We will be bringing you a regular column from our expert advice columnists Bird & Bitsy. If you have a question, please email (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com) or mail us and we will respond right here on the site! Of course, we cannot be responsible for your actions and anything that you might do as a result of reading our columns is at your own risk, so please do what is right for you and don't sue us! Be sensible! On with the show:
Bird & Bitsy,
I was out at a bar the other night celebrating a friend's birthday. There was a small group of people at the table behind us, they were all obviously very drunk. One guy in particular kept referring to how much he liked my friend and I. My entire table continued to ignore him and his other inappropriate comments. He then proceeded to reach over and pull down the strap of my tank top. Without even looking behind me I knew exactly what had happened and just pulled my strap back up and ignored him. I knew everyone at my table wanted to say something to him, but we didn't. His friend, some wasted girl the creep had been lip locking with all night, came over and apologized for him. Within minutes the entire group left. At the time I felt like I did the right thing ignoring him, because I didn't want to create a scene (especially, because the bartender is a friend or mine). What could I have done to better stand up for myself? Does this make me a weak feminist?
Down in Downtown
Dear Down in Downtown,
A weak feminist! Woman, being any kind of feminist makes you strong. Let's not get down on ourselves because there are sexist, obnoxious, drunk men in the world. If we let that get us down, we would need to immediately hole-up and start flogging ourselves for all the evil in the world. I don't know that there is ever a "right" way to handle sexist bullies who are "just trying to have fun" or "just joking around." You did what you felt you had to do in the moment. What I want to know is: what could the other people around you have done to give this guy the message that his behavior is not acceptable in our community? Why is it only on the person or people who are being harassed who are responsible? To all of you out there who have witnessed this kind of situation and wondered if you should say something—you should. If one person speaks up, it makes it easier for everyone else. The bartender who is your friend, his friends, the girl who could apologize to you and say nothing to him, people at other tables, your friends—they all have a role as well. It takes a community of people to stand up to the bullies. I vow to do a better job of speaking up when I see stuff like this.
Dear Down in Downtown,
Akk! Where is this guy? Lemme at him! No, but seriously as Bird says, don't knock yourself for being a weak feminist as there is no such thing. This is a salient example of what the effects are of harassment and violence against people. Luckily, the physical intimidation didn't escalate in this situation, but this demonstrates just how threats and intimidation work against their victims. For some reason when we are the targets of violence and threats like this, we tend to blame ourselves. We naturally analyze the situation and wonder what we could have done better. Why didn't we react in a different or better way? What did we do to bring on the negative attention? Etc. You can bet this guy isn't thinking about his behavior. He probably doesn't even remember it because he was so drunk! Even if you hadn't said anything, whatever your reaction was or is that gets you through the situation is the best reaction that you or anyone can have and this applies to all situations where someone is the target of violence, intimidation or harassment.
We can talk and think about and prepare all we like, but being in these types of situations are something else all together. Many different factors come into play when we are put on the spot by an asshole like this. A lot of us want to be polite or just ignore someone until they go away, and sometimes they will go away if we ignore them. Sometimes it is best to ignore them if they are drunk and you feel like saying something might provoke them. If you are in a public place with friends you have advantages that a person walking alone on a dark street might not have. Bird is right that friends and other members of the public need to stand up for people who are being targeted. It is EXTREMELY difficult for some people to even move or speak when something like this happens to them, because they suddenly freeze and don't know what to do. So, if you are a friend in this situation, you should say something. Don't be afraid to say "Don't! Stop! Leave her alone!" When it isn't happening to you, it is 1000 times easier to do something than it is for the person who is being picked on. If things get worse or continue, you or your friends can always call the police or get the bartender or bouncer to step in. If one person speaks up it makes it easier for another and another person to speak up to aid someone in this situation.
Sorry to go on and on a tangent, but this reminds me of a situation that happened in New York City a couple of years ago during a parade where a group of guys sort of took over a street corner and as women walked by they would surround them and tear off their clothes and molest them. This happened in broad daylight in public with police around mind you! Some people even reported it to the police who were a few blocks away, but the police did nothing. In this situation and in yours if people standing in the area or friends would have acted instead of doing nothing, the outcome would likely have been better. If someone had broken up the gang of men, if the police would have acted or if a group of other men or women would have worked together in this situation, the individual women would not have been attacked.
Sometimes psychological or physical or emotional factors prevent us from doing what we might imagine is best in a situation where we are targets, but it is good that you are aware that what this guy did was wrong and you did what you needed to do to get through. That proves that you are a fierce feminist! In the future, just remember to trust your gut. If something doesn't feel right, don't be afraid to get out, get loud or get help if being polite and ignoring the situation doesn't work.
I'm sorry you had to endure this kind of harassment. If something like this happens to you again and the harasser happens to be a student, you can always report the harasser to student authorities because that behavior violates the student code of conduct. And, you might want to tell your bartender friend, so s/he can be on the lookout for this sleazebag to make sure he doesn't do this kind of crap again. Bar owners know they can refuse to serve whoever they want and they can kick them out if they are bothering other people, even if it doesn't constitute an "official" crime.
Hope this helps.