Hey man, that’s not funny: Adolescent boys on sexual harassment

Lina AbiRafeh
8 min readApr 12, 2022

I talk about violence against women a lot. Like, a LOT. When I do, I refer to it as “male violence against females” to be specific about the forms of violence I focus on, and to be specific about who the survivor is, and to be specific about who the perpetrator is. One in three women and girls will experience some form of violence in their lifetime, I’ve said many times. One in three. So this problem is not unknown, or unusual. It’s infuriatingly common, in fact. The vast majority of this violence is perpetrated by males against females — of all ages. From the fetus to the funeral, I often say.

OF COURSE there are other forms of violence — against other people, perpetrated by other people. But this isn’t about those people right now. It doesn’t mean I don’t care or that those forms don’t exist. It just means that I’m thinking through this one specific thing right now. And even more specifically, I’m thinking about the role of men. And even more specifically, I’m thinking about the role of young men.

Here’s what I believe: not all men are perpetrators. Obviously. But too many men are too quiet about the violence that they see perpetrated by other men against women. So I asked my wonderful young research assistants what they thought.

My hypothesis is that too many young men seem to lack the courage (or the language) to reprimand other guys in their peer group in cases of sexual harassment. Do guys speak up? I wanted to know. And if they do, do they know what to say? This is built on my belief that most guys KNOW what is right or wrong, but they lack the courage and the wording to address it. They don’t want to be “that guy”. Their need to fit in perhaps outweighs their conviction to do what is “right”. Is that accurate? I asked my research assistants. You all tell me!

And they did.

“I have been part of many male-dominated friend groups,” one of them explained, “and I have seen that advocacy against sexual harassment and other dangerous actions or comments is incredibly rare. It’s not that guys don’t care — many of them will admit in private that they have seen or heard something that is unacceptable and must be addressed. But the majority are scared of the idea of losing their friends or losing their “cool” reputation by speaking up, and so they don’t — instead, they turn it into a joke.”

Research and articles confirm that boys feel as if they are often accused of perpetrating crimes they haven’t committed, the stuff that ‘bad guys’ might do. Many consider themselves ‘good guys,’ but are at a loss for how to help. At the same time, a U.S. study showed 72% of surveyed males had “never had a conversation about how not to harass, or express other forms of misogyny.”

No doubt it’s not easy to be “that guy.” But guys have to be “that guy” if we’re ever going to be able to work together to end this. Before anything else, it’s about consent. There’s a lot of conversation around this. It’s a critical non-negotiable. That’s about you as an individual, making sure your partner is on board with whatever you’d like to do.

But what about the stuff that is about other people? How might young men police each other without actually doing so?

Firstly, don’t dismiss dangerous comments you might hear. There’s no “locker room talk” or “boys will be boys” acceptable excuse. That’s a cop-out. Instead, try asking “what do you mean by that?” if someone speaks to — or about — women in a demeaning way. Forcing them to explain themselves often exposes the error. Saying “hey, enough.” or “let’s keep it respectful” are other strategies, although perhaps less easy to do. With practice, the words will come out. Doing the right thing is like building a muscle. It’s not going to spring up by itself. You need to work at it.

And what if you — young man — witness something occurring? How do you intervene as a bystander to prevent sexual harassment or sexual assault? Or at least keep it from getting any worse?

The Green Dot Program and its “Three D’s” offer good guidance:

  1. Direct intervention: Straightforward language that shuts down dangerous interactions like “Hey, that’s making people uncomfortable — that’s harassment. Stop.” Or “You’ve had way too much to drink. You’re in no shape to even think about hooking up — let’s get you home.”
  2. Distraction: Disengage someone from giving uncomfortable attention by directing them to another location or task.
  3. Delegation: Explain a dangerous situation to someone who has more training or authority, if necessary. If possible.

One key reason why men — especially young men — do not speak up against dangerous behavior is because they believe they are the only one in the room that is offended by what is happening. In reality, studies show that many men find discriminatory or sexist language offensive, and so speaking up could encourage other allies to speak up as well. Because of entrenched patriarchal views, society often perceives male testimony to be more legitimate and more credible than women, and so they appear to be acting without self-interest when calling out harassment.

This research suggests three steps for young men to combat harmful comments made by their peers:

  1. Use the two-second rule: Say anything to break the paralysis experienced after hearing a dangerous comment, such as “Ouch!” loudly and forcefully — this gives the person a few seconds to come up with a clear statement as to why they are not okay with the comment.
  2. When you say something, own it: When expressing offense or concern, do not blame your reaction on the fact that a woman is in the room — use strong I-statements instead. Instead of “Hey, there’s a girl around. Behave!” it is more effective to say “I don’t think your language is appropriate because…”
  3. Use personal experience or relationships: Explain why sexist language or actions are harmful to you, your relationships, the community, and so on. Everyone loses as a result of sexism. Clearly women and girls most of all.

My capable research assistants took this inquiry one step further. What do young men in their own lives have to say, they investigated. One 15-year old boy they spoke with explained that most of his friends are male, with very few female friends. Together, these guys talk about sports, news, school gossip, video games, and — unsurprisingly — girls.

What do you say about girls? one of the research assistants inquired. He became visibly uncomfortable and did not want to answer. When he finally did answer, he began with an apology: “I get that I am a teenage guy. I’m sorry. We’re stupid. Guys behave that way when they talk about girls when they are not around. Just about all guys…”

The group of guys would discuss girls they found attractive, and disclose to each other anything that may have happened with this girl and one of the guys. Such debriefs would often focus on physical features rather than anything else. He admitted that the social media profiles of these girls were often scrutinized to determine if they “fit up to our standards.” They share photos of these girls in a group chat, open to a wide range of commentary. The girls they deem unattractive are subjected to the same commentary, with photos often mocked. In this chat, many of the guys use a 1–10 rating system for these girls. Those viewed as unattractive or undesirable are labeled “mid” — meaning mid-level, or mediocre.

I had never heard of this term before, but my research assistants confirmed that it is widely used in schools and on social media. For these young men, if they happen to like a girl and the guy group brands her as “mid,” the boy will drop his pursuit of her. Meaning, they seek validation from their friends for any interaction with girls. He would be too embarrassed to date a girl branded as “mid.” At the same time, not all young men felt this way. In fact this one in particular disliked both the grading system and the label, saying that this degrades women. But he was still not able to publicly object to it.

He admitted that this detracts from other qualities, placing a girl’s value solely on sex appeal. The opinion of other young men weighs heavily. What he calls “fraternity banter” starts early, and conquest and validation are embedded in this. When it comes to intimate experiences, the conversation is not about her satisfaction but rather his entitlement. In his words, it is a situation of “take take take until there isn’t anything new to take anymore.”

“I like girls, I really do,” he says, “and I think they are so much more intelligent and mature than me. But I feel like sometimes it is encouraged for guys to kinda resent girls. I can’t tell you directly where I first saw it being encouraged or specific instances but it is definitely true. I think a lot of guys can agree with me.”

Building on the above, one of the research assistants told this story:

At my previous school, one boy was accused of sexual assault by several girls in my grade. This boy commonly made inappropriate and uncomfortable jokes about women and their bodies, and seemed to have no respect for the boundaries of others. But, rather than ever speaking up against his language and actions, I saw all of his friends simply ignoring the issues they saw. In private, it was clear that they understood something was wrong and something should be done, but they seemed to think the only option was to stop being his friend, which they didn’t want to do. They didn’t know how to use their own voices to communicate a meaningful message, and they didn’t want to seem like “that guy” either.

And even those boys who said they disagreed with the dangerous behavior of others carried out their own inappropriate jokes regarding women and girls. I think a big part of that phenomenon was the idea that commenting on sex, dating, women’s bodies, and other related subjects was seen as funny — and cool. Something that would make you popular and edgy. And without education on how harmful such language can be — education which was not provided to us by our schools — boys would support each other in their shared “humor,” and act like nothing was wrong because it wasn’t open assault.

There are ample resources to remedy this, like this article suggesting that boys keep a record of inappropriate actions they witness. Do not let your friends respond with “you don’t have a sense of humor” when you say “I don’t find that funny.” or “I don’t like that. It’s not cool with me.” Sometimes, it can be powerful to tell the perpetrator that their behavior is called “sexual harassment” — this can make the weight of someone’s actions sink in for them.

There are also ways for boys to hold their friends accountable for their actions without using shame or punishment — or risking further harm. Ultimately, something must be said to explain that those actions are unacceptable. The price of staying silent is far too high.

And women and girls are paying that price.

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights activist, author, speaker, aid worker with 3 decades of global experience - and lots to say! More on my website: www.LinaAbiRafeh.com