Last night, a man I follow on Twitter sent me a DM. He asked how men could lift up survivors like me who are voicing their stories of sexual harassment, violence, and rape. He also asked if he was burdening me with the question. I didn’t feel burdened, but I was grateful that he asked. There were other points in my life when I might have felt differently. In speaking with him, I recognized the deep paralysis some men feel when it comes to how best to support and advocate for survivors.
For too long, sexual violence has been considered a “women’s issue.” This is problematic for a few reasons. For one, many survivors of sexual violence are male or nonbinary. For another, it is nonsensical to place the burden of solving a scourge on its victims. As perpetrators are primarily — which is not to say exclusively — male, the work of fixing this systemic problem should be considered “men’s work.” And being a real ally to survivors is dedicated, often-painful, life-altering work.
For facility, I use the word “men” throughout this piece — but this advice is not only for men. Many women and nonbinary people who have not experienced sexual violence can also be more thoughtful allies. This piece is for them, too.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
We often refer to survivors “sharing their stories” about sexual violence. But men who have not experienced sexual violence have stories, too. And men’s untold and unanalyzed stories inform our culture tremendously.
Reflect privately on your experiences and your ideas. You might ask yourself some of the following questions:
How did you grow up thinking about men, women, and nonbinary people? What was your family life like? What were you taught about rape, sexual violence, and sexual harassment, formally and informally? Did your school cover it in sex-ed? What kinds of conversations did you have with your friends in high school? What habits have you learned or unlearned? What sexual situations have you felt uncomfortable in? Do you think you have ever made a partner feel uncomfortable in a sexual situation? What do you think about asking for consent?
Do you know people who are out, either publicly or to you, as survivors? Did you believe and support them when they told their stories? Have you read writing by people who identify as survivors? Have you watched films about sexual violence?
Do you believe sexual violence is primarily about sex or power? Why?
Do you know people who have been identified as perpetrators? How have you treated them? Does this square with your idea of how perpetrators should be treated? What do you think about the term “rape culture”? Do you think men who are not assailants participate in or benefit from it? What did you think when the Pussygate tape came out? What did you think when the Harvey Weinstein stories came out? What do you think about supporting male creators and businessmen who are known perpetrators? Have you offered public or private support to your community? Is it your role to do that?
If you’re unsatisfied with or unsure of your answers to any of these questions, those may be areas that can offer paths to greater education and awareness. Discuss these issues with other men who are not survivors of sexual violence.
For every #MeToo tweet or Facebook post you see, recognize that there are many, many other survivors who do not identify themselves. Many survivors don’t want to or can’t share their stories. Every person you are speaking with could be a survivor, the parent of a survivor, the partner of a survivor, and so on. These are stories we keep very close to us, and stories for which many people have been shamed. If you share messages of support for survivors, don’t only laud the bravery of those who have come forward publicly, recognize that all survivors deserve support and belief — whether they share their stories now or never.
If survivors are sharing publicly under the hashtag #MeToo, amplify their stories. Write a note of support if that is something you feel comfortable with. If you know someone well who identifies as a survivor, send them a text of support. Not sure what to say? A message that doesn’t require a response is a good entry point, just a heart or a “Sending love. I’m here for you.” Many survivors are fried right now.
Absolutely do not push anyone to tell you their story in greater detail than they have offered. Ever.
Ask for permission to initiate any conversation about sexual violence. Meet people where they are, and pay close attention to the body language and voices of those you speak with. If you see you are making the person you are speaking with uncomfortable, gently end the conversation.
If someone shares a story of sexual violence with you, either publicly or individually, believe them and tell them you believe them.
You can write a message on social media or send an email to friends and family members letting them know that you are working on becoming a better ally to survivors. Write a content warning at the top telling them that your message is about sexual violence, so that they do not have to read further if they are not in an appropriate space. In the body of the message, ask your community for guidance and resources. Let them know that they are by no means obligated to respond or engage. Tell them about the self-work, education, and reflection you have already undertaken so they know you are not asking them to do this hard work for you. Ask for mutual goodwill and share that, in the process of educating yourself, you may make mistakes in how you talk about sexual violence. Be open to criticism and feedback. Work hard to not be defensive. Do not center yourself in the conversation, humble brag, or act like a hero for doing this work. It is your responsibility, not your bragging right.
Call a meeting (if you’re the boss), talk to your colleagues one-on-one, or send an email telling people you work with that you are there for them if they are dealing with sexual abuse or harassment in your workplace. Let them know you will be a confidential ear (unless you are a mandated reporter) and a source of support. Reiterate your office’s policies on sexual harassment. Keep it short. Follow up.
Your plan of action will be completely different from someone else’s plan — there are myriad paths to dismantling sexual violence — and it will look like your life. Reflecting on the gaps and inconsistencies in your own story is an excellent way to identify where you can make personal change. Identify your particular skills, and reach out to organizations that support survivors of sexual harassment and violence to see if you can volunteer your skills for them. Fight for policies that support women who are survivors of sexual assault, including at your workplace, in in our healthcare system, and in our legal system. Vote for politicians who champion policies that will support survivors. Vote for politicians who don’t sexually assault women. Vote for politicians who don’t sexually assault women and then brag about it.