A new male friend and I were chatting last night and I was describing to him how the waterfall effect of the Harvey Weinstein revelations has affected my relationships. He made a flip comment about it being “the new thing these days.” I was flabbergasted and replied that it was not a trend from where I sit; it’s the beginning of a revolution. He apologized for the comment, but I don’t think he had any sense of the implications.
This is a dark and confusing time for all of us where bedrock social norms no longer apply and I have observed a lot of bewildered behavior from men as a result of this steady stream of reports that men behave badly on a regular basis.
To try and put the MeToo thing in context, I’ll use myself as an example. At the age of fifteen, I lost my virginity to a boy I had met two hours before. He was one of the popular boys, I had a huge crush and his sudden attention caught me completely off guard. He and his friends convinced me and my girlfriends to ditch and go to someone’s house nearby.
I had no idea that once he got me in a room alone he was going to try and go “all the way.” It’s an understatement to say that I didn’t know how to say no to this boy that I really liked and I was the last girl in my group to remain a virgin. I was so confused and ashamed that even when my girlfriends tried to barge the room, I told them to get out. After he was done, he told me not to tell anyone.
By the end of the school day, everyone knew and one girl saw me in the hall and started screaming his name, imitating me having sex with him. He called me that night and asked me why I told everybody, that he was talking to this other girl and now I had wrecked his chances with her.
Boys who had ignored me all year were suddenly swarming. I kept a brave face and pretended to my friends like I was in control of all this, but everyday, I came close to running away just so I didn’t have to face going to school.
This treatment was normal and it branded me.
Historically, my interactions with men are commonly characterized by: interruption, aggression, manipulation, and inappropriate comments and touching. I’ve experienced lying, gaslighting, emotional abuse, stalking, catfishing, and I was targeted by a romantic con artist.
So when these stories started to come out, it may have broadsided men, but no woman I know was surprised. The thing that surprised us was that there are actual consequences for this behavior. When we say #MeToo, we don’t mean once. We mean this is the toxic atmosphere we live in. We mean predators of all stripes count on a complicit system.
So I direct this list of action items specifically to men in this new territory. If you want to know how to be part of the solution, here are a few places you can start:
1. Be brave. I’m not talking about the kind of brave where you save a baby from a burning building. You guys are pretty good at that. But frankly, you suck at having emotionally vulnerable conversations with the women and men in your lives. It’s not your fault, we can squarely place the blame on the patriarchy, but you still have work to do. It’s time to have some tough conversations, to confront our collective complicity. Be ready to be wrong about some things. Be ready to change your mind and develop more awareness.
Sacramentos’ Women’s March, January 20, 2017.
2. Do an inventory and clean house. My brother and I had a profound conversation a few days ago. There was someone in our midst who required unfriending and I took the opportunity to point out to him that he had crossed a line himself. He apologized to me and made amends in a way that I thought was really brave. Men should know that an apology for even a mild transgression has enormous healing potential for women who regularly deal with this onslaught and go their entire lives without ever hearing the words “I’m sorry.” Think back to the times that a woman told you that your friend did something gross. Did you blow her off? Do you still hang out with that guy? If so, maybe a conversation is in order.
And if you know someone who has a considerable track record of bad boundaries with women, you’ve got two choices: decide he can improve and work with him, or disengage. Does this seem like a tough choice? Well, it is. And we do it all the time.
I know this is going to make some of my loved ones uncomfortable, but it enrages me to this day that they still have my ex-husband to dinner when he catfished me on the Internet, hacked my cloud, and posted revenge porn. When I told them all this as it was unfolding, my friends would shake their heads and say, “wow, that’s fucked up.” And then two weeks later, he would stay the weekend at their house with his latest girlfriend.
Again, my brother said he’d witnessed a lot of shitty behavior from my ex and he sees now that he could’ve said something. By saying that, my brother showed me that he’s my advocate.
3. Listen without interrupting. I read a great piece in the Washington Post about how at the beginning of the Obama administration, there were two women in his cabinet and 2/3 of his staff were men. Numerous studies have been conducted in the business world that show men are more likely to interrupt women in a professional setting, and more likely to take credit for their ideas. Interrupting is a subtle but tactical method of debasement and so these female Obama staffers started to employ a countermeasure they referred to as “amplifying”. If one of them got cut off, the other would circle back and open up the opportunity for the first woman to complete her thought. They would also echo each other’s ideas by attributing: “Going back to Valerie’s idea…” It must have worked because at the end of Obama’s second term, his staff was comprised of 50% women.
Men need to do this for women too.
4. Take responsibility for the ways that the patriarchy has benefited you. To say “I’m not most men,” is akin to white folks saying to African American people, “I didn’t enslave you, so racism has nothing to with me.” No one wants you to personally apologize for racism or sexism (unless you have behaved in a racist or sexist way), but understand that you live in a world that was designed for men and by men. Understand that women are just gaining agency over their lives for the first time in the last few thousand years and if it seems like we have a hair trigger about language or tone, we do. We’ve gotten punched in the face since the dawn of Western Civilization.
5. Stop minimizing. This one is also subtle, but it has powerful consequences and it’s one step away from gaslighting. Matthew Remski writes about this in a brutally honest blog post titled On Minimization as a Patriarchal Reflex: “My minimizing reflex is mobilized in an instant. The speed is a clue. My partner gives me feedback. Whatever the content is I instantly reframe it so I can feel like it’s either personal attack on me, or — and this is harder to see – as a problem that I am now responsible for, on behalf of someone who I instantly tell myself is overreacting. Both reframes are designed to render the incoming data dismissible.”
In the context of sexual misconduct, it’s harmful for men to point out that what Louis CK did isn’t the same as what Harvey Weinstein did. it’s true, Louis didn’t lure women into his hotel rooms and rape them, but these are part and parcel of the same sick system whereby women have to make life decisions based on some man’s out of control libido. Let’s not split hairs. Let’s just give their jobs to women.
6. Call out shitty male behavior in groups. A male friend of mine described sitting at lunch with a bunch of male co-workers when a heavy woman walked by wearing athletic pants. The men took the opportunity to complain that she didn’t have the body to wear those pants and my friend said, “Hey, wait a minute. She gets to wear whatever she wants. You don’t have to be into it, but you don’t get to decide what she wears because of what she looks like. That’s her choice.” He wasn’t mean and he wasn’t righteous, but because of the way he said it, he instantly called these guys’ misogyny to the mat and they retracted.
No one gets a pass for hating anymore.
American Girl in Italy by Ruth Orkin
7. If you have questions, don’t pose them on social media. A new acquaintance of mine did something ingenious on Facebook, a platform she uses for political discourse and organization. She asked the men on her feed to bow out the discussion for the purposes of the post and then posted questions from men so they could remain anonymous. This was a really effective way (as far as I could tell) to allow men to listen to a range of female responses without starting a flame war. If this option isn’t available to you, consider approaching one female friend in person and start the conversation with “I need help understanding this.”
We are in the middle of a reckoning. All these actions take practice. They take effort and they will necessarily make for some discomfort. But guess what? Women have been uncomfortable this whole time!
It gives me tremendous hope that our voices are starting to be heard. We will no longer be ignored, paid off, silenced or otherwise punished for someone else’s actions. There is a groundswell happening, an indirect response to having a predator in chief.
If any one group is capable of turning the ugly turmoil we are seeing, it’s women. Men only stand to benefit from empowering us. And it’s time. We’ve all waited long enough.