“Why Didn’t You Just Punch Him?” Thinking about sexual harassment and women’s passivity

A few months ago I bought a copy of Helen Garner’s book The First Stone from a second hand bookshop. It recounts, in an incomplete and semi-autobiographical style, the Ormond College affair of the 1990s, where two female students went to the police after claiming to have been sexually harassed by their college dean. Throughout the book, Garner purportedly tries to understand the forces of sex and power behind these incidents, drawing on her own experiences as a second wave feminist.

Even though Garner describes herself as a feminist, what struck me most about the book is her complete inability to understand why those two young women went to the police instead of settling the issue with a few strong words or a knee to the groin; why they felt so afraid and angry about something she deems so trivial. She characterises the affair as a tragedy for the offender and as a “precise mix of prissiness, cowardice and brutality” (p. 222) on behalf of the women. Furthermore, the book continually utilises discourses of victim-blaming and slut-shaming, calling the two students out on not taking responsibility for the effect their beauty and “erotic style of presentation” (p. 89) and buying into stereotypes of women’s passivity and weakness by not dealing with the harassment themselves (p. 99).

After reading The First Stone I started to think a lot about sexual harassment and women’s (including my own) response to it. So often we’re told that we need to stick up for ourselves, that we should speak out or just punch the offender in the face. And yet it doesn’t seem like women are able to follow through on that advice. Instead we try to rationalise the situation, to tell ourselves that it’s not a big deal, that we overreacted, that the offender didn’t mean anything by it. Sometimes we’re even told that we should take it as a compliment.

I thought in particular about an instance where I had agreed to have dinner with the son of a family friend visiting from Germany. I was upfront about the fact that I did not consider the dinner a “date” of any kind, and that I wasn’t interested in him sexually. Nonetheless, he would not accept my no: he persisted in asking me why I was not interested in dating (I wasn’t comfortable telling him I was asexual), in touching my arm and my thigh under the table, and in making suggestive comments about what he would do if this was a date. All the time I was becoming more and more scared and panicked. At one point I had to make an excuse to go to the bathroom because I actually couldn’t breathe properly.

The important thing is this: I couldn’t say a word. A part of me wanted to punch him and run off. But the rest of me was too scared to do anything, because I didn’t want to be impolite or offend. So I sat there for three hours making small talk, and when I finally managed to get on the bus and go home I cried for an hour to my best friend. I felt ashamed, hurt and scared. The next day I tried to rationalise that I had overreacted, that it wasn’t that bad. It took me two weeks to realise that what I’d experienced was sexual harassment, and that he was the arse, not me.


But why did I react this way? Why couldn’t I, as a confident young feminist, tell him to stop or just walk away? Why couldn’t the two students in Garner’s book do the same?

I started to research. Among other resources on sexual harassment, I found an article from two researchers at Yale that showed me I wasn’t alone. The article described an experiment, where two groups of women were invited to a job interview: among the usual interview questions for one group were three sexually harassing questions. The women were only told that the interview wasn’t real afterwards. Before the article, all women were asked to describe on paper how they would react to instances of sexual harassment in an interview setting.

What the study showed was a huge discrepancy in how women thought they would feel and act and how they actually did. Almost every woman indicated on paper that they would call the interviewer out on their harassment, or leave the interview. When they were actually in the same situation, not a single woman spoke up. Similarly, most women indicated on paper that their primary emotional reaction would be anger, but after being asked harassing questions for real, most women’s response was fear and shame.

It’s a common argument in cases of sexual harassment that the victim didn’t adequately deal with the situation, and thus is at fault. The onus is on the victim to prove that they could not have done any better, not on the harasser. In order to be taken seriously in these situations, victims are required to be paragons of virtue, to put sexual harassment in its place without potentially “destroying” the harasser’s life.

And yet women in particular are also taught to be passive, to not put up a fuss, to not make a scene. We’re taught to think that we overreacted, that the offender didn’t mean anything by their “harmless grope” or suggestive comments. If we raise a fuss, we’re looked down on and classed as bitches and as angry, (hairy) feminists. Even other feminists such as Garner tell us to suck it up and concentrate on the “bigger issues”  for gender equality. When it comes to sexual harassment, women are caught in a vicious double standard where winning is near impossible.


So what can be done about this? What can I, as a young woman, do when faced with a situation of sexual harassment? Even after realising that my own experiences were, in fact, sexual harassment, I don’t know if I will be able to change the way I react when I’m in a similar situation again. The discourses about women’s passivity are so pervasive and damaging that even though I see them, I have trouble extricating myself from them.

I think it starts with recognising sexual harassment for what it is and how it operates: through power (especially when it comes to workplace harassment). And then we can begin to think about the ways in which we are conditioned to react to it – though discourses of passivity and politeness as well as self-sufficiency – and how inadequate they are when faced with unequal, gendered power relationships. We need to show more support and solidarity for victims of harassment. Maybe from there we can slowly start to teach ourselves new ways of conceptualising and acting on sexual harassment when faced with it.



Garner, H. 1995. The First Stone. Sydney: Pan Macmillan

Woodzicka, J. A. & Lafrance, M. 2001. Real Versus Imagined Gender Harassment. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 15-30. Accessed 9/2/12: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/0022-4537.00199/full

13 thoughts on ““Why Didn’t You Just Punch Him?” Thinking about sexual harassment and women’s passivity

  1. You know, even Garner has admitted that she’s been unable to deal with an incident of harassment. Was this in the book or did I read it in an interview afterwards?: She was having a massage, and as he finished, the male masseur leaned over and kissed her on the lips. She was dumbstruck, got up as if nothing had happened, and then even paid him!

    Sometimes it’s easier to ignore it, isn’t it? We are taught to be polite. I’ll admit I’m not always that way. Even if it’s not sexual harassment, I’ll come out and confront people. Not always, but I’m pretty feisty at the moment. There’s so much shit around.

    1. That incident was in the book, yes. I just find it amazing that even though she has all these experiences herself and in that sense should undrstand that it’s not always that easy to deal with harassment in words, she still chooses to belittle the choices the girls made, to call them “too afraid of life,” to say that feminism which concerns itself with this sort of behaviour is vindictive, coldfaced, and punitive. She says that in her day, women would have dealth with it themselves or accepted it as something they just had to put up with in order to not damage the fragile egos of the harassers. That just makes me lose a lot of respect for her.

      I admire you for being able to confront people like that. I think it will take some time before I manage to do so every time I want to.

  2. Oh, man, does this ever resonate. I think a lot of it can be disbelief. I know when one of my bosses was inappropriate with me, I kept telling myself it wasn’t what it sounded like, because I wasn’t a fashion model. We probably all tell ourselves we’re not fashion models, even if we ARE fashion models! There’s also 1) shock and 2) gaslighting. This last one is big. I got it from all sides and it severely impacted my mental health.

    Another extremely important thing is that women are set up from the word “go”. If they say anything to protest more subtle moves (the boiling frog principle), they’re “exaggerating” and “assuming things” and “who do they think they are”. So the socialization process will lead them to stay quiet. Then, it escalates. And when it does, the woman will be condemned and criticized… because she didn’t say anything at the less overt harassment. It’s a classic double-bind.

    1. Yes, there’s a huge double standard where it’s almost impossible to win. Gaslighting in particular is so damaging, and sometimes it’s even the victim who participates in her own gaslighting because of disbelief as well. I can definitely relate to the “but I’m not a fashion model” type of thoughts as well.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dominique!

  3. The pressure to be “polite,” or “nice,” or “kind,” is definitely a real thing which one often doesn’t fully appreciate until one is in such a situation.

    I recently was invited to a man’s house for what I thought was a business matter and he thought was a date (or at least an opportunity to hit on me). The first hint I got of that was his hands on me. I pushed him away and said “cut it out,” at which point he said he was attracted to me, and the rest of the incident was a demonstration of the power of social pressures on even someone who is strongly feminist.

    He played the nice, respectful guy who was really interested in me, and I stammered through attempt after attempt to convey that I wasn’t interested without actually shooting him down, while he got his hands all over me again as though my previous objection had never been voiced and talked about how awesome it was that he’d found me. And I was so paralyzed by the imperative not to disappoint him that I couldn’t come out and say I wasn’t interested, or restate my objection to being touched, or tell him I really didn’t like kissing him . . . and it seemed to me that my position was all the more frail by that I hadn’t objected right away—that I had “led him on” somehow—even though I HAD objected and he had sort of circled around to the same thing from a different angle.

    I eventually moved up a prior engagement by three hours to make an excuse to leave, and spent weeks afterward wondering what the hell was wrong with me that I couldn’t manage to make a refusal I was thoroughly entitled to, to a man whose behavior and company made me deeply uncomfortable.

    It’s like they throw a switch and move through your defenses and you don’t even realize it, and the codes for firing the offensive weapons are locked into thinking their use isn’t justified yet. Or not even the offensive weapons, even the reasonable exercise of your own ability to refuse to indulge people who are rude to you.

    I don’t know what it is. I hate it. Thank you for your analysis of it; I greatly appreciate the perspective.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Kyra – that certainly sounds like a horrible situation to be in, especially with the added dimension of this being your career.

      Thinking that you led him on is something that I do too – when I was just finishing high school one of my teachers came out and told me that he was in love with me (obviously thinking that I felt the same way) and I totally freaked out. The scariest part of that was thinking that I must have done something to lead him on big time. I still have trouble thinking about it and accepting that the onus was on him, not on me in any way.

      Yes, I hate it too. I’m really happy you liked the post.

  4. I read something really interesting recently, on I think it was “I blame the patriarchy” about how saying “no” explicitly is only socially allowed if you have more power. So women can basically never say “no” (to harassment or just turning down sex) to men, except in very rare cases of say a female boss.

    That feeling of passivity (which I have certainly also experienced) isn’t really – it’s a normal reaction to being in a double bind situation, where standard social rules tell you to be polite in your refusal, vs the rule we’re taught that men don’t understand sexual refusal unless women are very explicit. (In my own life experience, most men “get” the polite refusal just fine, and I treat men who ignore it as potential rapists.)

    I think it’s an important part of what makes up rape culture, and I understand why Garner didn’t realise she was perpetuating it. It’s hard to notice until you draw explicit attention to it.

    1. That’s a really good point, aquaeri, about power. Especially as a young woman you feel like you never have the power in a situation (and you don’t!). Add the double standard of communicating refusal to that… And you’ve got a real mess.

  5. I really enjoyed this article and linked to a friends comment of fb when she experienced similar sexual harassment and didn’t say anything but simply cried afterwards.

    It is so easy to forget this sort of thing after it happens to oneself. Put it aside and go on with life without speaking up. Well done.

  6. I’m not trying to be agressive here but what seduction? I guess everyone has gone through situations where they were undecided having reasons to say no just as much as wanting to say yes. That’s when seduction comes to the game and I think it is very radical to say it is always condemnable. How to draw that line can be delicated.

    Also I don’t know if it is just the difference between societies but here women are mainly very feisty about this situations (probably it is an instinct of survival from so many man hitting on them all the time…) but still maintain the “polite” and “nice” stigma reamains.

    1. I don’t really get what you mean about seduction (not something I have experience with), but surely a person has a right to take time to decide on something they have mixed feelings about without any pressure from the other person? The other person needs to respect that and make sure their actions are consented to, at any time.

      I already responded to the second question in my other comment, but I’d also add that there are different ways of dealing with unwanted situations depending on what sort of person you are. I’m naturally outgoing and cheerful and excitable, but I still react to harassment by freezing up. Perhaps some women hide their fear in these situations behind brashness or feistyness. Fear is the central thing – when someone doesn’t respect my “no” to something, however small, I do not know what else they are capable of ignoring, and that makes me afraid. Harassment isn’t about attraction, it’s about power.

      You can see the double standard: pressure to laugh it all off, pressure to be in control of other people harassing them, while still not being a “bitch” about it. It isn’t women who need to react to harassment better – it’s harassers who need to stop harassing.

  7. I stumbled across this article whilst trying to reconcile something that happened to me last night at my work party. There was a lot of alcohol involved and it was set in a hotel.

    I feel that I am partly to blame, that I led him on or gave him signals to make him think that I wanted sex.

    I didn’t. I told him no on several occasions but he kept trying and persisted with trying to make me have sex with him. I tried to laugh it off and even let him kiss me – I remember also asking for him to kiss me because I thought it would satisfy his demands in some way? During the whole debacle I wasn’t scared, angry or worried. I was just…numb?

    He then took off his trousers and underwear and told me to perform a sexual act on him. I was told to get down on my knees and I did. I knew it was wrong and I knew I didn’t want to do it, so why did I go through with it? Why did I not feel outraged that this man who I had no attraction to or interest in was making me do this?

    I stopped very quickly after getting on my knees and said no. I remember thinking I was tired of this and just wanted to go to sleep. I started to walk away and he followed me and tried to make me go to his room. I didn’t want to and made my way back to my hotel room where my friend was waiting for me. He didn’t even put his trousers back on.

    What I’m struggling with is my lack of emotion during the whole thing. I know it’s a serious violation, no means no, but because I didn’t feel any emotion it almost feels like its not worthy of being sexual harrassment.

    I’ve told my boyfriend and my parents and some friends about what happened and they all understandably want him to be punished. Some even wanted me to go to the police. I know I should report him and I am going to discuss the incident with my manager tomorrow but is it worth the hassle? I survived. I wasn’t raped. I got out of a potentially extremely distressing situation. Half of me thinks I should just leave it; the other is screaming out for me to report him, take action and ensure that he knows he can’t act like that and think its acceptable.

    I felt moved to write something here because your article has offered me the most value out of all the ones I have read on the subject.

    I know this was posted over a year ago now, but if anyone could reply and help me make sense of this, I would be so grateful. Is this harrassment? Did I bring it on myself? And any insight on why I didn’t feel emotionally distressed would be a blessing.

    Thank you.

    1. Hi T,

      First of all, I’m really sorry that you had to deal with this – it sounds pretty horrible, even if you were just feeling numb the whole time. Incidents of harassment like this tend to not just go away the next day, they stick in your brain and that can be the worst thing about it.

      There’s no doubt for me that this constitutes harassment, and pretty horrible harassment. And to put it out there once and for all – you didn’t bring this onto yourself. No-one asks for unwanted sexual encounters. If you’re not 100% into something (and I’m pretty sure you’d know if you had been) then it’s not ok on his part, especially seeing as you told him ‘no’ several times.

      I’m no expert, but in my own experience and in what I’ve read, people react differently to being in situations where things could turn to harassment and rape really quickly. I think of it this way: if someone’s doesn’t take my no on something relatively minor? Then there’s no telling what else they won’t take my no for. That makes them dangerous. And people deal with that in different ways. For some people it triggers anger and violence, for some, numbness, and others freeze up. Distancing yourself emotionally or freezing up and going along with something are reactions that seek to minimise hurt to yourself. Like you said, maybe if I let him kiss me, he’ll be happy and leave me alone. If I struggle, on the other hand, he might get angry and violent and hurt me more.

      So it does make sense to me that you’d go kind of numb in order to stop yourself feeling more emotional hurt. That doesn’t make this any less harassment. His behaviour was definitely not ok, and yes, it does need to be made clear to him that it was unacceptable. But how you want to proceed should only be up to you. Speaking up about harassment is often made incredibly difficult for women, so I understand that many women just want to get over it and leave it be. However, I assume you still see this person at work, which makes things more complicated as well. In the end it’s up to you how to proceed. I hope you can work things out for yourself. *hugs*

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