How to cope with awkward conversations about sexual harassment

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe

With hundreds of reports of sexual assault and harassment dominating headlines in recent months, the reality of how widespread a problem it truly is – and how much change is needed – seems to be sinking in. However, as with any significant societal shift, you might find yourself running into some awkward, and often heated, conversations around the topic. Here, freelance writer Kate Leaver offers a feminist guide to tackling the issue.

It’s been a helluva two months. Hundreds of women have gone public with allegations against powerful men, courageously calling out sexual harassment, assault and rape. There are currently 102 – and counting – against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein alone. Seventy-three high-profile men have been accused since the Weinstein revelations broke in The New York Times.

This very public moment of reckoning has started some big, fiery conversations between friends. Down the pub, on the tube, at work – and inevitably, over mince pies and mulled cider. It’s all we can talk about (with brief interruptions to discuss Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s matching navy coats). And now that Pamela Anderson and Angela Lansbury have come out with extremely questionable attitudes on the matter – both of whom have been accused of blaming victims for either being in a room with an abuser or dressing to be sexually attractive – we have even more atrocious takes to handle.

So, how to survive the inevitable showdown with your friend’s husband, your sexist uncle, or in an unlikely turn of events, Pamela Anderson? Here’s a guide to some of the most common arguments making appearances at Sunday roasts, work lunches and family dinners right now – and how to address them.  

“Here’s a guide to some of the most common takes making appearances at Sunday roasts, work lunches and family dinners right now”

The #NotAllMen take: Not all men are predators and women harass men, too

Eye-roll emoji. Of course there are men who don’t attack women. That’s nice, but not the point. The privilege of being male is what enables the kind of behaviour we’re exposing here, which in itself is so often a direct product of toxic masculinity. So it is entirely valid to look at this as a gendered problem. The overwhelming majority of aggressors are male because we live in a patriarchy. The problem disproportionately affects women.

The reductionist take: We’re overreacting to some guys putting their hands on a woman’s knee a decade ago

Either fiercely point out that we are dealing with cases far more sinister than that, or make like Jo Brand on an all-male comedy panel and calmly explain that this is not about a single knee-touching incident. For women, it’s the accumulation of unwanted contact over a lifetime. It’s existing in a culture that allows men to behave as if they are entitled to touch, control or possess women’s bodies.

With regards to the concerns about time passing between the act and its consequence, I fail to see how you could find a problem there other than the horror of a woman having to live privately with that for so long. There is no expiry date on trauma.  

The Pamela Anderson take: Those women should’ve known not to be in a room with someone sleazy like him

“You know what you’re getting into if you’re going into a hotel room alone,” Pamela Anderson said, echoing men and women around the world whose first instinct is to blame the victim of a sexual harassment case, rather than the perpetrator. How about we focus on the acts of harassment, assault and abuse, rather than the comparatively innocuous offense of walking into the wrong room, at the wrong time, with the wrong person? How about we stop teaching women not to get attacked, and start teaching men not to attack? 

“You know what you’re getting into if you’re going into a hotel room alone” - Pamela Anderson

The Angela Lansbury take: Women should take some responsibility for how sexually attractive they are

Angela Lansbury said that women “must sometimes take blame” for sexual harassment because they “have gone out of their way to make themselves attractive”, Radio Times reported (she later said she was “troubled” over the backlash and claimed her comments were out of context). For a start, women do not make themselves beautiful to attract harassers. They do not even always do it for men; they do it for themselves and should never, ever have their safety infringed because of what they wear or how they look. But also, sexual assault is not a sexual gesture; it is an act of power. A man touches or attacks a woman as an expression of power, not necessarily because he finds her attractive. There are safe, appropriate ways to express sexual attraction and an attacker bypasses them all.

The Giles Coren take: Can’t I put kisses on the end of my emails anymore?

If you can’t work out whether to put kisses at the end of an email, don’t. Learn to live with that minor adjustment to your behaviour; women change what they wear, where they travel, what they do and how they act every single day. While I’m at it, a PSA: No, we are not killing romance with allegations of sexual assault. We are not making it impossible to flirt. Flirtation is a lovely, consensual act between two willing human adults, whereas harassment is the imposition of a comment or action on someone who does not want it. It is virtually impossible to accidentally harass someone because the intent to diminish, control or humiliate is usually present when you do.

The truther take: These women can’t all be telling the truth

Here’s a revolutionary idea: what if they are? What if, rather than wilfully disbelieving a woman, we choose to validate her experience? There is literally nothing a woman gains from coming forward with an allegation of abuse, other than perhaps fear, shame, exhaustion and further verbal abuse. She’s not doing it for money, or fame, or for the sport of it. If you’d like a statistic, just 3% of all rape accusations are proven to be untrue. Innocent men rarely, if ever, face false accusations of assault. If you are surprised by the volume of allegations, you haven’t been paying attention. Also, buckle up because we ain’t done yet. 

Women “must sometimes take blame” for sexual harassment - Angela Lansbury

These are just some comebacks you might like to use if you’re down for a debate, but please know that it is also OK not to engage with someone who is voicing an opinion that triggers, upsets or exhausts you.

“Give yourself permission to sit it out,” psychologist Dr Perpetua Neo tells “Not speaking doesn’t mean you’re not brave, even if everyone else seems caught up in the #metoo tide. We all have different styles of processing, and take different times to do so. Some cultural backgrounds simply don’t advocate speaking, otherwise there are repercussions in certain backgrounds from talking. These must be respected.

“Instead, simply say, ‘I do not wish to speak about this’, firmly. Acknowledge that you may feel all sorts of feelings – guilt or shame, even – for rejecting comment. That’s OK. Ultimately, the question is ‘How do I take care of myself right now’. It’s nobody else’s business if you choose to disengage.”

It’s great if we can fend off as many bad opinions as possible on our own time, but it is not our job – even as feminists – to be vigilant about assholes 24/7, especially if it affects our mental health or safety. It is brave to take on someone with a bad take, but remember that it’s equally brave to look after yourself.

Images: iStock / Rex Features