This piece is part of an ongoing series exploring what it means to be a woman on the internet.
Log off. Make your account private. Block them. These are a few of the strategies women are told to use when faced with online harassment. But they miss the point.
Emily May, the cofounder and executive director of Hollaback!, a nonprofit working to end harassment, says that in the same way that girls are told to never go outside alone at night, always carry mace, or to not wear short skirts, women are expected to make the extra effort to keep themselves safe online.
But that approach doesn’t always make sense. It shouldn’t all be on women; men need to pitch in to act as effective allies and help solve the problem.
Despite that, only 55 percent of American men ages 18 to 29 say online harassment is a “major problem” as compared to 83 percent of women the same age, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey. On top of that, more men care about free speech than human decency. Fifty-six percent of men say “people should be able to speak their minds freely online,” while only 43 percent of men say “people should be able to feel welcome and safe in online spaces,” according to the same survey.
Women are also more likely to be proactive in the face of harassment. Of the women who witnessed harassment, 42 percent “flag or report the harassment” as compared to 33 percent of men who witnessed harassment, according to a by the , which studies social and cultural issues that stem from technology.
Inaction is harmful, though. “Often, that silence allows the abuse and harassment to continue,” says , the cofounder and chief development officer of , an organization that empowers men to redefine masculinity to prevent violence and harassment against women.
Men don’t say anything online for the same reason they don’t in the physical world, Bunch says. “They’ve been taught to be silent about the violence that men perpetuate toward women.”
“Men have greater freedoms, often, to express themselves and to move into spaces, physical or virtual.”
That’s the wrong approach. , the director of the , says that anyone who actually cares about a functioning democracy and free speech needs to let marginalized voices be heard. “Men have greater freedoms, often, to express themselves and to move into spaces, physical or virtual. Using those privileges to help women do the same is generally a welcome and good thing,” Chemaly writes in an email. The Women’s Media Center is a nonprofit that advocates for women in media.
The issue extends off the internet, too. Bunch’s organization coined the term which explains that men learn a set of demeaning values: that women and girls aren’t as valuable as men, that women are the property of men, and that women are sexual objects. Those three beliefs create violence and discrimination against women, he says.
Practice mindful sharing
To help prevent online harassment from happening in the first place, Chemaly advises men to amplify women’s voices and retweet their thoughts and ideas.
By not elevating women’s voices, Chemaly says men “create an atmosphere in which women’s voices are more likely to be isolated,” adding that this is especially true when women comment about politics, sports, or technology.
“Men can set the tone on their own social channels by sharing content that values all women and girls.”
It’s also important to share messages that reinforce healthy masculinity, which is what A Call To Men tries to do. “Men can set the tone on their own social channels by sharing content that values all women and girls,” Bunch says. His organization is currently promoting the , in which men sign a pledge to listen and believe women, reflect on and challenge what they’ve learned about gender, talk with other men and boys about how to demonstrate healthy, respectful masculinity, and use their influence and platform to make the world a more equal place.
Speak up and reach out
When harassment does occur, Chemaly recommends men confront the other person — within reason. “Men can call out other men without incurring some of the same risks that women would,” she explains.
All it takes is saying something like, “Hey, that’s not cool,” or “That’s not appropriate,” adds Hollaback’s May. Anything more could escalate tensions and make the situation worse. She also recommends reaching out to the person being harassed, asking if they’re OK, and offering to help in whatever way they feel comfortable.
Men can also join the HeartMob, a Hollaback! project that works like an online support group and feels like a virtual hug. As demonstrated in this video, when someone reports a case of online harassment, they can seek out help from the community. The community then provides support by sending positive messages, documenting the harassment with screenshots, or reporting the abuse on the person’s behalf.
For more examples on healthy manhood, Bunch points to men like Jane the Virgin star Justin Baldoni, who explores and challenges traditional ideas of masculinity through roundtable discussions on his Facebook video series, Man Enough. Bunch also recommends looking at Dwayne D. Hayes, the founder and editor-in-chief of STAND magazine, a publication that shifts away from displaying women like objects in the way men’s magazines traditionally do, and instead promotes a “balanced and whole-hearted masculinity.”
Bunch cautions men against comparing themselves to others who they think have more toxic behavior. When men separate themselves from those people by saying “I’m not that bad — look at them” they miss an opportunity for change.
At the end of the day, it’s important to safely address harassment wherever it occurs, both in the real world and online.
“Online, like in the real world, in our communities, in the workplace, and in our homes, we want men to speak up and stand up against any kind of violence or discrimination against women and girls,” says Bunch.