Saturday, June 28, 2014

Dear Kate Question on Feminism and Responding to Offensive Comments - Part II

Every month, the GWAMIT Mentoring committee runs an advice column named after Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.

This week, the column was not written by one of the GWAMIT Mentors as usual, but by Kelley Adams at the Violence Prevention and Response office at MIT Medical. To reduce the length, the question is addressed in two parts linked below. This is part II; part I can be found here.

The tragedy in Santa Barbara California has sparked a nationwide debate on misogyny, male privilege, and feminism. This in addition to the White House's recent task force on sexual assault on college campuses has resulted in a greater and broader conversation of these topics in our personal and professional spaces. My question is how to address peers and friends when they make statements that are casually misogynistic/insensitive without being labeled as a (forgive me) "feminazi"? All of my female friends have examples of such behavior from close friends who would defend them to the death if personally hurt by a man but say things like "well when women smile when they are saying no, they're really just saying try harder" or "well what about men's rights?" or "women falsely accuse men of rape all the time"? I don't want to attack my friends but I am uncomfortable just standing by. Any thoughts or tips on how to navigate these conversations without negative repercussions?

YesAllWomen (face this concern)

This section, part II of the response to your question will address specific strategies for responding to offensive or misogynistic comments, regardless of the speaker’s intention. 

One response to the critical analysis of terms like “feminazi” is that they’re just words; they don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, especially when it comes to violence prevention. Contrary to this view, violence against women (as well as other genders) occurs because it is tolerated in our culture. Without rehashing the discussion of rape culture in Part I, the things that contribute to the continued tolerance of violence include low conviction rates (only 3% of rapists go to jail), hostility towards survivors when they attempt to report, and blaming victims for their own assaults, just to name a few. All of these things may seem unrelated to offensive or insensitive jokes or comments, but language is powerful; regardless of intent, the more rape jokes that are told and laughed at, the more trivialized rape becomes and the safer rapists feel in their environments.

Historically, we have tried to prevent rape by telling women how not to become victims, which does not work since rape only happens when rapists decide to rape. Current best practices in sexual violence prevention involve the use of an active bystander approach. Being an active bystander can include saying something (alone, with friends, or getting someone else to do it) when a situation doesn’t look right, or making sure a friend who has had too much to drink gets home safe.

All of the following suggestions are based on some assumptions: that the person who made the comment is someone you can approach and speak with, and that they do not have significant power over you in some capacity (i.e. can’t fire you, won’t react violently, etc.). If one of these is not true for your situation, get in touch with someone you trust on campus to talk about it and problem-solve together (MIT resources listed at the end).

In situations where it is safe to do so, I suggest that people speak up when someone makes a comment that is offensive, insensitive and/or misogynistic because it is important to communicate disagreement. How many times have you been in a situation where someone says something offensive and the group’s reaction is to just look at each other, ignore it, and/or change the topic? These types of reactions are forms of passive tolerance. Plus, there is often someone else around who is just as offended by what was said as you are.

General strategies for responding to offensive or misogynistic comments:

1)      Be curious: Ask the person to expand on what they meant by the comment, ask them what prompted it (i.e. what made you think of that?), and/or ask them where that belief comes from.

2)      Cultivate empathy: When someone says something insensitive or hurtful about a group of people, this is a good indicator that they likely have never considered what it might be like to be a part of that group. You can ask the person how they would feel if they belonged to that group and heard that comment, or if they would make the same comment about someone they know personally who is part of that group (a common example is to ask people who blame victims for their assaults to consider how they might feel if some they care about were assaulted).

3)      Call it like you see it: If you are comfortable doing so, don’t hesitate to label a comment (not the person making it) “insensitive” or “misogynistic”, with the caveat that using the word  “misogynistic” tends to result in you having to do some basic education on gender and feminism before you can even discuss the offending comment.

4)      Educate: Often misogynistic comments are based on misinformation, stereotypes, and are factually incorrect. Arm yourself with knowledge, and be prepared to talk about what you know. This is a great way to engage with someone and lessen the chances that they will react in a defensive way so that you can have a conversation about the topic. Most people are reasonable, want to be good people, and are willing to at least discuss their beliefs.

Building on these general concepts, here are some talking points for each of the comments you listed as examples in your question:

1.      "Well when women smile when they are saying no, they're really just saying try harder."
·         You might want to ask something like, “What makes you think that?” or “How do you know?”, and then raise the question of why it is that body language is perceived as more credible than verbal communication.

·         In this specific example, you might want to talk about the socialization of women as compared to the socialization of men - women tend to be socialized to be nice, not to upset anyone, and to take care of others - could it be that a woman smiling while saying no is trying to convey that message in a polite way or trying to let the person down easy? Not to mention, living in a world where women are harassed and hurt on a daily basis, wouldn’t it make sense that a refusal given to someone who could potentially hurt you would be conveyed as gently as possible?

2.      "Well what about men's rights?"

·         Feminism advocates for equal rights and opportunities for everyone, and in doing so works to address the harms that traditional forms of masculinity and femininity cause people of all genders.

·         Men's rights activists (MRAs) are another thing altogether; this is a group that feels wronged by women as a group and espouses misogyny under the guise of protecting men's rights (for example, see this discussion of the gunman at UCSB and his interest in MRAs).

·         Furthermore, talking about issues that are specific to women (or predominantly experienced by or disproportionately affect women) is in no way asserting that issues affecting men are less important. Because the social structures that enable sexual assault against women to occur are the same that enable sexual and other types of violence against all genders to occur, the aim is to change these core structures. We need everyone involved to be able to do that in a way that is beneficial on a societal level, so prioritizing the rights of one group over another is counterproductive in reaching this goal.

3.      "Women falsely accuse men of rape all the time." 
·         I am so glad that you mentioned this, because I hear it constantly. Despite popular belief, this statement is empirically false. False reports of rape occur at the same rate as false reports of other major crimes, despite the fact that there was a “study” that came out a while back claiming that almost half of reported rapes are false accusations. This inaccurate finding and the study it came from have been reviewed and determined to be shoddy science.

Unfortunately, violence and beliefs that foster it are prevalent throughout our society and culture at all levels. This is expressed verbally through comments at the individual level, displayed through abuse and mistreatment within relationships and friendships, and evidenced by the lack of services for male victims of sexual violence, for example. The good news is that we have the ability to change this, and we can start to work on this monumental task by talking about it.

References and further reading:

Atherton-Zeman, B. (2012, Jul 17). “’Nice Guys’ Contribute to Rape Culture.” Ms. Magazine. Retrieved from:

Futrelle, D. We Hunted The Mammoth: the New Misogyny, Tracked and Mocked.

Moseley, W. & R. Gomes. (2013, Feb 4). “Ten Things to End Rape Culture.” The Nation. Retrieved from

Ridgeway,S. (2014, Mar 10). “25 Everyday Examples of Rape Culture.” Everyday Feminism. Retrieved from:

Starling, P. (2009 Oct 8). “Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a Guy’s Guide to Approaching Strange Women without Being Maced.” Retrieved from:

Stotzer R. L. (2009). Violence against transgender people: a review of United States data. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14, 170–179.

For a list of MIT Resources, go to

Despite “sexual misconduct” being in the URL, all of these resources also assist with other issues. If you reach out to one and they feel that another resource could be of better service, they will connect you. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, both the question and responses are very thoughtful!