Why Women Don't Speak Up and What We Can Do About It

Co-authored with Susan Schneider

Most women have at one time or another found themselves in the uncomfortable position that Kathleen Miles described in "I Witnessed Hollywood's Sexism Firsthand--And Said Nothing." Her piece recounted what happened at an Oscar party when some of the male guests made loud, disrespectful comments about the actresses they were watching on TV. They said things, like "I'd do her" and "her titties don't look very good," and made references to blow jobs and expressed disgust at overweight women. Virtually every woman was evaluated by her "bangworthiness."

That was disturbing enough, Kathleen noted, but while these remarks poisoned the atmosphere of the party, she herself sat quietly, unable to do anything to stop the perpetrators. No one in the room spoke up. No one objected. No one broke the nasty spell.

I believe this kind of behavior is not only offensive, but even worse, extremely hostile. The inappropriate remarks are fueled by contempt, anger, and rage toward women. Men who treat women as non-human sexualized creatures and behave as if they had complete control over them are acting out a primitive and oppressive fantasy. As women, we sense the inchoate impulse of these men to strip women of their humanity and to rape them of their dignity.

Would we speak up if someone made racial slurs? Or anti-Semitic ones? Or, anti-gay comments? I think so. It is easier to defend someone else. But as women, why don't we step up in a situation when there is unwarranted verbal aggression toward us? What makes us so afraid of confrontation?

As a therapist, I am interested in the why of people's behavior -- in this case, the non-action of the women and men who were present in that room -- and in what we can do when we are faced with these situations (and we will be, over and over). Here are a few of what I believe to be the underlying reasons why people don't take action.

• We are afraid that the men's cloaked aggression will be directed toward us. We don't want to be ridiculed. We want to protect ourselves from becoming the target of that aggression. Speaking up under these circumstances is difficult, but your self-esteem depends on it. If you say, "I am really offended when you make those remarks about women, and I want you to stop," believe me, the mood will change. Is support guaranteed? No, but give yourself permission to speak up even if you are unsure of the consequences. Most likely, you will get support, however, because everyone is waiting for someone else to take the risk.

• We fear we are the only ones present who feel offended and that others won't support us. Based on my understanding of group dynamics, once someone speaks up, articulating the general discomfort, others will follow. In these situations we may feel alone, but usually we aren't alone.

• We are afraid to spoil the party mood. Wet blanket, party pooper, Debbie Downer -- who wants to be seen like this? People are kicking back and having a good time, right? Well, maybe some people are, but you aren't. Why should the loudmouths get to have fun and everyone else have to sit with a grimace on their face? No one likes to be a party pooper, but the verbal pooping was already accomplished by the bad guys. Feel free to go ahead and show how gutsy you are.

• We are actually SO angry that we fear that once we say something, we will lose control. We all know what happens when we sit on our anger -- eventually, it explodes and then we look back later and wish we'd been able to make brilliant remarks that cut right to the quick. Look, everyone is afraid of losing control sometimes. Take a deep breath, practice in your head what you want to say. If your tone is angry, so be it. You are angry! There is nothing wrong with being mad as hell when you are being insulted.

• We are afraid other people won't like us. You can hear people thinking: Wow, this woman is such a drag! She must be one of those humorless feminists who can't take a joke. Well, this stuff is no joke, and it's your right and your responsibility to yourself to take a stand.

• We are trapped by our own timidity. Ok, let's say you've always been a bit shy in groups, You don't like to rock the boat, you aren't a political person, and you've never liked to bring undue attention to yourself. Plus, you're tired and you just want to enjoy the show without making a big feminist point out of something so unimportant. Maybe all of this goes through your mind as you sit there listening to the men behaving badly. There is no sin in being shy, but in this situation you have an opportunity to call on your inner resources. Your whole identity is about to change. Speak up, sit back, and let people rethink who you are.

• We often don't listen to ourselves and get in our own way. Following your instincts when you hear this sort of sexist, abusive language is challenging because you are not used to trusting your gut. But you know that you have the power to start making changes. You also know that you can deal with the fallout, if there is any. When you sense something nasty is going on, don't second guess yourself. Trust your unease and translate your thoughts into words.

It's A Men's Issue Too

Yes, it is. It really is. A friend of mine was in a bar one day after work with a male friend. A group of young men were drinking nearby. Every time a woman walked past the group, one man would comment. The women ignored him -- he was just a drunk, after all. But the worst part to my friend was that this drunk's pals didn't call him out on his behavior. Verbal sexual assaults should not be considered a women's issue -- men need to step up to the plate and control their brethren who can't control themselves.

My friend decided to take it on herself. "I think you are being offensive," she told the rude guy. "Please go somewhere else." She was disappointed that her friend didn't stick up for her. The rude guy laughed at her, but he was embarrassed. His friends were embarrassed too, although they tried to conceal that by punching each other in the arm. Finally, the bartender spoke up with quiet authority: "This lady has asked you either to stop how you're acting or move away from her. Take your pick, buddy." My friend felt great!

Thank you, Kathleen, for speaking up and getting this important discussion going.

Sonya Rhodes, PhD is co-author with Susan Schneider of The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match: How Today's Strong Women Can Find Love and Happiness Without Settling, April, 2014.