[Warning: this post contains explicit content / language]
Like many in the past week or so, my Facebook feed has been full of posts from women (myself included) participating in the #MeToo movement, as well as essays written by women for various news outlets. Along with these posts, there have been a number of posts and comments from men responding. As might be expected, there has been a range of responses: men taking ownership of this issue and expressing a desire to reflect on their own lives and interactions with women, vows to take action, admissions of bewilderment and surprise at what’s going on, and flat out denial and attack.
The kind of response that seems to be the most common, though, is one I’ve seen in quite a few comment sections in several different forums. It goes something like this:
There is a post by someone (usually a woman, but sometimes also a man) pointing out that yes, this issue is far more widespread and pervasive in our culture than most men realize, and men need to acknowledge the part they play in that and take an active role in changing things. Without fail, the comments section will be filled with a significant number of men saying something to the effect of “I feel bad for what all you women have suffered, but not all men are the problem / I am a good man who’s always treated women respectfully / it’s not fair to blame all men for the acts of a few creeps or predators / don’t equate flirting or asking someone on a date with rape / you’re going to alienate all men if you unfairly accuse them.” As is often the case in difficult conversations, people engaged in the same conversation are talking about two very different things. While troubling, this is hardly surprising.
I have two older brothers, and they are both deeply good, decent men. They respect women. The thought of them ever saying something crude or demeaning to a woman is ludicrous to me because what I know of their character, nature, and a lifetime of observed behavior is completely antithetical to that. But here’s what’s also true: even though we grew up in the same house, went to the same church, attended the same schools, and walked/biked/played on the same streets, we lived—at least in some ways—in two very different worlds.
I was raised in a very strict, conservative Christian home, where clothes were modest, language and behavior were expected to be above reproach, and contact with “worldliness” (movies, television, school dances, makeup, rock music, dating) was extremely limited. And yet by the age of 15, I had experienced boys/men yelling out of car windows or from bikes as they whizzed by that I should suck their dicks or fuck them. When faded jeans came into fashion and I wore my first pair to school, a boy jeeringly asked me how they got so faded at the knees. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it was something bad and degrading, and I thought about it every time I put on those jeans.
When I was in the eighth grade, my mother took me shopping and bought me a new pair of white capri pants and a red shirt with white buttons on the front. I often wore my sister’s hand-me-downs, so it was exciting to have a brand new outfit. When I put it on for the first time to wear to school, I remember looking in the mirror and thinking I looked pretty, which wasn’t something I thought often in junior high. I loved the bright colors and felt happy in that outfit all day. Then, on the bike ride home from school, I rode past a man in a black Trans Am (one of those with a gold eagle painted on the hood) who was stopped at a light and whistled as I went by. I didn’t think much of it until I saw him drive past me, pull into a driveway, wait until I passed, then drive ahead and wait for me to pass again in another driveway. Each time I passed, he made crude comments about what he’d like to do to me from his open window. He followed me for over a mile, and I managed to get away from him only when I faked him out at a light, pretending I was going to wait and cross in one direction, then pedaling ahead through a yellow light after he’d made the turn. I rode the rest of the way home in terror, looking over my shoulder constantly, waiting to see if he’d reappear. I never wore that outfit to school again, and for weeks after that on my bike rides home, my heart would pound and I would start to shake if I caught even a glimpse of a black car. I was thirteen.
I have been followed by men on numerous other occasions, endured speculation about whether Asian women really do have tighter vaginas, been subjected to “jokes” by drunk college boys on the commuter bus from Cambridge to Wellesley when I was coming home from seeing a movie with friends (sample: “How is a piece of gum like a dick? It goes in hard and dry and comes out wet and soft”). I’ve been groped by strangers while riding public transportation or walking through crowded areas. I’ve walked by males sitting with their brothers/buddies who’ve called out numbered scores rating my appearance/body. And, of course, there are the demeaning names, prompts from strange men to give them a smile, the whistling, and the body-raking looks that are too numerous to count.
And here’s the thing: I’m pretty certain my brothers don’t know about any of these incidents. Why? Because it wasn’t something I felt comfortable talking about. When I was a child/teenager and these kinds of things would happen, my response would usually be surprise and confusion (Are they talking to me? But what does that mean? Why are they saying that to me? Did I do something?) followed by embarrassment and shame, a feeling of degradation and dirtiness. I wanted to forget about and hide those experiences, not talk about them openly. There was no model for talking about those things openly, so it didn’t even occur to me that I could talk about them, much less know how to do so. As I got older and these incidents became more and more numerous, I learned—as most if not all women do—to ignore or shut them out, to move on with my life and not define myself according to these incidents (a luxury some women aren’t able to enjoy due to far worse experiences). I took self-defense classes. I bought pepper spray. I learned to wear a mask of cool oblivion and carry my keys pointing out when passing men in pairs or groups.
To those who might be asking, “Why didn’t you speak out against those guys?” there are several reasons. 1) I was too surprised/caught off guard in the moment and didn’t have the chance to formulate an appropriate response (although I’d spend hours later imagining things I could have said/done). 2) It would have been unsafe to do so. 3) When I did speak out, I was told I needed to get a sense of humor, to learn how to take a compliment, to stop being over-sensitive or over-reacting, or to not be such a frigid/uptight bitch.
So, let’s get back to articles like this and the responses to them where men say “Don’t blame all men / I’m not one of the bad guys / etc.” No one (at least in the articles that I’ve read) is calling all men terrible. No one is equating the average Joe nice guy with predators and rapists. What they are trying to point out is that the attitudes and behaviors that lead to this kind of widespread mistreatment of women are a deeply rooted, inherent part of our culture, and culture is something everyone is both shaped by and responsible for, however active or passive our participation. And, men, when you still have so much more power than women in so many of the arenas that shape this culture, you also have that much more responsibility.
To provide an analogous situation, I don’t consider myself a racist person. I’ve been subject to racism myself and believe in respect and justice for all who bear God’s image. That said, I also have to acknowledge that I live a very privileged and oblivious life in many ways that others in my neighborhood, city, and country aren’t able to, and that’s not right. I also have to acknowledge that I am capable of high levels of self-deception and my memory is highly selective. I might not be as “innocent” as I believe I am. So, yes, there are a lot of good men out there when it comes to how they view/treat women. But the assertion that it’s only a minority of men who are responsible for anything bad or wrong doesn’t match the widespread nature and sheer volume of negative experiences that females have or have had. The numbers just don’t add up. When men insist they’ve never witnessed any of this type of treatment of women or don’t know what women are talking about, that’s not a defense—it’s an unwitting confession of their lack of awareness.
Where it gets complicated (and it IS complicated) is all those grey areas, which is where most of us live.
Example #1: I once borrowed a shirt from a male coworker for a school spirit dress up day, and when I returned it to him, I told him I’d washed it so it was clean. He responded, “Oh, so my shirt got washed with your underwear? Hmm…” and he waggled his eyebrows and laughed. I felt uncomfortable, but I also laughed and said, “Actually, I washed it with a load of my dad’s boxers.” This happened years ago, and I’ve now worked with and been friends with this man for 20 years. He’s a good man–a husband, father, and mentor to countless young people whose lives he’s shaped for the better. At the time he made this comment, we were both single, and I think he was trying to be a little flirty or just funny. I recognized that he didn’t mean any harm, which is why I gave him a pass and let it go. I didn’t want to make a “big deal” out of it. Still, it was an inappropriate comment and it made me feel kind of icky. He’s a man who, if I pointed it out to him now, would recognize it was wrong and apologize to me. But he didn’t recognize it at the time, and I’m guessing he probably thinks of himself as one of the “good guys.” And he is a good guy. But good guys can think/say/do inappropriate things too.
Example #2: A pastor at my church preached a sermon on the book of Ruth one Sunday this summer. He prefaced it by expressing his own previous lack of interest in the story and generalized that into the premise that a lot of people tend to overlook this story because “it’s such a domestic story.” He went on to assert that this “domestic” tale (he used the term several times) was actually—surprisingly (at least to him)—a story rich with meaning and significance. I’m pretty sure he was just trying to set up the rest of his sermon in an engaging way, but it still came across a little like, Hey! A story about two women and how one of them gets married can actually have importance and relevance to everyone! Who’d a thunk it? And yet this is another really great guy—a deeply thoughtful, intellectual, and perceptive man who has always shown great respect for women.
Example #3: When I was a teenager playing a game with my brothers and some of their friends, there was a lot of typical guy joking—insults and teasing, primarily. When I joined in (after just listening and observing for a while) and teased one of them in a similar manner, he was clearly taken aback, and another one of them said, “Katherine, you’d better watch that sharp tongue of yours or no man is going to want to marry you.” There was an uncomfortable silence, during which I smarted, humiliated. My brothers didn’t say anything, and the game continued.
Now what do any of these examples have to do with men catcalling or stalking or groping women? Not much, on the surface of things. But if you consider that behavior and the attitudes that inform behavior exist on a spectrum, there is a connection. It’s a subtle connection, easy to overlook or deny, but it’s still there. It’s there in the message that men are the main characters in this world and women are the supporting players; there in the socialization of girls and women to be “nice” and always consider other people’s feelings first—to not cause a fuss; there in the frequent assumption that women’s concerns / issues / experiences are relevant only to them while men’s concerns/ issues /experiences are typically assumed to be universal; there in the widespread portrayal and discussion of girls and women in pop culture and media as primarily sexual objects to be evaluated by their appearance / bodies and treated accordingly. It’s there in the looks, the jokes, the tones of voice.
It’s there in the language.
Here’s a list of words/terms from the English language, both historic and present, that can be (and are often) used by men to address or describe adult women in a way that’s condescending / diminishing / disparaging:
Now, here’s a list of terms used to address or talk about grown men in a condescending / diminishing / disparaging way:
boy (though more rare as a negative unless directed towards an African American man)
Now, let’s take out the terms that still manage to denigrate/stigmatize women even though they’re aimed at men, along with the one that denigrates gays. That leaves us with:
I’m probably forgetting words from both lists, but this gives you an idea. And it’s just one area of many where there are significant disparities that contribute to a culture of sexual harassment.
No, men, of course you are not all horrible creeps and predators. No, women aren’t saints—we have our dysfunction and brokenness too. And yes, we live in a world that is messy and complicated and confusing. It is also beautiful and amazing and good. But things are not as they should be, and some of that wrongness and imbalance is happening right under your nose, has possibly happened in your own life and interactions. And maybe it’s not fair that you have to bear the weight and responsibility of other men’s sins. But that’s what girls and women have had to do (and still have to do) on a regular basis for more years and in more ways than can ever be counted.
Thank you for writing this with such clarity and fairness. I have learned from you, again.
Thanks, Michael! I appreciate that!
Suzanne Bronson said:
This is great Katherine. I have had the same experience since I was in junior high. Got to the point that when I lived in LA I hated having to go out because I could not walk/take the bus/train in peace. Wearing headphones or reading was no deterrent. Men demanded I talk to them and when I politely said I was not interested I was then cursed at, and called any of those aforementioned names. I have had men pull over in parking lots when they see me walking by and asking for my number. Again, when I politely declined, no was not an acceptable answer. They would persist (and I say they because it happened more than once) until I fled. I am done with being told I am the one with the problem they are just paying me a compliment. I am also done with being polite. I now tell the harasser to fuck off in no uncertain terms.
I am also setting my older male co workers straight about calling me young Lady. I agree that a lot of it is just educating men because I do think they honestly think calling a 41 year old woman “young Lady” is respectful and complimentary when in fact it is the opposite. You explained it so much better than I could have. Thank you for sharing, too bad we didn’t share our experiences when we were children. I don’t think it was something my girlfriends and I talked about either. So let’s get the conversation going for the next generation.
Thanks for sharing, Suzanne, and I’m sorry that’s happened to you so often!