It wasn’t enough that a candidate for the president of the United States was accused by a dozen or more women of sexual assault and harassment, assault and harassment that he actually confessed to. No, a powerful so-called “Hollywood liberal”, Harvey Weinstein, had to be the perpetrator before America began to really take this seriously.
Since that moment, largely thanks to social media, the #MeToo hashtag caught fire and, for the first time, America got a taste of just how common and prevalent sexual assault and harassment are in our society. Our wives. Our girlfriends. Our moms and sisters and coworkers and friends all began to share their stories. It’s illustrative that the slogan “Me Too” was first created by Tarana Burke eleven years ago but is only now getting national and international attention.
I believe there will come a time in the future when we look back at 2017 as a turning point in America. Not because Donald Trump became president but because we as a country began a process of becoming self-aware when it comes to the lived reality of nearly all women. The truth is, nearly every woman I know has a story of being sexually assaulted or harassed by a man. This is very likely true of YOU, as well. And it’s not because female victims somehow gravitate toward men like me. It’s because these women are all around us including in our families.
Given the disgusting prevalence of this, I have come to the sad conclusion that this is happening all around me and it can’t just be a handful of shitty men who are doing it. It has to be because many, if not MOST, men are doing this. That’s a thought that has me in a deep funk these days. And it has me asking if I have ever done anything a women would describe as an unwanted advance or even assault. As a man who was raised by an ardent feminist who drilled into my impressionable brain from early on that consent must be given before anything even remotely sexual takes place, my initial thoughts were, “No, I have never done anything like this.”
But then I remembered back to 6th grade or 7th grade where I snapped girls’ bra straps or grabbed their ass in the hallway and I had to confess that, although I was a stupid kid at the time, yes, I HAVE done these things.
I have also been asking myself hard questions about standing idly by while it happened to women around me. Have I ever listened to men make sexist comments that made the women in the room feel unsafe or uncomfortable? Have I allowed this behavior to go unchallenged when I witnessed it happening? While I can’t think of any specific instances of this, the sad endpoint of my thought experiment is that I very probably HAVE done this.
It is time for this to stop and it is time for men everywhere to be part of the solution. We simply MUST become part of the conversation and identify our role in this horrible element of our culture. Yes, I realize that both men and women engage in sexual commentary about each other when they are flirting. They may engage in mild physical contact as a way of signaling interest in each other. They may engage in sexualized banter and innuendo. Both men and women are socialized to do and accept these things and it’s certainly not always bad or harmful. But men, in particular, should, from this point on, never engage in this sort of behavior without giving serious thought about what they are doing beforehand. Men must wrap their minds around the concept of “consent” and understand that consent is more than just saying “yes” to sexual contact of any kind. That’s just the starting point of this conversation.
First and foremost, men must understand that there is a difference between flirting between two equal people and the same behavior when there is a power differential. The instant that there is any element of a power differential, playful flirting crosses a line into harassment or, in some cases, assault. That power differential can play out in many ways, sometimes in ways most men never think about.
A supervisor/subordinate relationship is a power differential. A large, strong person has power over a physically smaller person. If the person on the receiving end has the potential to experience some sort of negative consequence for not engaging in the behavior, then that behavior is inappropriate. A college boy who makes advances on a classmate who fears being ostracized because she didn’t cooperate is wielding power over her. A teacher or mentor over a student, a boss over an employee, a famous person over an average non-celebrity. These are all relationships with a power differential that should be treated differently than relationships between equal players.
Does this mean that courtship and flirting and playful interactions between potential partners needs to change? Yes, in fact, it does. Nobody should feel forced into a relationship of any kind because they feel they will be harmed in some way if they don’t. By “being harmed”, I don’t just mean physically. That type of harm is obvious. Men must ask about the less obvious harm they can cause others. Is the career advancement of the person on the receiving end at risk? Is their place in the community at risk? Is their ability to pursue their life as they choose to at risk? These are questions that we must all ask ourselves when pursuing relationships. If people aren’t able to choose their path forward free from this risk, a power differential exists and consent is difficult, in some cases impossible, to give. It requires a deliberate conversation where both parties acknowledge the situation and move forward with mutual understanding and consent.
And we need to begin teaching our children these things NOW.
It’s also long past time for men to laugh off the inappropriate behavior of other men. I’m not just talking about intervening when a drunk lout gets too handsy with a girl at a party. I’m talking about calling men out, even publicly, not just when the act inappropriately but also when they SAY things that are inappropriate. Not just not laughing at crude jokes but actually calling the behavior out for what it is: harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment. We need to be as offended as a woman would be in these sorts of situations. When Donald Trump confessed to Billy Bush that he assaults women, Bush’s response shouldn’t have been to laugh at/with him, it should have been to stop him and call him out on his grossly inappropriate behavior.
I’m not saying this is easy. In fact, it can be damn hard, particularly in male-dominated environments where this sort of thing has been common since forever. But until we as men start calling out other men for these things, nothing will change. Women are almost always on the receiving end of the worst parts of a relationship with a power differential and we can use our male privilege and place of power to help change the dynamic. We can be a major force for change in our culture in this regard and be true allies to women by speaking out whenever it’s required.
Our daughters and our girlfriends and our wives and our aunts and grandmothers and female coworkers and neighbors and all of the other women in our lives need the good men in their lives to stand by them. If we don’t, this rape culture we live in will never change.
Let’s let 2017 be the year that was the beginning of the end of an American culture where women are regularly sexually harassed and assaulted as a matter of course. From now on, when another man tells you about times when he stood up to a harasser, be sure your answer can be, “Me too.”