Sex and the (Univer)City | Snakes on a plane

Lifestyle Sports | Lifestyle
Carrie Bradshaw may have claimed New York as her turf, but did you know we have our very own sex columnist right here at UVic?

People who identify as women are always on the lookout. It’s like we have a sixth sense for shady situations. It’s a feeling in your gut that something is wrong, but that doesn’t make it any easier to step in.

On Monday, Star Vancouver reporter Joanna Chiu tweeted that while she was on a flight to Toronto, she witnessed an older man hitting on a teenaged girl who was seated separately from her family. Joanna was sitting in front of the two individuals.

The man — who she described as being in his late thirties — was being increasingly inappropriate. Eventually, he asked the teen for a dirty photo and Joanna couldn’t take it anymore. She turned around and told him off. He wasn’t impressed about being called out, so he went off to the washroom.

On Twitter, Joanna commented that none of the male passengers seemed to have noticed that something was off with the situation.

As Joanna checked in with the teen to see if everything was okay, another woman who was sitting behind them piped up and said she’d been monitoring the situation too. They told the girl she had the right to change seats, and that they were there to help if she needed it. Joanna also informed the flight attendants and they asked him to move. He was wildly offended, and the head flight attendant had to inform him that the situation was “really serious and [that they] could land the plane.”

A report was written up and security pulled the man aside after the plane landed.

On Twitter, Joanna commented that none of the male passengers seemed to have noticed that something was off with the situation.

“Maybe fellow women are more likely to pick up on warning signs early on in the conversation because we used to be teenage girls too?” she wondered in the thread.

Her tweets went viral overnight and people were responding with their own airplane horror stories.

It’s scary to be in those situations and it’s a relief when someone steps in. I’m so glad that Joanna and the other women were nearby and that they stood up for the teen. But I couldn’t help but wonder, how are most men oblivious to these situations? We’re all seeing the same thing, right?

When it comes to snakes on planes — or anywhere really — it’s good protocol to step in.

“All adults need to be on guard and know there are things we can do to intervene, even when a crime hasn’t technically been committed yet,” Joanna tweeted. “Men need to figure out how to ‘spot creeps’ in their vicinity as well and men can help too to prevent harassment or assault.”

According to Jackson Katz, co-founder of a bystander intervention training program called the Mentors in Violence Prevention Model, the reason a lot of men don’t intervene or challenge someone who acts inappropriately is that they feel their manhood may be called into question — not because they lack the skills to do so.

“There’s a price to pay, often, for a young man to challenge or interrupt another man’s enactment of power and privilege. And that’s one of the reasons why so few guys do it,” says Jackson.

I can’t confirm or deny this explanation, but I don’t think it fully explains why men often don’t step in. I think the lack of action also comes down to these situations frequently going unnoticed by men, unless it’s obviously aggressive. Often, the harassment is insidious and discreet, and if you aren’t a part of that world it could be easy to miss.  

For example, in December, I was covering a concert called Funk the Halls and I was up near the stage taking photos. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a young man and woman at a table, and the woman looked really upset. She was turning away from him and looking away. The guy kept getting closer to her and she was slowly sliding away. I was with a friend and he wasn’t even aware that something could be wrong. When I pointed it out, he wasn’t worried. They’re probably just a couple having a fight, he said. But I had a sick feeling in my gut, so I decided to go over and pretend I knew her. I said hello and asked how she’d been, as though we were friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while. She looked relieved and we chatted for a bit. The guy didn’t leave but he stopped creeping closer. Eventually, I had to go, but I kept an eye on the situation for the rest of the night.

Joanna’s Twitter thread has prompted many articles and some investigations into the harassment policies of different airlines. Joanna also shared a few links and tips for bystanders.

There are lots of ways to diffuse a situation that don’t involve calling the harasser out — which can be intimidating.

People are still responding to the thread with their stories, tips, and thank-you notes. Apparently, harassment on airplanes is fairly common and happening more often as solo-travel becomes more popular. According to Mower’s “Quick Take on Travel” survey, two in five women report being assaulted while travelling.

It can be tough for anyone to step in and it’s hard to assess the best way to do so. It’s great that Joanna’s thread is shedding light on harassment on airplanes and has sparked a larger conversation about the role of bystanders. I think it’s also good that it was pointed out that men need to learn to spot those situations too. It’s our job as an entire society to look out for one another.

When it comes to snakes on planes — or anywhere really — it’s good protocol to step in. It’s better to hear that the person is fine than to do nothing and have the situation become dangerous.

In an interview with CBC, Joanna said she had contemplated not tweeting about the situation because it involved a minor.

“I decided to share it and to remove any potentially identifying details because I think this is, in a way, a universal experience of harassment,” she said. “So I think it’s partly a public service for people to have this discussion.”

Stepping in doesn’t have to be obvious. There are lots of ways to diffuse a situation that don’t involve calling the harasser out — which can be intimidating. Sometimes, simply asking “Is someone bothering you?” can be enough to deter a snake.

If you’re looking for tips on stepping in or on diffusing situations, some helpful Bystander Intervention Resources can be found at the following links:

Bystander Resources

Bystander Tips