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How Billy Bush could have confronted Trump’s “locker room talk,” according to science

Intervening in uncomfortable situations is part of the deal if we want to change social norms.

Embrace the awkwardness.

Remember Billy Bush, the television host who egged on Donald Trump in the leaked 2005 Access Hollywood tape and then lost his gig with NBC’s Today when the tape erupted into the 2016 presidential campaign? Turns out he’s been reflecting on the episode, as we learned this week in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter:

“Looking back upon what was said on that bus, I wish I had changed the topic,” he said. “[Trump] liked TV and competition. I could’ve said, ‘Can you believe the ratings on whatever?’ But I didn’t have the strength of character to do it.”

That Bush’s only regret is that he didn’t “change the topic” suggests that, amazingly, he still doesn’t appreciate the gravity of Trump’s sexist remarks — and how deeply offensive they were to so many people.

And yet Bush’s failure to intervene, or even realize that he had that option, speaks volumes about our collective tendency toward passivity in these situations.

We’ve all heard sexist comments that make us deeply uncomfortable. But rarely do we intervene.

Underlying this passivity is a clash of social norms: We want women to be respected, but we don’t want to “overreact” or be “impolite.” We also don’t want people to blow up in our face and tell us we’ve misjudged them.

Social scientists increasingly see the passive but inwardly outraged bystander as a central figure in sustaining the norms around sexism. And a growing body of research suggests that if we want a society that is more respectful toward women, one where behavior like Donald Trump’s is less common and more shameful, then we all have to respond in the moment to these uncomfortable situations.

In October, after the Access Hollywood tapes came out, I called up two social scientists to learn more about how to intervene when you see a problem: Sharyn Potter, an associate professor in the department of sociology and co-director of a research program at the University of New Hampshire on sexual violence prevention; and Alan Berkowitz, a psychologist and consultant to colleges, public health agencies, and military organizations on preventing sexual assault and other issues.

Both have been working to develop and evaluate some of the “bystander intervention” programs now being used on college campuses around the country that train students to confront violent words and actions. (To be clear, researchers still have a lot to learn about which interventions work over the long term, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls some bystander intervention programs “promising.”)

Yes, pushing back can be hard and awkward, Potter and Berkowitz say. You may have to face a defensive reaction, even a violent one.

But (to my relief) they explained that direct and indirect confrontation can be simple and effective. It’s also not the only way to handle these situations. We have more options than we may realize.

First, if you’re unsure about whether something is offensive, ask someone

At the outset, Berkowitz says many people never speak up about lewd talk because they assume they are the only ones who are offended by it.

“Research shows that most people are uncomfortable [with] these comments, including men. But most people don’t know that most people aren’t comfortable,” Berkowitz tells me. “That’s important because if we are in a group and I make an inappropriate comment and you’re upset, your reaction may be influenced by whether you think other people are also upset.”

So in the face of uncertainty, he recommends asking others — bystanders on the street, co-workers, or friends, depending on the situation — how they perceive the talk or the action. “It’s important to know you are not alone in your concern,” he says.

Even if you find out you are the only one who’s offended, he says it’s still worthwhile to have a conversation. And in that case, ask a third person.

“We’re talking about norms, what people say is acceptable,” he says. “We’re not assuming that everyone agrees, but trying to determine if it’s a norm so that you have accurate information to base your response on.”

How to directly and indirectly confront sexist talk (you can use humor!)

We can all relate to feeling paralyzed in the face of what is clearly inappropriate talk or behavior simply because we didn’t know what to say.

Berkowitz says in these situations you can always go with very simple, very direct lines that are more confrontational, like: “That’s inappropriate,” or, “That bothers me, don’t talk that way in front of me.”

Potter says she is generally leery of direct confrontation and often prefers to personalize it. “If I am out with men I think are behaving inappropriately, I might say, ‘I have a close colleague who was raped. This is a really serious issue, we need to be thoughtful about how we discuss this.’ That tends to shut them down.”

Berkowitz is also a fan of indirect confrontations that replace a negative view with a positive one. Example: A group of men are at a restaurant, and one makes a demeaning remark about the waitress. Another man responds that he hopes the woman will give them good service, emphasizing her professional skills. “When it happens in a group, it’s very powerful because it reframes the conversation,” he says.

Some research suggests indirect confrontation can be more powerful than direct confrontation. A study published in the Journal of Social Research found that leaders who confronted sexism indirectly in public were more likely to be influential in reducing prejudice.

If you see an opportunity to use humor, it can be incredibly powerful too, Berkowitz says. You can use it to challenge the underlying assumption of the remark or behavior.

“Once you get over the inhibition of confrontation, the creativity of how you do it is infinite,” he says.

Another approach he suggests: Start a conversation with the offending speaker with icebreakers like, “What do you mean by that?” or, “Are all of the women you know [fill in the blank]?” or even, “It seems that you feel strongly about X; do you want to share why?” Engaging people in open-ended, nonjudgmental conversation may be a way to avoid aggression and blasts of defensive anger.

And there’s one more option, if none of these feel right: You can just change the subject.

Potter and Berkowitz have tested all of these techniques both in experiments and in the real world. And research supports the idea that they may help reduce future sexist remarks and actions.

One 2010 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology titled “The unexpectedly positive consequences of confronting sexism” found that many male participants in interaction experiments where they were confronted about sexist language resulted in positive exchanges. Overall, the researchers concluded that “confrontation reduces the future occurrence of biased behavior.”

The older we get, the more comfortable we may be with confrontation

Potter says she’s observed over time that her older self is far more willing to react strongly to offensive behavior in the moment.

“If I were to experience or see groping on a train, for example, I think my current self would scream, ‘You touched me inappropriately, and that’s wrong.’ I don’t know if my 22-year-old self would do that. But I do want my 22-year-old students to be brave and do that,” she says.

It’s clear that for most women and men, “age and position gives you more power to speak,” says Potter. It also gives you more confidence to face anger and defensiveness that can come with confrontation.

That’s why she says it’s critical to empower and educate kids as young as elementary school age about what to do if somebody says something offensive. “If we could start to teach that young, that it’s normal to stand up for our friends, to say something when someone says something that’s derogatory, then it becomes normalized,” she says.

There are many situations where direct confrontation is just too risky

As their accounts have trickled out, we’ve learned that some of the more than 17 women whom Donald Trump allegedly assaulted, groped, or harassed did not confront him in the moment. Instead, they described being “shocked,” or afraid of jeopardizing their jobs. In nearly all of the situations, Trump had more power than they did.

Potter says the power differential has a huge impact on whether someone can speak out or not. Many people have a lot to lose in confronting gropers or harassers — their jobs, for example.

But even in situations with difficult power dynamics, there can be ways to intervene. This is when the indirect intervention skills are useful. “In the office, if you’re with people higher up than you, you might say, ‘This conversation is upsetting; this happened to my friend,’” Potter says.

Violence may be another effect of confrontation, one that is not worth the risk, she says. In these cases, people need to seek help from social services and victims groups that can help them get to safety.

Don’t stop talking about “locker room talk”

Both Potter and Berkowitz see the incident of the Access Hollywood tape, while painful and infuriating, as genuinely historic. “These issues are coming out into the open and being discussed and that is good,” Berkowitz. “Because that will possibly accelerate that process of social change.”

Says Potter: “The most constructive, the most heart-warming aspect is all of the women coming forward saying, ‘This has happened to me.’ These norms about how we talk about women, in the larger culture, are so ingrained, they’re taught at such an early age. So the conversations that are happening around the news right now are really important.”

Further reading:

  • “How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down”: a good essay by former hedge fund trader Sam Polk in the New York Times.
  • Vox’s Emily Crockett explained why rape and sexual assault victims sometimes aren’t believed and why there’s nothing suspicious about Trump’s alleged victims waiting years to accuse him publicly.
  • Men in NFL locker rooms don’t talk the way Donald Trump did, as former Minnesota Vikings player Chris Kluwe writes for Vox.

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