#metoo  – a modern man’s guide

#metoo  – a modern man’s guide

The #metoo debate has posed some thorny questions for men. What should we do? How can we help? Is it even our responsibility?

A little over a fortnight ago, Harvey Weinstein’s world collapsed around him, like his dressing gown in a dimly lit hotel room. Only this time, not on his terms, and not in front of a solitary woman but in full view of a horrified world.

The humbling of a mogul. The serial predator exposed. The allegations became ever more serious, and ever more they came.

The vitriolic and thoroughly deserved lambasting of a monster continues unabated, and will continue for the full duration of multiple police investigations, civil suits and public accusations.

The conversation around it, though, has shifted… Was Weinstein a lone wolf or a symptom of a corrupt system? Is Hollywood essentially rotten? How many people are sexually abused by those with the power to make and break their careers? How many Harvey Weinsteins are still out there?

Arts imitating life?

Movie celebrities began detailing their experiences: Heather Ross recalling how Carrie Fisher sent a predatory producer a cow’s tongue, mounting questions about the role of studios in suppressing historical abuse allegations, and Corey Feldman’s ongoing claims about the rape of young boys in Hollywood.

Musicians like Sir Tom Jones and Bjork joined the fray. The allegations against Terry Richardson resurfaced and finally prompted his sacking from the glamour industry. Starting with the Arts, women across the world began to find their voice – it happened to me, too, they said.

#metoo

The hashtag was tweeted over 100,000 times on Sunday October 15th alone as women everywhere added their voices to a global conversation about sexual harassment and abuse.

As a man, and as a human, I was horrified by the sheer number of women who said they had been abused. My wife. So many friends. So many of their relatives and so many more who were simply statistical to me. Real women. Most women. Let that sink in for a minute… Most women.

As shocking as the statistics are, it’s perhaps more so to witness some of the responses. Is it just me, or have men been noticeably quiet on the matter? Articles on #metoo appear to be almost exclusively written by women. Sadly, many men who have responded have done so with vitriol, as a cursory scroll through Twitter reveals. ‘Men are abused too, you know!’ they protest, or they flatly refuse to acknowledge the problem. To many, rape is bad and everything else is just ‘boys being boys’. To others, the tragic fact that men are also abused (almost always by men) provides a rationale for diminishing the suffering and ritual abuse of so many women. Perhaps it’s simply too uncomfortable to acknowledge. Can’t Look, Won’t Look.

Many women have attempted to play peace-maker… lines like ‘let’s hear it for the good men’ and ‘men have it hard too you know’ are alarmingly common. Of course, it’s true that men are not all sexual abusers; that so many want to assert that fact in light of this conversation is ultimately well-intentioned. But, much like the moderates in America responding to Black Lives Matter with the indescribably patronising ‘yes but all lives matter, sweetie’, they are missing the point.

A man’s world

If you read the tabloids, you’ll read a lot about how hard it is being a man in today’s world. It was much simpler when you could honk at a woman whose body you admired with impunity, free even from the concept of her feelings and assured of your sovereign right as a ‘red-blooded male’. Today, there are all sorts of rules and guidelines – draconian ones such as not leering at women in public, not groping them at concerts, not making sexually suggestive comments in the office. Not touching without consent. How stifling. For many, this has become a source of confusion. If men can’t express their masculinity through violence, sexual conquest or public displays of bravado, what exactly can they do? It’s political correctness gone mad I tell you!

A man’s place

But hang on, it really IS hard being a man in today’s world! The fact we’ve been subjected to a patriarchal upbringing means we have been conditioned to believe in the virtue of some destructive behaviours. Behaviours that undermine women’s rights and commodify their bodies, while heaping pressure on us to display traditionally masculine qualities.

We’ve been raised to value women predominantly based on their looks, thanks to Loaded, FHM or any other teenage boy’s magazine, while at the same time being told that women are equals. We’ve been told that girls should be pretty and boys should be strong, while our society has sought to undermine that idea by showing us strong women and pretty men – from Thatcher to Serena, from Harry Stiles to Ru Paul. We’ve been cast into a ‘crisis of masculinities’ full of contradictions, mixed messages and pressure.

It’s not easy expressing ‘masculinity’ in a world that has redefined what masculinity means and added ever-increasing performance anxiety to an already stressful world.

Five ways men can make a difference today:

Heather Jo Flores suggested in The Independent recently that when it comes to #metoo, men need to start taking more responsibility, that we need to own the conversation too. She has a point. Can we say that it’s okay not to play an active role in changing what is clearly such a pandemic? If we want to make a change, then how? It can seem like an alien problem – I don’t rape, harass or molest women, so what am I expected to do about it?

  1. Validate

Playing a lot of sport in my formative years meant that the volume of ‘laddish’ influence was, at times, deafening. As a man, I understand how difficult it can be to reverse the brainwashing effect of patriarchal miseducation. Many of us don’t even realise that’s what we have received. It’s hard to question one’s normative ideas.

#Metoo is a troubling conversation. It’s easier to simply delineate, putting abused women and abusive men into one pot and the rest of us into another, to go on with our lives. The women in our lives seem alright after all, we can reassure ourselves.

Is this conversation only valuable because of the statistics at play? Are we going to just passively gaze at women and their pain? Where do we go from here? We can all agree that Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour is deplorable, but is it enough to merely castigate serious sexual abusers and go on with our day?

  1. Learn

As long as men absolve themselves of responsibility because they haven’t perpetrated the abuse themselves, the problem will remain. Like most social illnesses, the warning signs are in plain sight, the shoots are many, and they are weak. Come on men, we can challenge them! Maybe one way we can do that is by asking ourselves if we truly understand the nature of this abuse? Most people can understand the abhorrence of physical abuse, but much like society’s pervasive attitudes to mental illness, we seem to struggle with less violent abuse. Cat-calling, innuendos, suggestive comments, inappropriate staring are just some of the ways men intimidate, belittle and harass women. Yet many fail to see the seriousness of this. Perhaps it’s because these behaviours are often dressed up as kidology. Perhaps it’s because women sometimes choose to play along. Women have used #metoo to tell us that this, too, is abuse, and it too is damaging. If we, as caring, progressive men, want to be allies, we need to fully educate ourselves on the true nature of abuse. Where it comes from, how it starts, how it manifests.

  1. Listen

It’s something that I think I knew, but definitely didn’t really contemplate… huge numbers of women are harassed and abused on a daily basis. In boardrooms, offices, public parks, nights out. On school trips, in brightly lit interview rooms, in theatres, clubs, playgrounds… everywhere. The #metoo conversation tells us that, and it’s rightfully appalling.

Women shouldn’t need to perform their pain in the first place – the least we can do is pay attention.

If women are brave enough to speak, we can be brave enough to listen. We can demonstrate that we’re on the same team, with the same goals.

  1. Speak out

Every time a colleague makes a lewd comment, privately or in public, we have a choice. When a friend in the pub or on the street makes uninvited, aggressive advances to a woman, we have a choice. In thousands of daily interactions, from the seemingly trivial to the obviously inappropriate or even illegal, we have a choice – make a stand, or tacitly condone.

I’m not saying we should put ourselves in harm’s way or start fights – and it’s fair to remember that many men exhibit these behaviours completely unconsciously.

Much like tackling racism or Islamophobia, we need to use discretion, but ultimately find a method of disempowering someone’s abusive behaviour. Maybe that just means showing the woman in question that she has an ally. Perhaps it’s a case of directly confronting a sexist remark. It’s certainly not sweeping it under the carpet, at any level.

  1. Reflect

As far as I can see, we’ve got an opportunity here. Will we choose to avoid the topic, letting it wither away as just another brief hashtag sensation? If not, what form will our support take? It seems arrogant to think we can wade in and save the day, but many of us are wondering what differences can we actually make?

There are some obvious rights and wrongs, and a lot of grey areas.

I certainly have some things I don’t understand. What about all the single men out there, wondering how they chat a woman up now? How can they make the first move and know their advances are welcome and respectful? If my youth is anything to go by, one’s (usually clumsy) advances stand a much greater chance of rejection than encouragement. Are we saying that such advances are only appropriate if the recipient has already signalled consent? It’s hard enough just plucking up the courage, without the added fear of perpetrating sexism. Doesn’t this undermine our very instincts? It’s hardly a concern in the animal kingdom, and I can already hear the Daily Mail brigade claiming emasculation.

But as society grows, maybe we can all grow with it. Do we really need to act like silverbacks to get what we want?

Have I always done everything in my power to stop the kind of harassment many women encounter on a daily basis? I’m not so sure. I could have spoken out when, for example, a group of university classmates I was on a night out with started hollering at a group of girls across the road. I stayed quiet, distancing myself from the unsightly mob. But I didn’t do it because I was overcome with empathy for womankind – I did it because I thought I was above such crassness. I certainly didn’t challenge them on their behaviour and went on with my night without a further thought.

It may seem trivial – no harm intended – but does this kind of everyday behaviour reinforce the notion that women are objects?

Realistically I’m sure that many of us have done similar things. We can tell ourselves it’s not harassment, it’s not abuse. But isn’t it still part of the problem?

As difficult as these questions are, it seems only fair to ask them; to continue the conversation. I certainly don’t have the answers, but maybe that’s not so important right now. Maybe furthering the conversation is enough, not running away because it makes us uncomfortable.

Of course, many have done far worse, despicable crimes devoid of grey areas. These acts are in a different class, far more serious and far more damaging. But is the low-level harassment and derogatory language women are subjected to so frequently really that far removed? Does one set the scene for the other?

In the end, the #metoo conversation is most startling due to sheer numbers – hundreds of thousands of women abused by men in our very recent past. As men, maybe reflecting on our own behaviour, remaining part of the discussion and challenging our normative ideas is one way to change the future.

Not all men

I don’t believe the #metoo conversation is intended to exclude the LGBTQ community or men who have suffered abuse, or women who have been abused by other women. I see their stories as part of the conversation, not an alternative to it. We all have a stake in this conversation, regardless of our sexuality or gender. It just happens to be that the vast majority of abuse is perpetrated by men, against women. Highlighting that isn’t meant to exclude those who fall into other categories.

And, as many have countered in the #metoo debate, it’s #notallmen… valid point. Not all men are abusers, and many are active allies, fighting the good fight against inequality and injustice. I don’t see how that assertion contradicts the #metoo conversation, though. It’s not binary, it’s not Men Vs Women… it’s choosing to entrench a culture of abuse or assist its evolution.

Where now?

Building sites across the UK have instilled strict rules banning wolf-whistling. The very places synonymous with lecherous harassment of women have made a seismic policy change because they know today’s world does not accept the old excuses. The old assumptions about masculinity are being ushered into the past, and rather than feel aggrieved, like white males so often do when their privilege is threatened, we, men of all colours, religions and backgrounds, have an opportunity to help found a new and more just landscape.

We can lend our weight to these tectonic shifts, or we can bury our heads in the sand.

Adam Hignell
Photo by, New Scientist

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