Overheard in the men’s room

“So, I was just in the men’s room, and I overheard a conversation that made me think of you.”

When you’re a feminist blogger, a lot of conversations with your friends begin this way.

In this case, my friend Charles was right: the conversation he had overheard did interest me. We were at a wedding reception, and Charles had found himself in the men’s room with a few members of the wedding party. One of them turned to another and asked something along the lines of, “Hey, dude, are you going for bridesmaids tonight?” to which the other replied something along the lines of, “Yeah, the one with the big tits.”

Charles didn’t join in the discussion, but he did come right back to our table and recount it to me.

“So, did you say anything?” I asked.

“No. I mean, what would I have said?” he responded.

What, indeed.

As I saw it, Charles had missed an opportunity to interrupt sexist behavior, and to make these men think about the implications of their words.

In my opinion, the fact that these guys were willing to say these things so openly – in the men’s room, in the presence of other men they didn’t know – suggested that they saw nothing wrong with what they were saying. Or, even if they knew that what they were saying wasn’t one hundred percent acceptable, they didn’t think the other men present, men like Charles, would have any objections. Had they thought he might object, they would have waited until he had left, or spoken more quietly.

The thing is, I think Charles did have some objections. The bridesmaids in question, the ones being discussed as though they weren’t real people, were his friends, and it made him uncomfortable to hear them spoken about in that way.

Charles and I discussed the possibility that these guys took his silence as tacit approval of what they were saying. He wasn’t so sure, but I’m convinced that in this situation, he had the power to do a bit of feminist good.

I’m of the view that one of the reasons public sexism happens, whether it’s street harassment, sexist jokes, or objectifying comments in the men’s room, is because men don’t think they’ll be called out on it. And if they are called out on it, they’ll be called out by women – and in these situations, women’s objections don’t hold that much sway. As important as I think it is for women to register their discontent with sexist jokes and catcalling, I don’t think these things will go away until the men who do them can stop counting on the implicit approval of other men.

Hugo Schwyzer has written about this, at length, in the context of street harassment:

As frustrating as it is to acknowledge, most harassers harass because they understand that their behavior is sanctioned by their male peers, be those peers on a golf course or a basketball court. A great deal of sexual harassment takes place in the view of other men; frequently, the harassment is a form of puerile male bonding. The best counter-attack to this behavior goes beyond confrontation. The best long-term solution is creating small communities of men who are willing — as a group — to model a very different way of being male. It’s about connecting with other men with whom you can stand in solidarity and together speak out against harassment that happens in your community.

Schwyzer concludes that “the most effective agents against harassment are those who fight it with a recognizable credibility.”

In this case, I wouldn’t have a lot of credibility. I’m a woman (one with big tits, to boot), and I didn’t know these guys. Charles didn’t know them either, but at least he looked like them. He could pass for one of them. Furthermore, he had access to the space in which this conversation was taking place, and I did not.

I’m not entirely sure what Charles might have said in this situation. I’m not entirely sure what an appropriate, non-confrontational response would have been. I’m not entirely sure how easy it is to call out sexism while standing at a urinal with one’s junk in one’s hand (but if anyone could do it, Charles probably could). I know what I would have said if this conversation had taken place in front of me – and it probably wouldn’t have been terribly non-confrontational at all. But because this happened in the men’s room, and because these men probably cared a good deal more about what a fellow dude thought than what I think, what I would have said doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that in this situation, loathe though I am to admit it, Charles has more power to effect feminist change than I ever could.

Readers, what would you have said in Charles’s place? What’s the most effective way for a guy to interrupt this kind of sexism?

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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