How many dozens of ‘#MeToo’s did I see in my social media feeds this past week? More than I could count, more than I can remember. That was what really hit home: more of my female friends than I could even remember have been assaulted, raped, harassed, or otherwise violated by men. It’s heartbreaking. It should be heartbreaking. It should end. In order for it to end, men like me who are heartbroken about this need to do some work. That’s clear to me.
For me, the first work of any hard work is work on myself. This past week, I’ve taken a look at myself, in the present, feeling heartbroken about all the men who violate women and wanting to help. I asked myself how I became the kind of man whose heart would be broken by these things and who would want to help. Because I wasn’t always. I’ve changed. And I want to share the ways I’ve changed, for a few reasons. First of all is that owning your shit is very important. But also in the hopes that maybe a man who needs or wants to change in some of the ways I have might be encouraged to do so – and also in the hopes that maybe a man who has changed or grown in ways that I haven’t, or still need to, can teach me something. Because I think this is a way to help the ‘#MeToo’s – men teaching each other how to not be one of those men.
One of the first things I remember about sex is that I wasn’t supposed to do it. Outside of marriage, sex was a sin, sex was shameful, sex was a thing to repress and ignore and not a thing to explore or understand. The silver lining of this cloud of shame was that I never learned to be an active assaulter, a rapist, a harasser. To be those things maybe requires a certain lack of shame, and although there were and are plenty of assaulters in the conservative Christian tradition I was raised in – for example, my grandmother, when she was a young woman, was raped by an older man in her church (and if you’re ever struggling with a lack of empathy around this subject, think about a man raping your grandmother for just a moment and see what that does to your perspective) – shame probably kept me from being one of them.
My past violence toward women was much more passive than that.
As I explain what I mean by that, by ‘my past violence toward women,’ some of you reading this might think ‘oh, that’s not that bad’ or ‘that’s not violent at all’ or other some such equivocation. That equivocation is part of the problem. Check it, and consider that things like what I’m about to share might contribute to the culture of rape and assault we live in just as much as rape and assault. Maybe even more so, because they seem ‘less bad’.
Because sex was shameful, it was not to be talked about. I have a strong memory of my 6th-grade sex ed class: my teacher, an older man in his 60s, face red just saying the words ‘vagina’ and ‘penis’, stammering through an incoherent answer to my question, no doubt prompted by that awful Sublime song, ‘what is date rape?’ I learned nothing from this class except to continue to be embarrassed and ashamed of sex. When you have an older man ashamed of sex teaching young men, you will teach them to be ashamed of sex. You will teach them to resist talking about sex, even as it is happening (and I am defining sex now as any intimate physical action, from touching to kissing to intercourse). You will force them to find other answers, wrong answers, to their questions: from pornography, from other young men more confident but no less confused in their experiences, from young women not actually saying no to the things you think you want to do with them. These were all ways I participated in violence towards women. I’m sorry for it.
These habits and patterns continued past high school, into college and my 20s. Change began happening, though. Due to probably a combination of residual shame and genuine aspiration, I wanted to be seen as a ‘nice guy’, and eventually wanting to be seen as one led to wanting to actually be one (pro tip: although trying to be a ‘nice guy’ in order to get women to like you or sleep with you means you’re not actually a nice guy, it can lead to you becoming one, and in the meantime might keep you from doing things you’d regret). I dated women who were strong and self-aware and learned things from them; I had women as friends who were honest and open and willing to help me grow; I had flings with women who had no shame around sex and helped me to overcome mine; I made male friends who didn’t view women as objects and learned from them. And so I learned that consent really meant active and continuing ‘yeses’ rather than absence of ‘nos’. Which meant that my violence towards women became even more passive.
While I was healing my own behaviors and patterns and practicing better ones, I was still scared to call out other men, or act in other proactive ways to help women in violent, or potentially violent, situations. Situations such as guys making jokes or talking about women in destructive, violent ways (and also making jokes or talking about gay men, trans people, non-binary folks, and the like are also just as harmful); male friends hitting on women; drunk men going home with drunk women. I’m sorry for these things too. The change that helped me address these things (and I’m still working on them, and needing to be better here) was starting to see that men behave as if they are owed things.
Because a fundamental cause of all the violence that has led to all the ‘#MeToo’s, as I see it, is one of male entitlement. We are taught, especially white men and especially straight men, that the world is ours, public spaces are ours, women are ours, attention is ours. I started noticing this recently, and this has been the biggest perspective change: once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Male entitlement is in the way men approach women in bars, sure, or in coffeeshops, or really anywhere. But it’s bigger even than that. If you’re a male and you’re reading this and you want to do something, maybe start with this: look for examples of male entitlement. You will see it in the government, with a president entitled to grab pussy, or a vice-president entitled to regulate women’s bodies. You’ll see it in stores and restaurants: men flirting with cashiers and servers. You’ll see men entitled to space on the bus, in the park, in your home. You’ll see it when there isn’t even a woman around – men approaching other men and starting unwelcome conversations (this happens to me a lot). You’ll see it in meetings, conversations: men entitled to their voice. You’ll see it in movies, hear it in songs, read it in poems, even (especially!) the ‘romantic’ ones: men entitled to an answer, an affection, a ‘baby’ or a ‘honey’ or a manic pixie dream girl. If enough people read this piece, you’ll see it in the comments section. You’ll still see it in me, unfortunately. And most importantly, you’ll start to see that ingrained male entitlement in yourself. You’ll notice the ways that you, as a man, expect things. And all this noticing will make you uncomfortable.
That feeling of discomfort is important, because it points to another fundamental cause of all the violence that has led to all the ‘#MeToo’s – men not being, or wanting to be, vulnerable. True, active consent requires vulnerability: like Laurie Penny says, giving someone real freedom of choice means they might not make the choice you want. You may be rejected by someone you’re attracted to. You may not have sex with someone you want to have sex with. You have to open yourself up to being hurt. To being uncomfortable. To feeling things you might be unfamiliar with. You have to practice vulnerability. And if you’re a man, and you’re reading this and you’re thinking, like I once did, that being vulnerable is hard and a lot of work and too emotional and you don’t want to do it: take a moment and look through your Facebook, or search Twitter for #MeToo, and read stories about all the hard emotional work women have to do all the time because of all the violence towards women. And then think about how ‘violence towards women’ really means ‘violence from men’. And then ask yourself if maybe you, as a man, shouldn’t suck it up and do some work of your own.
Violence from men. If the problems come from us, so must the solutions. And if the solutions must come from us, so must the work.
So. If you are a man and are reading this, and any of this is ringing true to you, I’m open to helping you walk through it. If you have questions about things you’ve done, ways you want to grow, or anything else related to this, I’m open to trying to answer them. And if you’re a man who’s learned as much, or more, about all the violence that has led to all the ‘#MeToo’s, I’m open to working with you or learning from you too. For my part, I want to be better about calling out the more passive violence I see, and I could use help and support from men in that goal. I also want to hear about other ways men are working on this problem, so please, if you have other answers or steps or solutions, please, let’s talk about it.