Speak up… don’t let the opportunity pass!

Have you ever experienced one of those moments where you hear a comment stereotyping women, and know that you should say something … but hesitate or freeze? Do you ever find yourself starting to laugh at a sexist or homophobic joke, and then catch yourself and think “What should I do now?”
My sense is that most men come across situations like these – not only in male-dominated spaces, but just about anywhere that males gather, even when only for a short period.
I remember a little while ago coming home from work on the train, and overhearing a conversation among three males in their mid-late teens. They were talking about females who they had slept with in quite a casual manner, speaking negatively about those who they perceived as being ‘slutish’. In contrast, they were clearly gloating about their own experiences of having slept with a number of women.
I grew increasingly tense as the train drew nearer to my station. My thoughts were racing: “Should I say something? What should I say? How can I make a comment without coming across as some authoritarian father figure? What will they think of me? What will others on the train think of me?”
I decided that I had to speak up. On my way out of the train I said something resembling “Hi guys. It’s interesting that you hint at yourselves being studs while you talk negatively about females with the same level of sexual experience”. The boys appeared apologetic … but did they get the message? Or did they simply feel ‘told off’, and next time will make sure that they confine such conversations to more private settings?
Bernard Guerin’s work on the social functions of racist language provides some clues about how we can address situations like these.[1] Guerin argues that racist language helps people to maintain their social relationships, through generating attention, laughter, admiration, status and prestige. Such language can also help to maintain the cohesion of social groups. He argues that people use particular techniques to make racist comments in ways that avoid social criticism (e.g. “Look, I’m not racist, but I just have to tell you about a funny story …”).
We can draw upon Guerin’s work to consider the everyday social functions that patriarchal and homophobic language serves for men and male-oriented social networks. Many men might hesitate to interrupt sexist jokes or challenge patriarchal comments if it will cause them to lose social standing or become ostracised by other men. While some men reach a point where they are prepared to risk their social standing among other men to challenge patriarchal language, we cannot expect this from the majority – at least not at the current time. This highlights the need to develop and model creative ways to interrupt and show our disapproval of patriarchal language, while minimising the risk of social ostracism.
What are some of the ways that we can do this? One approach is to appeal to what we know about the values of the person making the joke or comment – values that the particular social group aspires to. If a work colleague starts to make a joke about female drivers, for example, one could say “Hey John, how about giving female drivers a fair go - I bet your female colleagues wouldn’t like it if you spoke about them in that way.” Another approach is to use humour to lay the foundations for getting your point across: “Oh come on John, don’t tell me you’re going to make a joke about female drivers – when was the last time you observed the speed limit!” A third approach is to hint that social norms are shifting away from supporting men to gain admiration from using patriarchal discourse: “John, you’re showing your age, it’s no longer cool for men to make jokes at women’s expense – for good reason.” These approaches are of course not mutually exclusive – one can appeal to values, use humour and/or hint at shifting social norms all in the one response.  
It’s not always easy to come up with something clever at the spur of the moment, however. More direct approaches certainly have a role in challenging patriarchal comments. Sometimes it’s most apt to own your feelings and say clearly why you are uncomfortable – “John, please don’t make comments at the expense of women, they make me feel very uncomfortable. Men have criticised and controlled women for ages, and it has to stop.” Furthermore, how we respond non-verbally can make a big difference – refusing to smile or laugh at a joke, or giving a shocked/surprised look, can sometimes speak as powerfully as words.
Ultimately, we need to draw upon a range of approaches to challenge patriarchal and homophobic comments and jokes, and decide what might work best in each situation (see www.tolerance.org/speakup/sixsteps.html for some additional suggestions about how to speak up against prejudiced language – although designed primarily to challenge racism, the tips on this webpage are just as relevant towards challenging patriarchal and homophobic comments). As men we need to experiment and share our experiences of what we feel has worked and not worked in particular situations.
If you’ve had an experience where you’ve interrupted or responded to a patriarchal joke or comment, I’d love to hear from you, so that I can compile these experiences in a future edition of this column. It’s very important that men learn from each other about ways to do this important work, and to be open to women’s feedback in the process.
Rodney Vlais
Community Education Service Coordinator

[1]  Guerin, B. (2003). Combating prejudice and racism: new interventions from a functional analysis of racist language. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 13(1), 29-45.