"Why don't you just hit him?" — the worst possible anti-harassment advice

The example conference anti-harassment policy was announced on the Geek Feminism blog in November 2010 by Ada Initiative co-founder Valerie Aurora. Afterwards, hundreds of people suggested a "better" solution to sexual harassment: Knee him in the groin! This is a repost of what Valerie's co-founder, Mary Gardiner, wrote about what's wrong with "Just hit him!" in December 2010.


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"Why don't you just hit him?"

A woman smiling in front of a green background

Mary Gardiner

Valerie has had a lot of comments and private email in response to her conference anti-harassment policy post suggesting that a great deal of the problem would be solved if women were encouraged to hit their harassers: usually people suggest an open handed slap, a knee to groin, or even tasers and mace (no suggestions for tear gas or rubber bullets yet). I sent her such a lengthy email about it that we agreed that I clearly at some level wanted to post about it. What can I do but obey my muse?

OK. Folks…

This is not one of those entries I am thrilled in my soul to have to write, but here's why "Hit him!" is not a solution for everyone and definitely does not replace the need for people with authority to take a stand against harassment.

And I know some people were joking. But not everyone was, you'll need to trust me on this. Your "Jeez, guys like that are lucky they don't get a knee in the groin more often… hey wait, maybe you should just have a Knee In Groin Policy!" joke was appearing in inboxes right alongside material seriously saying that all of this policy nonsense wouldn't be necessary if women were just brave and defended themselves properly, if they'd just for once get it right.

Here are some samples:

  • Duncan on LWN: "What I kept thinking while reading the original article, especially about the physical assaults, is that it was too bad the victims in question weren't carrying Mace, pepper-spray, etc, and wasn't afraid to use it. A couple incidents of that and one would think the problem would disappear…"
  • NAR on LWN: "I've read the blog about the assault – it's absolutely [appalling] and in my opinion the guy deserved a knee to his groin and some time behind bars." (NAR then goes on to note that women should also wear skirts below the knee; which is very much making it about the victim. Dress right! Fight back!)
  • A comment on Geek Feminism that was not published: "…You also need to make it known to women that they need to immediately retaliate (preferably in the form of a slap loud enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear)… Women -must- stand up for themselves and report the guy, preferably after a loud humiliating slap immediately following the incident."
  • crusoe on reddit: "You need to end right then and there. Its one thing to make blog posts, its another to call a jerk out for it on the conference floor, including stomping a toe, or poking them hard in the belly… Do not stew about it, do not run home and write a blog post about it. Just call them on it right then and there." (As long as crusoe doesn't have to hear about it…)

First up, one key thing about this and many similar responses ("Just ignore him", "Just spread the word", "Just yell at him"):

Harassment is not a private matter between harasser and victim, and it's not the victim's job to put a stop to it.

The harasser is responsible for their actions. The surrounding culture is responsible for condemning them and making it clear those actions and expressions of attitudes that underlie them are not acceptable. (See Rape Culture 101.) The victim may choose to go to the police, yell, hit, scream, confront, go to a counsellor, tell their mother, tell their father, tell their friends, warn people. They may choose not to. Whether they do or not, we are all responsible for making harassment unacceptable where we are. Harassment, and stopping it, is not the victim's responsibility. (See But You Have to Report It!)

Am I against hitting a harasser in all situations? No. Am I advocating against it in all situations? No.

However, here's a lengthy and incomplete list of reasons why victims may not be able or may choose not to hit a harasser and why it is definitely not a general solution for the problem of harassment. I even have a special buzzer on hand that will sound when the reasons are related to gender discrimination. Listen for it, it goes like this: BZZZT! Got it? BZZZT!

Important note on pronouns and gendering: I am largely buying the framing of the "why don't you just hit him?" advice, that is, men harassers and women victims, for the purposes of this post. However, I acknowledge that people of all gender identities get harassed, and that people of all gender identities may be harassers. At various points in the post I will return to this point.

Conferences are a professional, or public hobby, environment. This is the point that applies to conferences most specifically. We are talking about an activity where people give talks with projected words and pictures, where people discuss and write computer programs or sci-fi or cocktail recipes, where people say things like "Oh wow, you're Lord Ogre Face! Oh wow, everyone, I've known this guy online for years and we just met now for the first time ever! Oh wow!"

This is not, generally speaking, an environment in which physical conflict is considered appropriate. How are slaps and knees to the groin (gender note: not all harassers have testicles as this advice somewhat assumes) supposed to fit in again? Conferences should be places where people learn things and have fun… oh yes and every so often something bad happens to someone and they hit the person that did it?

Of course not. Conferences, in an ideal world, are basically an environment of mutual consent: people go to talks they want to hear, they are in conversations they want to have, they party as much as they want to party and so on. The solution to this underbelly of non-consent that we're fighting against here is hauling it out into the light and making a public official stand saying "this is not OK", not adding combat to the list of acceptable activities at conferences.

How, exactly, is this helping build a better, safer world? I'm not personally a pacifist. But the world I'm looking forward to living in is not one in which, in between conference talks, I walk down the corridor to witness any of the following:

  • Harassment
  • Assault
  • Some of the more fantastical suggestions that have come up privately, such as harassers being held down and beaten by multiple people

It's hard to hit people. It requires training, not just to do it well, but to do it at all. Most people reading this, unless trained in combat, have very strong inhibitions about hitting people. To hit someone after a momentary touch or comment means leaping past "Did he really…?" "Did I deserve…?" "Was it that bad…?" to "YOU JERK" *SMACK*!

Getting angry at a harasser, let alone angry enough to hit them, takes many victims minutes, hours, days or even years. Going from incident to slap in seconds flat takes training or a particular type of self-assurance, and funnily enough women are specifically socialised out of that (BZZZT!)

Here are some Hollaback stories that illustrate the difficulty of summoning outrage responses in the moment:

Oh yeah, and then there's doing it well. That means, presumably, enough pain to hurt the harasser, not enough to continue causing pain after a few minutes have passed. Get it wrong in the soft direction and you're the butt of another joke, get it wrong in the hard direction and you've helped make a case against yourself. Speaking of which…

Hitting people can result in arrest and criminal charges. In jurisdictions I've been able to research, there is no "But he was being really jerky" defence against assault or battery charges. The person who who escalated to physical violence first is the person who is in the most trouble. I don't think I need to explain in general why this stops some people hitting others.

But some people have reason to especially fear contact with the police. Examples include people who get disproportionately charged and punished (racial minorities, for example), and people who would have a criminal record used against them (eg in a child custody case) or whose career would be over (lawyers).

When you picture a woman righteously hitting her harasser, what are you picturing? A slender white woman of average height or below? What happens when you start changing those things? Consider me, for example. I'm 6'4" (193cm). I'm relatively weak compared to many men of my height and I don't train in combat, but does it all look so straightforward when you picture me spinning in outrage and slamming one of my enormous hands into the face of a man who is a foot shorter because he'd called me some slur? Or are you starting to think "Hey, steady on, he just…" What would you think about a tall, fat, muscled woman doing this? Or a big woman who is a military veteran, or a black belt?

Maybe you'd be fine with that, I don't know. But I know that person has reason to think the police will regard what she did as a serious offence.

Not everyone can physically attack others. People who can't quickly move over to the harasser; people whose hands need to be on their cane or crutches; people who can't stand steadily or at all, let alone while reaching to slap someone's face or while raising a leg to knee someone in the groin. People who are very short relative to their harasser (BZZZT!), who don't have the reach to get a hand on their face or knee in their groin. People who shake and lose strength under severe stress.

Since it comes up in self-defence arguments: yes, some (not all) of these people can effectively use weapons such as guns or mace. But even in cases of life-threatening attacks, those require being armed with the weapon, being trained with it, and having special regular training on effective use when under stress. But right here, we are talking about harassment broadly, not serious assaults in particular. Attacking harassers with weapons isn't under consideration.

Which brings me to cutting remarks, as a tangent. I'm hoping everyone is familiar with the phenomenon of thinking of the perfect cutting response… 12 hours later? Well, that affects victims of harassment. And it's not just that. Speech impediments, for example, get in the way of getting the perfect cutting remark out in the perfect tone of contempt.

Back to hitting harassers.

It might make the victim more of a target. Maybe it was a weak slap and made a weak sound and the harasser smiled through the whole thing. Or the harasser caught the victim's hand as it came up and is now holding her wrist tightly and grinning at her. Or the harasser pushed at the victim as her knee came up towards his groin, and she fell over.

Hitting does not necessarily make a situation end and it does not necessarily make the physical aggressor look strong and in control.

Hitting hurts. I'm not going to devote a lot of space to being sympathetic towards harassers, and this is a statement of the bleeding obvious but, you're proposing hurting and possibly injuring people.

Onlookers are not sympathetic to the person who hits out. You might be picturing a conversation, I guess, where someone approaches a woman and is conveniently wired for sound and thus everyone hears him mutter that she's a so-and-so and he'd like to such-and-such her.

In reality, here's what you see if women hit their harassers:

  • A man walks near a woman, and she hits him across the face. Did he say something? No one heard.
  • A man is on stage giving a presentation and makes a joke about so-and-so women. It's definitely an ew joke and you feel uncomfortable. You then watch multiple women run on stage and knee him in the groin one after the other. He falls to the ground in absolute agony, crying out in pain that is in no way lessened by some magic jerky-joke-maker insensitivity gene.
  • A man is standing there talking to you. He's a moderately well known geek celebrity in local circles. You feel kind of chuffed to make his acquaintance. A woman runs up out of nowhere and hits him in the middle of your conversation, claiming that he assaulted her the previous evening at a party.

You might still be on the side of the women involved in those scenarios, most onlookers aren't. They're seeing violence.

We are arguing that you don't want these men at your conference, especially if they are repeatedly offending at the one conference. We are not arguing or agreeing that you want them physically hurt at your conference.

The harasser might hit back. Or onlookers might step in. I know a lot of men are strongly socialised to believe that they cannot ever under any circumstances hit a woman. This socialisation is not shared by everyone, far from it. And of course, while this piece is gendered, recall that of course the victim might be a man, or might be a person whose gender presentation doesn't match what the harasser thinks it should be. Those people don't benefit from any real or perceived social stigma about hitting women.

This situation is another especial danger for people without combat training and with some disabilities. It's also dangerous for the average woman (BZZZT!) who is smaller and weaker than the average man; thus rendering a solid majority of physical conflicts between men and women more dangerous for the woman. A martial artist I asked about this advised me that people who are at a weight-strength disadvantage need to, and this isn't surprising, win physical fights extremely decisively and quickly before their disadvantages tell. It takes even more training, mental and physical, to do this.

Let's get rid of the harassment and assaults that are already occurring, huh?

Women don't automatically win by hitting someone. Some of this seems, frankly, to be playing into the idea that being hit by a woman is extremely humiliating (BZZZT! BZZZT! BZZZT!) and the harasser will be thus unmanned and shamed by the violence (BZZZT!) and that others will view him as lesser (BZZZT!)

This might be the true effect on some harassers, and if a victim chooses to take advantage of it to gain power in a particular situation good for her. In the geek feminist utopia, being hit by a woman wouldn't be an especial humiliation; the problem is a dynamic in which men harass women with their humiliating harassment powers and women punish them with allocated women powers (BZZZT!).

In fact a great deal of this "Just hit him!" argument seems to assume that women's violence is necessarily different from and lesser than men's violence. Oh, women's violence isn't, you know, violence violence. No one will call the cops, or get in an extended fight or get seriously hurt! That's a man thing. (… BZZZT!)

This is the kind of advice given by people who don't actually want to help. Or perhaps don't know how they can. It's like if you're a parent of a bullying victim, and you find yourself repeating "ignore it", "fight back with fists" or whatever fairly useless advice you yourself were once on the receiving end of. It's expressing at best helplessness, and at worst victim-blaming. It's personalising a cultural problem.

You are not helpless in the face of harassment. Call for policies, implement policies, call out harassment when you overhear it, or report it. Stand with people who discuss their experiences publicly.

Revenge fantasies feel nice. Yes, they do. And they are cathartic. (This is one reason why Ender's Game is such a popular geek classic.) But why are we getting hit with so many revenge fantasies from non-victims when we're trying to build up a real solution? If you are angry that there have been, unbeknownst to you, harassers at conferences and in communities you know and love, indulge a revenge fantasy or two if you like. And then devote your energy to helping, rather than trying to convince women to enact your fantasy.

Here it is again for the road:

Harassment is not a private matter between harasser and victim, and it's not the victim's job to put a stop to it.


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