In Search of a Silver Bullet

What do you say to someone who’s being sexist? That’s my big question here, and it’s not an easy one. When you want to speak up, when you think it will be well received, or you need to protect yourself from encroaching assumptions, or you just can’t stand to be silent, what do you say?

I have not found a lot of information about this. I have read a lot of stories about sexual harassment and sexist interactions, but those stories don’t include saying anything back. I don’t know if that’s because people don’t typically say something, or if they’re just not mentioning it. I wish I could find more examples because I don’t know what to say, myself. I will share my thoughts with you, though, and maybe you will have some opinions and some experiences to share as well.

Part of what makes the question of what to say so difficult is its complexity. There are so many variables. Let’s see… places where you could encounter sexism? At work, home, out running errands, school, at a party, at a family gathering, the doctor’s office or on the bus. People who might be sexist to you? Your parents, friends, coworkers, boss, strangers, a teacher, a kid you know… the list could go on and on. Basically anyone you interact with could be sexist to you. So how do you decide how to react, with so many different situations and so many different relationships?

In physical self-defense, you learn simple responses to common attacks. The more simple the response is, the better of a chance you have of remembering it and using it when you need to. Even with physical self-defense, though, there isn’t one magic move you can use to defend against every possible attack. You also have to consider the level of aggression, so your response is proportional and appropriate. If someone has grabbed your wrist, for example, you don’t necessarily want to stab them in the eyes right off the bat. I like the basic principle, though – pick a few key moves and practice them. I’d like to try applying it to responding to sexism.

So what might be a good general response to sexism? One that’s easy to remember, simple, and effective in a bunch of situations? One you can remember when you’re stressed, angry, embarrassed, shocked? When you decide that you want to speak up, or you need to speak up? One that will be proportional and appropriate in most situations? Here’s a few suggestions.

1. “Why?”

This is simple and to-the-point. It’s polite, and it might even start a good conversation or stir some new thoughts in the other person. It makes the person being sexist be explicit about what assumptions are underlying their attitude. If they answer you defensively, you can keep coming back with “why” until they realize what they’re really saying. “Why?” is a versatile question. It can be non-confrontational: you could gently ask your grandma why she thinks you can only be happy if you find a nice man. It can also be very confrontational, which is sometimes what you need. Since it does encourage conversation, “why” is a good response for people you have a relationship with (as opposed to strangers or people you never want to talk to again).

Some examples:

Why do you want me to go buy the food for the office party, and not Bob?

Why are you calling me “dear”? (at work)

Why does saying that I don’t want to talk to you mean that I’m a bitch?

Why can’t you do some of the housework? Why would I be better at it?

Or just plain, “Why?” “Why do you say that?”

2. “That was sexist.”

What about pointing out the obvious? It could work in a wide range of situations, with people you have a close relationship to or with strangers. You should be prepared to explain why what they said or did was sexist, though, because the natural reply to this is “Why?” If you know what to say to follow up, this response is a great way to spread some knowledge and to feel empowered.

3. “Inappropriate” or “Not cool, man”

This one comes from the one article I did find where someone offered some real-life experience on what to say. It is especially useful with peer or younger-aged men, like coworkers, fellow-students, friends, or brothers. It mimics how dudes would tell each other off for crossing a line. The person who related having used this type of response successfully said that keeping your tone calm and casual but firm is key. I imagine that this would work with well-meaning guys who are just not thinking about what they’re saying, and it could work with both people you don’t know as well as those you do.

4. “No.”

Classic, simple “No.” This is the most confrontational of these suggestions, but it’s not inherently rude. It’s a word that women should, in general, be more comfortable with. I myself need to get more comfortable with “No.” I’m not even talking about sex and consent here, but just general day-to-day interactions. “No” can feel rude, abrupt. Maybe you feel like if you say “No” you also need to elaborate, explain, soften. Women are trained to be polite and to show uncertainty, but none of that helps in standing up for yourself.

“No” is my top choice for interactions with strangers. Don’t elaborate or make excuses. If someone you don’t know, or barely know, asks you for something that makes you uncomfortable, say “No.” You can also say “No” to signal rejection of a statement, even if there wasn’t a request or a question. It’s ok, it’s not going to make the other person violent (if they weren’t already), it’s not going to cause a rift in the universe. It’s not your responsibility to worry about hurting their feelings – they opened that door when they approached you. I say this because of the discomfort I still feel with “No” – you may be comfortable with it already, in which case I salute you.

“No” may also work in other situations, like at work or with family. In those cases, though, some explanation might be called for.


– You’re such a pretty girl, but you should smile more!
– No.

– Hey, can I buy you a drink?
– No.

– I’ve seen you on this bus before. You live around here?
– No.

– If I were ten years younger, I’d throw you over my shoulder and carry you back to my cave! (actually said to me)
– No. (what I wish I’d said)

Ah, that’s a fun one – it feels cathartic just writing those exchanges. I could go on, but I’ll stop for now. You get the idea, I hope.

What do you think of these basic responses? Do you have a good catch-all response, your own silver bullet? Have you ever used one of these? How did it go?


2 thoughts on “In Search of a Silver Bullet

  1. Good job. I have found No and Not cool to be the best responses. And definitely No without an explanation. We forget that we do have the right to say no and not feel guilty. Not cool ( and walk away) tells the other person that you are done with the conversation and not happy with them. I walk away because in that moment is not the time to teach someone about their behaviour. They go away and think then often come back to find out what upset you than you can explain.

    1. Thanks, Diane! Good to hear your experience with ‘No’ and ‘Not cool’. That is a great point about waiting until later to explain – excellent advice.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s