If there's a silver lining to the sexual assault and harassment stories that came out during the #MeToo movement, it's that more people are calling out sexual violence when they see it. The charge has been led by women, but as much as we write off masculinity as toxic, some men are stepping up in the post-#MeToo era, too. Then there are the men who want to step up, but are too afraid to do so.
Joe Biden has a message for those men: You must do better. The former Vice President's anti-sexual harassment campaign, It's On Us, released a new video Tuesday to show men what happens when they witness bad behavior and stay silent.
The video shows a group chat between five men the morning after they all attended a party. What starts as a cheeky check-in, quickly turns to the pals reminiscing over Mike going home with a woman who was clearly too intoxicated to consent to the "Drunkest. Sex. Ever." Brian, who's holding the phone we're looking at, types and deletes several texts telling Mike that "hooking up with that girl was messed up" and "that was sexual assault or whatever" as his friends continue to laugh it off. Ultimately, Brian sends a grimacing face emoji, which his friends joke is a sign of leftover intoxication rather than disapproval over Mike's actions. Someone sends out an invite for breakfast, and the conversation moves on.
In that interaction, Brian exhibited the kind of fear that Biden wants to squash. "Fear is no excuse," he says in the video. "You could help put an end to sexual assault."
The responsibility to confront bad behavior, even when it's coming from a friend, is something Kyle Sheppard, a second year graduate student at Delaware State University and recipient of Biden's Courage Award, takes very seriously. As a sexual assault prevention trainer, he understands the worry Brian was exhibiting — that your friends will make fun of you, call you less of a man, or stop being your friend if you call them out on sexual harassment or assault — but he knows that someone's responsibility in that moment isn't to their friends. It's to the woman who was assaulted.
Part of the problem, Sheppard says, could be that your friends don't know it's not okay to have sex with someone who's drunk, or they might not realize how their actions or language affect people in other ways. "There could be a lot of danger involved in that ignorance, and we have to expose those actions for what they are, especially when there are lives that are affected," he says.
At the very least, saying 'Hey, I'm not getting a good vibe from this,' could start a conversation.
Feelings of ignorance could also be holding men back from calling their friends out, because they don't feel like experts on sexual assault and harassment, and therefore don't feel that they have authority to speak up, he says. But, it's important to recognize that even if you're not an expert, you can say something anyway. At the very least, saying "Hey, I'm not getting a good vibe from this," could start a conversation, Sheppard says.
And it's possible that when one man speaks out, others will follow suit. There were five people involved in that group chat. Had Brian sent one of his "Hey, this isn't okay" texts, there's a chance that another friend would have agreed and then another, and then another. "Then maybe the friend who was in that situation would have reflected on his decision-making and said, 'You know what, that probably shouldn't have happened,'" Sheppard says. "So they're all accountable for making that change."
Before you can make change, though, you have to find ways to speak up about sexual assault and harassment, and this is the first generation of men who are really expected to do that, says Ted Bunch, chief development officer of A Call To Men. "This is something men have gotten away with for a long time and the change is long overdue, but we haven't given young men the language, yet," he says. "They're developing their own voice."
So, if you're a man looking for a way to call out other men, it really is as simple as pulling your friend aside and saying, "Hey, this isn't cool," Bunch says. But you have to be very clear. You can't just send a grimacing emoji and hope that your friends take that as a sign of disapproval, like Brian did. Bunch compares it to a coworker making a racist joke at the water cooler. Choosing not to laugh isn't enough. Unless you confront the behavior head-on, they'll likely keep making racist jokes. So, in the case of sexual assault and harassment, you have to tell your friend, "That's not okay. I won't stand for it. And we can't be friends if you're going to keep doing that."
That's a scary thing to do, but it's also necessary, because women can't do this on our own. We need men to hold each other accountable.