A sexist joke at the bar can seem like no big deal, but experts say when sexist behaviour becomes a pattern, it gets more difficult to call people out, especially when they are friends.
According to a recent piece in Salon by Matthew Rozsa, ignoring comments made by sexist friends in your life only adds to the ongoing issue of sexism.
“It is similar to the moral problem with littering: You may not be singlehandedly responsible for the larger issue, but the millions of people who act like you are a big reason why it hasn’t been effectively addressed,” he wrote.
“I am not implying that every man who holds sexist views is an out-of-control predator. The problem, however, is that too many are, and part of the reason they can get away with victimizing so many women is that their fellow men have treated the dehumanization of women as a normal aspect of male discourse. Once you normalize that, you make it much easier to normalize outright mistreatment and abuse,” he continued.
And with the ongoing allegations of sexual assault by former film producer Harvey Weinstein, and important social media movements like #MeToo, experts say conversations around sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexism, in general, need to happen more than ever, and if this means educating the friends who need it the most, it’s every individual’s own responsibility to make that change happen.
How to approach these friends
But confronting someone about their sexism isn’t an easy conversation to have when it includes family and friends — these are the people you care about, trust and for the most part, enjoy being around.
Professor Jean Golden in the department of sociology at Ryerson University, says the first thing to do is to let them know how their comments or behaviour impacts you.
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“Don’t attack the other person,” she tells Global News. “Tell them, ‘What you’re saying makes me feel uncomfortable because I belong to this group.'”
Where you’re having this conversation also matters, she continues. Avoid having it over drinks, in a large group setting and let them know beforehand you want to discuss this topic with them. And for the best dialogue, have this conversation face-to-face.
Should you dump them?
Humberto Carolo, executive director at White Ribbon, says instead of dumping these friends, take this as an opportunity to educate them.
“It’s a hard thing to do, but we have this rapport and trust and it’s really about using that rapport and trust to open the conversation,” he tells Global News. “Especially for men, it’s about realizing we all have a role to play in this issue and that it impacts us.”
Carolo says there are several ways to start this conversation, and first, you need to find an entry point. Ask them to clarify what they meant by their comment or what they were trying to say. “Let the person talk about what they said … open the conversation in a non-judgmental way and let them explain.”
He adds forcing the person to explain themselves may make them more aware of the type of sexist comments or behaviour they are partaking in. “It may also invite some reflection [and] it may take several conversations.”
But why is it so hard?
There are plenty of reasons why some people don’t want to call out sexist friends or family members. They may be categorized as being overly sensitive or emotional, or they may fear being ostracized from the group. Other times, they may not want to lose this friend — someone who generally means a lot to them.
Carolo and Golden say there is also a fear of safety — sometimes, you don’t know how others will react to criticism. If the situation is violent, always call for additional help.
Sexist comments have also been spoken, tolerated and sometimes praised because of a long-standing issue with people in power, says Paulette Senior, president and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
“Women’s contributions are not taken seriously and even less so when it comes to issues around sexual harassment and assault,” she tells Global News. “Now is an opportunity … we’re seeing more men and women speak out against these issues, and once we familiarize the conversation, we will be able to respond easily.”
And if the conversation goes sour or your friends aren’t willing to listen, it’s time to make an important decision if the friendship is even worth it, she says.
“We all want to be safe and feel loved with the people we hang out with… if the comments continue and the person isn’t willing to hear [your concerns], that’s a decision you need to make for yourself.”