“Why don’t you just hit him?”

Warning: this post and links from it discuss both harassment and violence, imagined and real.

Valerie has had a lot of comments and private email in response to her conference anti-harassment policy suggesting that a great deal of the problem would be solved if women were encouraged to hit their harassers: usually people suggest an open handed slap, a knee to groin, or even tasers and mace (no suggestions for tear gas or rubber bullets yet). I sent her such a lengthy email about it that we agreed that I clearly at some level wanted to post about it. What can I do but obey my muse?

OK. Folks…

This is not one of those entries I am thrilled in my soul to have to write, but here’s why “hit him!” is not a solution for everyone and definitely does not replace the need for people with authority to take a stand against harassment.

And I know some people were joking. But not everyone was, you’ll need to trust me on this. Your “jeez, guys like that are lucky they don’t get a knee in the groin more often… hey wait, maybe you should just have a Knee In Groin Policy!” joke was appearing in inboxes right alongside material seriously saying that all of this policy nonsense wouldn’t be necessary if women were just brave and defended themselves properly, if they’d just for once get it right.

Here are some samples:

  • Duncan on LWN: What I kept thinking while reading the original article, especially about the physical assaults, is that it was too bad the victims in question weren’t carrying Mace, pepper-spray, etc, and wasn’t afraid to use it. A couple incidents of that and one would think the problem would disappear…
  • NAR on LWN: I’ve read the blog about the assault – it’s absolutely [appalling] and in my opinion the guy deserved a knee to his groin and some time behind bars. (NAR then goes on to note that women should also wear skirts below the knee; which is very much making it about the victim. Dress right! Fight back!)
  • A comment on Geek Feminism that was not published: …you also need to make it known to women that they need to immediately retaliate (preferably in the form of a slap loud enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear)… Women -must- stand up for themselves and report the guy, preferably after a loud humiliating slap immediately following the incident.
  • crusoe on reddit: You need to end right then and there. Its one thing to make blog posts, its another to call a jerk out for it on the conference floor, including stomping a toe, or poking them hard in the belly… Do not stew about it, do not run home and write a blog post about it. Just call them on it right then and there. (As long as crusoe doesn’t have to hear about it…)

First up, one key thing about this and many similar responses (“just ignore him”, “just spread the word”, “just yell at him”):

Harassment is not a private matter between harasser and victim, and it’s not the victim’s job to put a stop to it.

The harasser is responsible for their actions. The surrounding culture is responsible for condemning them and making it clear those actions and expressions of attitudes that underlie them are not acceptable. (See Rape Culture 101.) The victim may choose to go to the police, yell, hit, scream, confront, go to a counsellor, tell their mother, tell their father, tell their friends, warn people. They may choose not to. Whether they do or not, we are all responsible for making harassment unacceptable where we are. Harassment, and stopping it, is not the victim’s responsibility. (See But You Have to Report It!)

Am I against hitting a harasser in all situations? No. Am I advocating against it in all situations? No.

However, here’s a lengthy and incomplete list of reasons why victims may not be able or may choose not to hit a harasser and why it is definitely not a general solution for the problem of harassment. I even have a special buzzer on hand that will sound when the reasons are related to gender discrimination. Listen for it, it goes like this: BZZZT! Got it? BZZZT!

Important note on pronouns and gendering: I am largely buying the framing of the “why don’t you just hit him?” advice, that is, men harassers and women victims, for the purposes of this post. However, I acknowledge that people of all gender identities get harassed, and that people of all gender identities may be harassers. At various points in the post I will return to this point.

Conferences are a professional, or public hobby, environment. This is the point that applies to conferences most specifically. We are talking about an activity where people give talks with projected words and pictures, where people discuss and write computer programs or sci-fi or cocktail recipes, where people say things like “oh wow, you’re Lord Ogre Face! oh wow, everyone, I’ve known this guy online for years and we just met now for the first time ever! oh wow!”

This is not, generally speaking, an environment in which physical conflict is considered appropriate. How are slaps and knees to the groin (gender note: not all harassers have testicles as this advice somewhat assumes) supposed to fit in again? Conferences should be places where people learn things and have fun… oh yes and every so often something bad happens to someone and they hit the person that did it?

Of course not. Conferences, in an ideal world, are basically an environment of mutual consent: people go to talks they want to hear, they are in conversations they want to have, they party as much as they want to party and so on. The solution to this underbelly of non-consent that we’re fighting against here is hauling it out into the light and making a public official stand saying “this is not OK”, not adding combat to the list of acceptable activities at conferences.

How, exactly, is this helping build a better, safer world? I’m not personally a pacifist. But the world I’m looking forward to living in is not one in which, in between conference talks, I walk down the corridor to witness any of the following:

  • harassment
  • assault
  • some of the more fantastical suggestions that have come up privately, such as harassers being held down and beaten by multiple people

It’s hard to hit people. It requires training, not just to do it well, but to do it at all. Most people reading this, unless trained in combat, have very strong inhibitions about hitting people. To hit someone after a momentary touch or comment means leaping past did he really…? did I deserve…? was it that bad…? to “YOU JERK” *SMACK*!

Getting angry at a harasser, let alone angry enough to hit them, takes many victims minutes, hours, days or even years. Going from incident to slap in seconds flat takes training or a particular type of self-assurance, and funnily enough women are specifically socialised out of that (BZZZT!)

Here are some Hollaback stories that illustrate the difficulty of summoning outrage responses in the moment:

Oh yeah, and then there’s doing it well. That means, presumably, enough pain to hurt the harasser, not enough to continue causing pain after a few minutes have passed. Get it wrong in the soft direction and you’re the butt of another joke, get it wrong in the hard direction and you’ve helped make a case against yourself. Speaking of which…

Hitting people can result in arrest and criminal charges. In jurisdictions I’ve been able to research, there is no “but he was being really jerky” defence against assault or battery charges. The person who who escalated to physical violence first is the person who is in the most trouble. I don’t think I need to explain in general why this stops some people hitting others.

But some people have reason to especially fear contact with the police. Examples include people who get disproportionately charged and punished (racial minorities, for example), and people who would have a criminal record used against them (eg in a child custody case) or whose career would be over (lawyers).

When you picture a woman righteously hitting her harasser, what are you picturing? A slender white woman of average height or below? What happens when you start changing those things? Consider me, for example. I’m 6’4″ (193cm). I’m relatively weak compared to many men of my height and I don’t train in combat, but does it all look so straightforward when you picture me spinning in outrage and slamming one of my enormous hands into the face of a man who is a foot shorter because he’d called me some slur? Or are you starting to think “hey, steady on, he just…” What would you think about a tall, fat, muscled woman doing this? Or a big woman who is a military veteran, or a black belt?

Maybe you’d be fine with that, I don’t know. But I know that person has reason to think the police will regard what she did as a serious offence.

Not everyone can physically attack others. People who can’t quickly move over to the harasser; people whose hands need to be on their cane or crutches; people who can’t stand steadily or at all, let alone while reaching to slap someone’s face or while raising a leg to knee someone in the groin. People who are very short relative to their harasser (BZZZT!), who don’t have the reach to get a hand on their face or knee in their groin. People who shake and lose strength under severe stress.

Since it comes up in self-defence arguments: yes, some (not all) of these people can effectively use weapons such as guns or mace. But even in cases of life-threatening attacks, those require being armed with the weapon, being trained with it, and having special regular training on effective use when under stress. But right here, we are talking about harassment broadly, not serious assaults in particular. Attacking harassers with weapons isn’t under consideration.

Which brings me to cutting remarks, as a tangent. I’m hoping everyone is familiar with the phenomenon of thinking of the perfect cutting response… 12 hours later? Well, that affects victims of harassment. And it’s not just that. Speech impediments, for example, get in the way of getting the perfect cutting remark out in the perfect tone of contempt.

Back to hitting harassers.

It might make the victim more of a target. Maybe it was a weak slap and made a weak sound and the harasser smiled through the whole thing. Or the harasser caught the victim’s hand as it came up and is now holding her wrist tightly and grinning at her. Or the harasser pushed at the victim as her knee came up towards his groin, and she fell over.

Hitting does not necessarily make a situation end and it does not necessarily make the physical aggressor look strong and in control.

Hitting hurts. I’m not going to devote a lot of space to being sympathetic towards harassers, and this is a statement of the bleeding obvious but, you’re proposing hurting and possibly injuring people.

Onlookers are not sympathetic to the person who hits out. You might be picturing a conversation, I guess, where someone approaches a woman and is conveniently wired for sound and thus everyone hears him mutter that she’s a so-and-so and he’d like to such-and-such her.

In reality, here’s what you see if women hit their harassers:

  • a man walks near a woman, and she hits him across the face. Did he say something? No one heard.
  • a man is on stage giving a presentation and makes a joke about so-and-so women. It’s definitely an ew joke and you feel uncomfortable. You then watch multiple women run on stage and knee him in the groin one after the other. He falls to the ground in absolute agony, crying out in pain that is in no way lessened by some magic jerky-joke-maker insensitivity gene.
  • a man is standing there talking to you. He’s a moderately well known geek celebrity in local circles. You feel kind of chuffed to make his acquaintance. A woman runs up out of nowhere and hits him in the middle of your conversation, claiming that he assaulted her the previous evening at a party.

You might still be on the side of the women involved in those scenarios, most onlookers aren’t. They’re seeing violence.

We are arguing that you don’t want these men at your conference, especially if they are repeatedly offending at the one conference. We are not arguing or agreeing that you want them physically hurt at your conference.

The harasser might hit back. Or onlookers might step in. I know a lot of men are strongly socialised to believe that they cannot ever under any circumstances hit a woman. This socialisation is not shared by everyone, far from it. And of course, while this piece is gendered, recall that of course the victim might be a man, or might be a person whose gender presentation doesn’t match what the harasser thinks it should be. Those people don’t benefit from any real or perceived social stigma about hitting women.

This situation is another especial danger for people without combat training and with some disabilities. It’s also dangerous for the average woman (BZZZT!) who is smaller and weaker than the average man; thus rendering a solid majority of physical conflicts between men and women more dangerous for the woman. A martial artist I asked about this advised me that people who are at a weight-strength disadvantage need to, and this isn’t surprising, win physical fights extremely decisively and quickly before their disadvantages tell. It takes even more training, mental and physical, to do this.

Let’s get rid of the harassment and assaults that are already occurring, huh?

Women don’t automatically win by hitting someone. Some of this seems, frankly, to be playing into the idea that being hit by a woman is extremely humiliating (BZZZT! BZZZT! BZZZT!) and the harasser will be thus unmanned and shamed by the violence (BZZZT!) and that others will view him as lesser (BZZZT!)

This might be the true effect on some harassers, and if a victim chooses to take advantage of it to gain power in a particular situation good for her. In the geek feminist utopia, being hit by a woman wouldn’t be an especial humiliation; the problem is a dynamic in which men harass women with their humiliating harassment powers and women punish them with allocated women powers (BZZZT!).

In fact a great deal of this “just hit him!” argument seems to assume that women’s violence is necessarily different from and lesser than men’s violence. Oh, women’s violence isn’t, you know, violence violence. No one will call the cops, or get in an extended fight or get seriously hurt! That’s a man thing. (… BZZZT!)

This is the kind of advice given by people who don’t actually want to help. Or perhaps don’t know how they can. It’s like if you’re a parent of a bullying victim, and you find yourself repeating “ignore it”, “fight back with fists” or whatever fairly useless advice you yourself were once on the receiving end of. It’s expressing at best helplessness, and at worst victim-blaming. It’s personalising a cultural problem.

You are not helpless in the face of harassment. Call for policies, implement policies, call out harassment when you overhear it, or report it. Stand with people who discuss their experiences publicly.

Revenge fantasies feel nice. Yes, they do. And they are cathartic. (This is one reason why Ender’s Game is such a popular geek classic.) But why are we getting hit with so many revenge fantasies from non-victims when we’re trying to build up a real solution? If you are angry that there have been, unbeknownst to you, harassers at conferences and in communities you know and love, indulge a revenge fantasy or two if you like. And then devote your energy to helping, rather than trying to convince women to enact your fantasy.

Here it is again for the road:

Harassment is not a private matter between harasser and victim, and it’s not the victim’s job to put a stop to it.

45 thoughts on ““Why don’t you just hit him?”

  1. Brenda

    i think all conferences should do that after the keynotes, line up speakers from the previous days so delegates can choose which to inflict violence upon.
    Yeah, that’d work.

  2. Sara

    Hell, my experience is that I can’t even yell at men in public without immediately losing the sympathy of most of the people in the vicinity. If I started hitting guys at conferences? Getting arrested would be the least of my problems. Being able to keep my job and/or custody of my kids would be higher on my list. *sigh*

    How about if people who go to conferences try not to be jerks? And maybe the privileged people standing next to jerks can call them out on it, rather than performing another round of “Hurr Hurr Hurr You Should Solve Your Problems With Physical Violence, That Always Works Out Well For All Concerned” at those who’ve been subject to the jerkishness.

    (I don’t use “victims” here quite deliberately, though I respect your choice to do so. )

    1. Mary Post author

      I understand about the terminology. It’s a tough one: I tend to use victim while talking about the person being disempowered/hurt in the moment, and choose other terms to refer to them after the moment has ended.

  3. Deborah

    Thanks so much for this. I’ve been doing a variety of martial arts for most of my adult life, and I am nevertheless socialized — and explicitly trained — never to instigate violence. Somebody once asked one of my martial arts teachers what’s the best kind of fist to make in a real-life fight and he answered “in a real-life fight, you run away.” When the student pushed, he continued. “I’m not teaching you how to fight in real life,” he said. “If somebody attacks you in real life, you run away.”

    My understanding is that you never, ever should have something like Mace or pepper spray on you unless you are confident you know how to use it in a way that will prevent it from being taken away and used against you by your attacker.

    1. @thorfi

      Yeah. This is getting off topic a little, but I think it’s still relevant.

      That martial arts training against engaging in violence isn’t gendered – the vast majority of good martial arts schools will explicitly tell all students that in a real-life situation, just run away already. A big part of the skill-set is threat awareness, so you know there might be a threat and can run away well before any situation arises.

      The best ones also prepare you for the fact that if you engage in any form of violence, it is genuinely possible for you to kill someone, or to die yourself. That may sound like hyperbole – it isn’t. Permanent injuries are relatively easy to sustain in any physical conflict, at any level, whether you’re trying to avoid them or not.

      That’s the biggest reason behind the recommendation to just run away already.

      1. Mel

        Well–I think the best martial arts schools tell you to run away, but also prepare you for what to do if you’re in a situation where you can’t run away–the school I used to go to had one woman who was assaulted in an elevator and successfully fought back, and there was a former student who defended herself from an abusive ex, again in a situation where she couldn’t run away (she broke both his arms with golf clubs, iirc). Threat awareness is all very well, but it’s not foolproof, especially in cases of domestic violence.

        And the best schools prepare you as much as possible for the consequences of engaging in that kind of violence, as you say. (We were, for example, strongly discouraged from carrying knives for “self defense,” because the minute a knife comes in it escalates the fight, and the possibility of permanent nerve damage to the arms and hands is very high–and worse.(

  4. @thorfi

    Yep. I *am* a highly trained martial artist, possessed of male privilege in regards to this situation, and I am really not about to simply haul off and hit anybody at any level of strength, even if they were harassing me. I even know how to deliver a very mild slap that isn’t injurious (and it’s really really not easy to do that), and I still won’t do that.

    It’s not a particularly comparable situation, but I’ve happily handed over my wallet to a lone “mugger” with no weaponry that I am certain I could have beaten the pulp out of, and I’d absolutely do it again.

    Self defense laws vary a little based on jurisdiction, but in most cases, anyone involved in perpetrating any kind of violence, whether “justified” or not is at strong risk of being charged with assault.

    There are only a few very limited situations where you can’t be charged for assault if you hit someone, and they pretty much generally have to do with reasonably believing you are in serious danger of sustaining physical injury. And even then you often have to prove you could not simply escape first. There certainly are situations where a person could reasonably believe that – especially if there is really no obvious escape route and the assaulter is clearly able to overpower the person and is clearly making an attempt to do so.

    However, being groped inappropriately definitely doesn’t count as serious physical danger. It counts as sexual assault, absolutely, and it’s abhorrent and a crime. But hauling off and assaulting the perpetrator is very much not the solution.

    1. Dorothea Salo

      Erm, “being groped inappropriately” absolutely is a serious physical danger in my book.

      Perhaps you meant “does not cause physical injury or damage?” Because then we’re (mostly; some often-groped areas of female anatomy bruise rather easily) on the same page.

  5. Eivind

    Recommending violence is stupid. And the clothing-comments are predictable and equally stupid.

    *If* we had the problem of women attending professional conferences dressed in, say, a bikini. Then I would agree that it’s inappropriate, for the same reason it’d be inapropriate for the guys to wear a speedo.

    But there’s zero evidence that we, infact, *have* this problem, and furthermore, even if we had it, it’d be unrelated to harassment.

    Wearing a bikini to a professional conference, is inappropriate. (but nobody does it, so it’s not a particularly interesting observation) Even if someone did – that would do *nothing* to explain or excuse harassment of any sort.

    Basically, the only thing I can sort of agree with is that nobody can do anything about harassment they don’t know about. This doesn’t mean the harassed is somehow *responsible* for calling attention to it, but it DOES mean that harassment that is invisible, cannot be handled, even by organizers who *do* have a sane policy on it, unless they know about it.

    Saying “Get your hands OFF me”, is easier, and less risky than using violence, and I guess in atleast some situations, it’d be a good thing to do. Which doesn’t imply that the responsibility for anything is anywhere, other than by the harasser.

    1. Mary Post author

      *If* we had the problem of women attending professional conferences dressed in, say, a bikini.

      But we don’t have the problem, as you acknowledge. So don’t devote three paragraphs to it in a discussion about a real problem to which people are proposing a silly solution.

      This doesn’t mean the harassed is somehow *responsible* for calling attention to it, but it DOES mean that harassment that is invisible, cannot be handled, even by organizers who *do* have a sane policy on it, unless they know about it.

      A good policy is likely to encourage reporting, so it needs to exist before the reports in many cases. One thing that perhaps hasn’t come up here is that conferences with good policies may in fact see increased reports, because they are promising to act on them.

      1. Eivind Kjørstad

        Agreed, a good and well-known policy might increase the reporting-rate.

        Even more importantly, it might make some people think twice, and behave better in the first place.

        I’m just so sick and tired of the dress-argument. Yes it’s possible to dress in a way that’s unsuitable to the circumstances. (but few people do) But no, this does not in any way shape or form do ANYTHING to explain or excuse harassment. To me, it’s an excuse of the “but it was thursday” variety. That is, the excuse bears no relation to the offence.

        At the core, I feel that argument is *really* similar to what some muslim men say; that women need to be hidden, otherwise the men can’t help themselves, and the women somehow is to blame for this failure of will.

        This is really insulting to *both* men and women. Most men, can infact, continue to behave in a non-harassing way even when confronted by several square inches of human skin. But yeah, this discussion isn’t really entirely on-topic for geek-feminism.

        1. Restructure!

          At the core, I feel that argument is *really* similar to what some muslim men say; that women need to be hidden, otherwise the men can’t help themselves, and the women somehow is to blame for this failure of will.

          How does a comparison to “what some Muslim men say” help you make your point, unless you are relying on the reader’s Islamophobia and associating Islam with inferiority? It’s the other way around. The dress-argument is not something characteristic of “some Muslim men”, since it is very similar to arguments made by too many non-Muslim men regarding rape.

          It’s also worth pointing out that many Muslim women choose to wear a hijab or niqab, and people who are not Muslim women should not legislate what Muslim women should and shouldn’t wear.

  6. lala

    Wow. I am absolutely appalled that this blog post was necessary.

    If women did this, the problem would disappear? Oh please. If women did this, the problem would escalate.

    1. Annalee

      Also, if women did this, we’d start seeing demands for conferences to have “anti-assault policies” that spell out that being “offended” is not justification for hitting people, and that people who are too “sensitive” to “take jokes” should stay home.

      1. Annalee

        Which, to clarify, I point out by way of saying that I think a lot of people who don’t see the point in a harassment policy would probably feel differently if hurtful behavior targeting *them* was anywhere near as common as sexual harassment is at cons.

        If cons really did have a problem with people hauling off and hitting people the way they have a problem with harassment, I think it would be a Very Good Idea for them to adopt robust policies to prevent and manage the problem. Hopefully in concert with other programs and policies designed to address the root causes. Most of the cons I’ve been to do have some kind of rule forbidding fisticuffs, but they don’t seem to have to work very hard to enforce it, because the con culture does it for them.

  7. pfctdayelise

    There’s so many good points in this post.

    To hit someone after a momentary touch or comment means leaping past “did he really…?” “did I deserve…?” “was it that bad…?” to “YOU JERK” *SMACK*!

    Surely everyone knows that feeling of shock and delayed reaction. People demanding that women react with instant and perfect reprove must lack imagination.

    1. Annalee

      And/or their idea of how a woman might react to trauma is influenced more by popular culture (Wonder Woman, Tasha Yar, Buffy, Aeryn Sun, Starbuck, Lara Croft, Zoe Washburn, Jo Lupo) than they are by lived relationships with real people.

      Part of my problem with the “just hit him” response is that it implies that real women are at fault for not living up to an idealized male fantasy of the warrior woman. I remember John Scalzi blogging about an incident in which his wife was being harassed in a bar. She was able to act decisively and embarrass the hell out of the guy. I recall the comments on the post quickly devolving into people talking about how “hot” it is when women do that.

      Real women are not action movie heroines. We don’t act like action movie heroines. We don’t exist to provide sex appeal for the narrative’s male target audience.

    2. Mary Post author

      Surely everyone knows that feeling of shock and delayed reaction. People demanding that women react with instant and perfect reprove must lack imagination.

      I don’t get it either. Another hypothesis though on top of Annalee’s is that women are morally perfect enforcers, don’t you know? Our moral compasses are instant and severe, especially when it comes to issues of sexual purity. A woman therefore should be able to respond instantly to a threat to her sexual purity from a position of absolute moral authority.

      In fact, *shifty eyes*, it’s a bit suspicious when she doesn’t, you know? She knows that stuff is dirty, and yet… she didn’t appear angry about it right away!

  8. Alan Bell

    as mentioned in the article, men are socially programmed from birth that “you don’t hit girls” (along with “big boys don’t cry” and other such imperatives of variable usefulness). This is pretty deeply ingrained, most women could hit most men repeatedly in total safety (just don’t test this theory please). The trouble is, this isn’t about a randomly selected average man, it is about a man who is already *known to be defective* which changes the danger levels and probabilities considerably.

    1. Mary Post author

      This is a tangent I don’t want to go too far into, but actually I think this is highly culture and region dependent. A lot of (non-violent) men I know never really received any explicit messages about hitting girls or women being extra wrong, although there might well have been some implicit ones. But physical fights with sisters, say, were treated no differently than those with brothers, etc, just because of the gender of participants.

      I don’t, actually, think that I could repeatedly hit most of my male friends without them defending themselves fairly quickly and forcefully, unless their inaction was due to that same “what? what’s happening? OMG” reaction. And I don’t think they’d feel much “I hit a woman, and am now a Bad Man” shame afterwards, especially.

      1. Mel

        Yeah, just about every mixed-gender sibling group I knew as a kid, they all whaled on each other and their parents punished it or didn’t regardless of the gender(s) involved (typically older kids were more likely to get in trouble)–and the boys had no problem mixing it up with their sisters’ friends, either. Likewise, in martial arts, I don’t remember ever encountering a boy or man who had to spend any amount of time getting over “you don’t hit girls/women.”

        Maybe in earlier generations. Not now.

  9. jen

    I’ve also had some martial arts and self-defense training (they are definitely not the same thing!) One thing that becomes painfully clear through doing role-plays is that, in the moment that an attack occurs, it’s very common that the attackee is simply in shock and doesn’t respond at all. Being physically or sexually assaulted is so different from the situations we normally encounter in our day to day lives that cognitive dissonance can set in: our brain is not wired to deal with that situation at all, so we either just freeze, or run away. Even learning to shout “No!” in such a situation can take a lot of training – with that much adrenaline your throat closes, your brain shuts down, and it’s hard to think or make a noise. Often the attackee only slowly comes back to themself as the shock gives way to anger, fear, or other emotions. As for kicking someone in the groin: if you’ve never done this before it’s not obvious how to do it. Are you going to use your knee, or toes/ball of foot? If you go with the ball of the foot, will you remember to curl your toes back to avoid breaking them? Can you kick high enough if your opponent is taller than you? What are you going to do if the opponent uses their hands to shield their groin? And slapping? If your reach is not as long as your opponent’s then in order to slap them you would have to take a step TOWARD them, which is likely the last thing a person who has just been assaulted is going to want to do.

    As for carrying mace or a rape alarm or whatever: these aren’t bad ideas, but it’s not a guarantee that when an attack happens the attackee will have the presence of mind to open their briefcase or purse or whatever and get out the rape alarm.

    All these techniques: fighting back, yelling, macing the attacker: they sound nice in a wish-fulfillment-fantasy-wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if-the-victim-just-turned-around-and-beat-up-the-bad-guys kind of way, but they might not be possible in real life. They are a lot more likely to work if the attackee has had some training – and I don’t mean one 2-hour session, I’m talking about going to a weekly or bi-weekly class over a period of months or years. It’s just not realistic (or fair!) to expect all women to invest so much time and money in self-defense training. A much easier and more cost-effective way to prevent sexual assault would be to train men not to assault anyone, (no special skills required!) and to let the (small minority of) men who do commit assault know that they won’t get away with it.

    1. Carla Schroder

      “It’s just not realistic (or fair!) to expect all women to invest so much time and money in self-defense training. A much easier and more cost-effective way to prevent sexual assault would be to train men not to assault anyone, (no special skills required!) and to let the (small minority of) men who do commit assault know that they won’t get away with it.”

      1+++++++++++

      Of course the fatal flaws in that plan are it shifts the blame for men’s misbehavior away from women, and it requires regarding women as humans with value.

    2. Annalee

      A much easier and more cost-effective way to prevent sexual assault would be to train men not to assault anyone, (no special skills required!) and to let the (small minority of) men who do commit assault know that they won’t get away with it.

      You know, when I went to a ropes course back in October, the event started off with a safety briefing. It lasted all of ten minutes, and went over all the rules for how not to hurt yourself or others on the course. But it was absolutely mandatory–they had briefings going all night, and once you paid your entry fee, you were required to attend the next briefing before you were allowed on the course.

      I wonder what it would be like if cons had a similar program, where you showed up, paid, then went into a side space where a staff member or two explained the rules in a friendly five-minute presentation. It could cover behavior standards, and they could do a little role-play for the audience about how to intervene when you think someone’s being harassed. You wouldn’t get your badge until you’d been through the presentation.

      Like most safety briefings, there’s a good chance it would be met with mockery and disdain, but if it was managed well, I think it could be implemented with minimal inconvenience to attenders, and could help train up cons full of allies who know how to respond to bad behavior.

  10. Laughingrat

    Yes to all of this, as far as the repercussions to the victim. Society is already set up to allow harassment to take place; the very attitudes that the harasser’s internalized which allow him to behave like a predator and expect to get away with it (that’s a very important component right there) are the same attitudes that mean the cops likely won’t even take a report if you call them, that they’ll defend your abuser if you fight back physically, or that crowds will gang up on the victim rather than helping her.

    1. Jess

      Exactly. I was repeatedly sexually harassed at school, often in front of teachers, and only when I defended myself with violence (or harsh words) did the teachers step in–to punish *me*. This taught me that I should not stand up for myself against a harasser, because even though people are always going to say there is something else I should have done, regardless of my reaction, violence is *definitely* going to earn me the censure of bystanders with power.

      1. deborah

        In fact, in most school situations, there are very good reasons for having a “we don’t care who hit first, everybody who hits gets punished,” rule. It’s related to this whole discussion inasmuch as it’s a policy that agrees that escalating violence, and any violent response barring self-defense, is pretty much always a bad idea.

        That being said, in any non-dysfunctional school situation, sexual harassment should result in instant adult involvement, and usually suspension. So a school that allows sexual harassment is and the school that you can expect to have a reasonable response to violence.

        1. Jess

          Yeah, violence as a response would not have been on my radar except that things had been going on for quite some time, blatantly, in front of teachers, with my parents coming in to school repeatedly, without any school intervention on my behalf. I am not saying I was right to hit, I’m just saying it was a last-ditch effort to get things to *stop*. It didn’t stop him (them), of course, and it didn’t win me the approval either of my teachers, or of my parents (despite the “I gave him one good pop in the nose and he never bullied me again” stories that my dad would tell me).

  11. Corey

    Note from Mary: much of this comment has been edited out, as indicated by [...]. I wanted to respond to one comment in it.

    [...]

    Also please stop interchanging physical harassment and verbal harassment like they’re the same thing. If someone is verbally harassing you respond verbally. I cant imagine anyone was calling for women to run onto stage to fight whenever a man speaking makes a sexist comment.

    [...]

    1. Mary Post author

      Actually, crusoe at least is talking about “general harassment”. It’s true though that the examples, although exaggerated for effect, largely assume verbal rather than physical attacks.

      However, most of the objections also apply in the case where one is fighting someone who assaulted you. The main exceptions are that onlookers may have some sympathy (assuming that they saw what happened first and that they don’t believe that someone who got sexually assaulted was asking for it by in some way, proof, zie got sexually assaulted) and that law enforcement may, depending on the particular circumstances, treat the assault as less criminal (although as thorfi observed, mostly in cases where there was escalating danger and no obvious chance to exit).

  12. Heather

    mmhm I wouldn’t advise hitting back at all. Speaking from the point of view from somebody that was in a horribly abusive relationship before, too. In my experience, the only times I would hit back, that would just enrage him more and cause me more pain. In fact, the last time I ever hit back, I got my left hand broken, which caused me to lose all of my hopes, dreams, and the 14 years I spent learning the piano, guitar and violin. Don’t hit back, just get the fuck out of there.

  13. Flewellyn

    Regarding this point in particular: Hitting people can result in arrest and criminal charges.

    I think it’s worth noting that the law has, many times in the past, come down much harder on women who fight back against male aggressors, than it does on the actual aggressors.

    I’m thinking of the New Jersey Four, for instance, in which four black lesbian women who were physically assaulted, were sent to prison for fighting back. Among other cases.

    So, not only can it result in criminal charges, but worse charges than the man would face for the same crime.

  14. Finisterre

    This is a great post. I wish there had been more advice like this around when I was younger and worked in bars and was harrassed (most verbally, but frequently physically) a lot. I think would be a bit more likely to react quickly now, and a LOT more likely to pursue the matter, but I have many, many instances I can still recall where I either froze or rushed away in confusion, wondering if I had provoked it.

    I like to think I probably would hit someone now, but I can add from sorry experience yet another reason why it may not work! I was in Barcelona years ago and got very drunk with my group of female friends. We were walking back to our hotel when a man literally came up to me and grabbed both my tits. I was FURIOUS – that would be the drink – and repeatedly swung at him. Unfortunately, thanks also to the drink, I wasn’t very accurate and he stood there, easily dodging my punches and laughingly encouraging me, until I gave up and walked off. It all happened quite quickly so my friends didn’t become aware in time to help, sadly. The only thing that consoles me now is the thought of a jolly group assault on the bastard. :-)

  15. R_Dave

    OP wrote: “The harasser is responsible for their actions. The surrounding culture is responsible for condemning them and making it clear those actions and expressions of attitudes that underlie them are not acceptable. The victim may choose to go to the police, yell, hit, scream, confront, go to a counsellor, tell their mother, tell their father, tell their friends, warn people. They may choose not to. Whether they do or not, we are all responsible for making harassment unacceptable where we are. Harassment, and stopping it, is not the victim’s responsibility. (emphasis supplied)”

    I agree with all of that, except the final sentence. I don’t see why being the victim of a wrongful act should absolve someone of all responsibility for how they react to it. Some reactions would be both acceptable and constructive (e.g. reporting the harassment, talking to family and friends, etc.), others would be understandable but not particularly constructive (e.g. doing nothing and internalizing guilt and shame, not helping to protect others by warning them), and still others would obviously be neither acceptable nor constructive (e.g. venting your anger by kicking a puppy on the way home from the conference). Why is it so wrong to acknowledge that the victim retains personal agency and with it, responsibility for how they exercise such agency?

    Also, while I definitely agree that responding with violence/aggression is often not a good idea, it seems to me that convincing people, particularly women, that they bear no responsibility for their own protection just reinforces the problem you identified in another paragraph, namely:

    “Going from incident to slap in seconds flat takes training or a particular type of self-assurance, and funnily enough women are specifically socialised out of that (BZZZT!) (emphasis supplied)

    1. Mary Post author

      Approving one comment making this argument does not imply approval of them all folks.

      I don’t see why being the victim of a wrongful act should absolve someone of all responsibility for how they react to it.

      It doesn’t. I am absolving them of exactly what you quoted me as absolving them from: stopping the harassment. By saying that the victim of harassment or abuse does not bear responsibility for stopping the attack on them or future attacks on others, I am not therefore authorising, for example, assaulting animals.

      For any given survivor, there are also actions that would be more or less good for their survival and whatever healing they want or need, yes. This differs for different people, and unless I am asked for this advice by that person, I consider it none of my business and don’t divide their actions into ‘constructive’ versus ‘understandable’ and so on. Their reactions might or might not intersect with responsibilities they have, also, but unless those responsibilities are to me, it’s not my concern.

      convincing people, particularly women, that they bear no responsibility for their own protection just reinforces the problem you identified in another paragraph

      It frees them of the burden of being expected to alter the future course of their harasser’s behaviour, both in the next few seconds/minutes as the attack on them continues, and in the months and years afterwards as he does or doesn’t target others. They can’t do this better than anyone else can.

      As regards to changing the patterns identified elsewhere, what I’d suggest is that allowing women to respond with immediate anger is what is needed here. I’m all for allowing it, opening it up as a possibility, removing considerable barriers to it (including disproportionate response by law enforcement). What the problem is is that apparently a lot of people want to require it. “Don’t come running to us to complain instead of hitting him! Don’t expect us to provide any alternatives to this right and true path! Down with policies!”

  16. AMM

    Actually, I think that most of the “just hit him” responses aren’t thought out at all. They just have this fantasy that violence is an easy and effective way to deal with problems. One good Popeye punch, and Bluto is out of the picture, Olive Oyl is saved, and the world is all right again. It’s a very popular idea, and the basis of lots of movies, video games, etc.

    The reality is that, no matter what the situation, if you act violently, you just make the situation more complicated. Violence leads to more violence, but that’s just one part of it. There may be situations where it does more good than harm, but they can’t be described as “just hit him.”

    (If you want to see an example of the fantasy of violence clashing with the reality, see “A History of Violence.”)

  17. John

    I wrote one of the “hit him” comments; I agree with most of Mary’s post, but still, I think that learning (and being prepared to use) some physical self-defence techniques is a good idea. But these are very specifically for getting out of some kinds of physical attacks, and definitely not for use later on, or against verbal or behavioural attacks. The kinds of attacks where I generally support physical defence are those where the initial attack is to restrain you in preparation for something worse (e.g. grabbing as the first step of abduction or rape), and the training (in the form I’ve learnt) consists of the class practicing the escape from each other again and again, until it becomes close to just the reflex level. These aren’t fighting techniqes, and can’t be used to start a fight; they are all escapes (from wrist grab, bear hug, headlock, choke, etc).

    But actually using the techniques you learn is the last resort. More important than that is giving you more confidence, which is purported to reduce the risk of attack (I don’t have any statistics on this; it looks hard to quantify confident appearance). And why I raised it as something that might be mentioned on a public notice is one step further away from actual blows than that: to make those who might be inclined to assault aware that they might get their own asses kicked by their intended victims. The meaning I meant to get across, that would be too silly to express literally, was more like “Attendees who are inclined to assault people are reminded that their intended victims may have black belts in something unexpected.”

    1. Mary Post author

      to make those who might be inclined to assault aware that they might get their own asses kicked by their intended victims

      The thing is, they are already, which is why there is disproportionate attacks against visibly disabled people, against friends, against drunk people, against family, against children.

      I support individual people defending themselves proportionately against attackers, or people learning and using physical self-defence techniques. I support people who’ve decided not to go to bars or conferences any more because it makes them feel unsafe and isn’t worth it, for that matter.

      But attackers know about power, and they selectively attack the powerless. Many individuals have been disempowered by mechanisms they aren’t individually in a position to substantially reverse. The message sent by “you never know if she’s going to hit you” is to find people whose lack of physical threat is even more guaranteed.

      (Edited for clarity: I hope I don’t come across as saying that no visibly disabled person and no child, say, are capable of using painful or lethal self-defence techniques. I’m saying that for some of those people, some techniques are less or not accessible and less or not effective.)

  18. Mel

    The person who who escalated to physical violence first is the person who is in the most trouble.

    So much this.

    And even without bringing hitting into it, there are always potential consequences for making too much of a social slur. When I was in high school, a former friend stalked me for quite a while, at one point walking into my Spanish class and grabbing my glasses off my face (given how near-sighted I am, I consider this to be assault, quite plainly). I yelled at her, something like “Fuck off!”

    Who do you think got in trouble?

    Back when I was doing martial arts training regularly, I was very much aware that responding physically to most situations of harassment would result in consequences for me. Unless the other person hit me first or threatened me with a weapon, hitting was not a good idea. I think you’ve really hit on it that people think violence from women isn’t “real” violence with real consequences like assault charges.

    Then, I was mentally and physically prepared for responding physically to certain types of physical attacks. Now? I’m not. Because I don’t train 5 days a week (do people realize how expensive and time-consuming regular martial arts or self-defense training is?).

    And when creepy (tall, looming) dude in my freshman chem class put his arms around me from behind in lab and made some creepy comment, my mind went blank and all I did was step away and possibly tell him to leave me alone. I don’t even remember very well. It’s harder to prepare mentally and physically for responding to harassment that isn’t explicitly violent, especially when you don’t want to risk social and worse backlash. I still wish I had “accidentally” dropped the hydrochloric acid I was holding on his foot (it wouldn’t have hurt him, but perhaps it would have made a point).

    (I spent a whole lot of time proving myself sparring to men who were a foot taller and outweighed me by 50-100 lb. They were the kind of guys who felt humiliated by being beaten by a girl, even one who outranked them significantly–but that didn’t mean they backed off. It meant they kept giving me shit and they didn’t control their blows as well as they should have. I tried to avoid sparring with them, but sometimes it was inevitable. And THAT was in a relatively friendly environment where the violence was consensual! I doubt there is a man anywhere who would feel so humiliated by being smacked by a woman in public that he would immediately back down.)

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