka Eris)

    Thank you so much for writing this, Hank. Given the way that some men have been reacting to the mere idea of anti-harassment policies, I have begun to despair a bit. However, posts like yours help restore my faith that there are lots of good men out there, men who will help and support women in their fight to make the world a better place.

  • scottgibbons

    Thanks for this Hank. Awesome words that show wisdom, and have helped to clarify my own thoughts.

    Twice I have been placed in a very awkward position. First a drunk work associate at a work party thought it would be fun to bend over, reverse into me and begin rubbing herself up and down against me. Second time was another work associate in a similar setting who decided that she needed to sit facing me, lift her legs and show me what was under her skirt.

    Both times I bugged out, leaving as quickly and quietly as possible. Then I ran like hell for home and my wife. Apart from telling my wife, who could see clearly on both occasions that I was freaked out, I never reported these incidents to anyone. Not sure why apart from some generic ideas concerning the culture I was brought up in (man up, suck it up, etc).

    The second part of your article clarifies something that has bothered me for some years. Quite often I will be walking in the street and experience these odd little moments where I will pass a woman walking in the opposite direction. On occasions where I have made eye contact, I can only describe what I see as the woman cringing and mentally/figuratively taking a step back. A definite drawback to being a 6’4”, 110kg, hairy/scruffy bloke I guess.

    Thank you again for giving words to things that I guess I did understand, but maybe not as deeply as I should.

  • im

    I do have my own transhumanist version of people having guns, although it also includes fearlessness and some other psychological improvements.

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