New Approach Needed to Combat Sexual Assault and Harassment

My friend recently asked whether I could talk to her daughter about how to deal with men leering at her.

The daughter is eleven.

In two years she'll celebrate her bat mitzvah, when the world will recognize her as a woman. Yet today, her mother and I are inducting her into the underbelly of womanhood -- how to deal with vulgar looks and gestures and comments and the threat of assault.

I propose a pop-up picket sign, activated by a button like an umbrella. "I'm somebody's daughter," it might say. Or, depending on your mood, "I'm somebody's daughter, asshole." Or, "What if this were your daughter/sister?"

Groups like Hollaback organize women to use their cell phones to snap photos or video of offenders and post them online. Our hypothetical pop-up for this would read, "Welcome to YouTube," or "How will the women in your life feel when they see you online?"

Some people want to brush off the vulgar behavior by saying, "Boys will be boys," or "Guys will be guys."

It's highly insulting to men to imply they lack control over this. I've raised two sons who would no more foist unwanted sexual attention on a woman than they would pick up a gun when they had an argument or torture animals.

Most men don't behave this way. Of those who do, some do so out of ignorance. We can enlighten them. But generally those who harass and those who assault women are serial offenders who get a sense of control by making women feel out of control.

I'm happy that conversations with this young woman center on things she can do, rather than the usual tips on what she should not do -- like not walk alone or dress provocatively or be out too late.

But we need to shift the focus here, to how to get men to stop raping and harassing women.

Right now most women walk the streets like soldiers, alert to whoever is around them. We need a cadre of men to pay the same kind of attention and then to intervene when they see someone talking or acting out of line. They need to say, "That's not how we treat our sisters in this neighborhood or this town or this state or this nation." Good idea for them to have a buddy or two along to help reinforce the message.

Education helps. We need to work to ensure that children learn from an early age what healthy relationships look like. That includes learning how to fight back against bullying of any kind -- whether based on gender, or sexual orientation, or immigration status, race, etc -- and how to be allies for each other.

Ultimately, the solution to rape and harassment is to be the nation we set out to be, one based on genuine equality and justice, where sex isn't used to sell things and women are allowed to be whoever they want.

A nation where 11-year-old girls can play with dogs and hang out with friends and not worry about how to respond to verbal or visual or physical assaults.