Was it Me, Too?

I’m going to write this and it will get no readers. It will get no readers because I am not going to put it on any of my personal, real accounts. I’m not putting it on those accounts because I’m ashamed and uncertain about the content. But I think I should write it. And if someone does read it, maybe it’ll help somehow. I don’t know how, because I’ve started without knowing where I’ll finish. I just think the stuff in my head needs to go somewhere.

So that’s a good way to lay out my ego, I guess.

This morning, I opened Facebook first. Atypical— it’s normally Twitter for me. The first thing I saw was that a friend had posted the words, ‘Me too.’ Perfect sentence case, full stop included. There was no media attached, so Facebook had made the letters big. They sat there, ambiguously, at the top of the feed.

As usual, there were Reactions below her status. Unusually, at least one was the crying face. There was something significant I didn’t yet understand.

I’m used to Twitter being the source for finding out what’s happening, so I went on and found the campaign.

I went back to my friend’s status. I didn’t do anything.

Instead I wondered, for a second, if it was about me.

I grew up a strange boy with a number of symptoms of some underlying issue that was never really addressed. I wasn’t introverted, exactly, but I couldn’t make meaningful connections with any of the people my age and so was often on my own. I was unable to successfully converse, interact, or play. Highly precocious, I preferred the company of adults, but I wasn’t at all equipped to associate with them. Above all, I was both extremely sensitive and utterly emotionally immature.

I had a long-distance girlfriend for a while, without whom I may… without whom I don’t know what I’d have become. It didn’t work out but we cared about each other. For me, that was the first time I had cared properly about anyone.

I left school freshly single and without any friends but determined, at University, to remake myself into someone I actually liked. I didn’t know who that was and, to be clear, I had no laughable visions of pulling girls or even attracting any interest in the first place. I knew I was a loser. I was going to start with being able to socialise at all.

I mostly stuck to the plan. But inevitably, my head was turned by this or that pretty girl. This was the beginning of a very long battle with myself.

It’s hard to describe. Imagine a formidably clever 13 year old boy, transplanted into an 18 year old’s body. I had no idea how people worked but I was cunning as fuck and weaponised that intellect even as I told myself I was a lefty nice guy (yeah, I know)— a feminist, even — who despised men who mistreated women.

Not that this was a lie. I really did hate them. I saw them as the worst type of ‘bloke’ who would tell his mates down the pub how he fucked ‘that blonde he’d been chasing for weeks’ whilst laughing about her tits. These were the boys who had also bullied me, casually, without even particularly realising it, for two decades. I hated them and everything they stood for.

Furthermore, I genuinely did believe women were great — generally better than men, actually — and should be treated right; that the patriarchy was as real as it was malevolent and that most porn was degrading and weird.

It’s just that I was also a scumbag.

I schemed. I put pressure on. I wheedled. I engineered scenarios. I spent hours on messenger with selected prospects (but also friends (but also targets)), carefully and deliberately laying down potential groundwork even as I genuinely did want to provide support. I put a value on every social interaction, carefully logging its outcome and the possibilities it offered. And throughout, I lied to myself about the appropriateness of my actions — I lied about what I was doing. I was smart enough to almost always maintain plausible deniability. But I was always manipulating and planning, never doing anything by accident, stealing attention and doubtless, at times, forcing girls onto their guard.

XKCD, as usual, gives it a good airing.

There was also stuff I didn’t do: I never touched inappropriately, I never tried to induce a girl to become impaired or took advantage of one who was, I never forced an issue, I never (on the only three occasions) had sex for the first time without asking. In fact, my first girlfriend at Uni actually commented specifically on what a nice guy I was.

But I was a scumbag.

I eventually realised that one of the things in action was that I had conflated separate issues: I thought that because I saw/imagined the rugger-bugger bully-boys being so vocal in how they objectified and projected power over women, the only logically acceptable position was to have a totally Platonic relationship that happened to include sex. Real love, you see.

After this clicked, granting myself permission to be ‘shallow’, ie to admit to being actually physically as well as mentally attracted to women, proved to be a huge step forward, leading me to treat women with a lot more equity than I had pretended to previously.

As I grew up more, and left Uni, I found the context had changed. Being blunt: couldn’t meet/bang coursemates anymore; now was the world of dating and work.

This was pretty hard. I definitely had at least one year without sex. But by and large I was growing in social confidence and ability, and much less of a dick than before. I had also become reasonably handsome, and so eventually found quite a lot of success, most of which was positive.

But not entirely. My Achille’s heel remains not being very good at reading people and what this meant was that in the period after leaving Uni I still made mistakes. But now, an increase in sex meant some of these mistakes were more serious.

  • The girl who invited me over to Oxford for two days. We ended up sharing a bed in her dorm for some reason, and I struggled to stop myself making contact. I touched her leg with my toe and she shrunk away. I got the message which I really knew all along, and felt awful.
  • The girl I came inside without realising that, this time, that wasn’t what she wanted. It took me a few minutes and her being a long time in the bathroom to realise I had physically hurt her, and felt awful.
  • The girl who came to visit for the third or fourth time, but this time wanted no physical contact although we’d had sex without a condom the previous time. I didn’t understand what was happening all night that we were out, only finally getting the message after the fact, and then feeling awful.
  • The girl who I think slept with me out of compulsion, which I didn’t want and didn’t get until later, whereupon I felt awful.
  • The girl I had a thing with for a while, and whom I still struggle to see as — and act in accordance of being — just a friend, which I feel awful about.
  • My own cousin, who I basically drunkenly one-sided flirted with and I think made her deeply uncomfortable and that I feel awful about.
  • The girl who I slept with repeatedly when she was a short-term guest at my flat. It was mutual, and she insisted she wanted it, but now I feel there was maybe a power dynamic at play that was going unspoken.

There are others. A dozen or more dates and internet messages gone wrong, fucked up on paper before anything else could happen.

What gets me about these, apart from the deep shame I feel for all of them, is how Jekyll-and-Hyde I can still feel. My sexual, physical impulse frightens me. It enslaves my higher reasoning. It wills my muscles into actions that my morals scream against. The aftermath is always the same: self-hatred, regret, and furious, shattered disbelief at myself. An immediate desire to make amends. For transgressing, again.

Yet I really am… nice. I’m generally a good person, and I say that knowing that most people like to kid themselves about this stuff. I have a more sophisticated view than ever of feminism, of gender, of sex, of women and men in general. I care about justice and getting things right. I’m happy to sacrifice my good fortune for society’s benefit. I return lost items, give old ladies my arm to cross the street, and support the many, many folk who — because I have a lot of domain knowledge and a talent for processing information — come to me for advice from career advice to love life conundrums. I pour hours and hours into other people’s troubles. I’m a fixer.

But I’ve done bad things. I’m not hiding from that. And it’s what I struggle with in the context of #MeToo. I read a lot of Tweets today that I agreed with whilst simultaneously being, at least previously, part of the problem. I saw Marie Le Conte’s excellent article and felt unable to share it, because I thought I’d be proving myself a hypocrite. We all know what Marie’s getting at here, and it didn’t really need the narratively-convenient denouement to prove it. In fact, I worry that it muddies the water in the same way that always happens, because men typically engage with stories of sexual harassment by attempting to redefine the terms of harassment. So I guess at least I’m not running from that.

Not that it deserves applause. I’m not looking for a benediction, you know? I don’t want to make it the task of womankind to forgive me. I’ve no right to demand they say “well… it’s okay”, nor any expectation that it is or could be okay. And though I’ve apologised to many of the women I feel I’ve wronged, I’m aware that even engaging with the subject again forces them into that dynamic. It’s wrong but it feels like the apology becomes more about me than them, even if that’s not what I want.

But… well, what am I saying?

I think… what do I think. Okay, maybe: that the discourse involved in sexual harassment is both necessarily uncompromising but also makes it hard to contextualise how it can happen without the person being a monster. It’s entirely possible to think that — if I’m not kidding myself — that as an actually good person who has done some bad things, I’m an edge case, and most of the perpetrators fall into that camp mentioned earlier, of the casually misogynistic bloke cracking jokes about bitches to his mates over a pint.

Except it’s happened to me, too.

A male senior partner kissing me when I was too drunk to do anything about it. A girlfriend who pressured me into sex against my wishes. Another male senior person stroking my face with an inflatable… object. The woman who pinched my arse in the bus queue. The other woman who felt me up on a date way too aggressively even though I moved her hand aside several times.

I am still in touch and on good terms with the first three people. They are good people. They were… they made bad decisions in the moment, sometimes because of drink, sometimes not.

Much more serious than any of these experiences, I know Laurie Penny recounts her rape along these lines, as does Mary Beard to an extent.

I think we have to keep remembering this. Not just as ‘nice men do x too’, but also ‘something drives nice men into doing x’, and even ‘men may not always feel in control of themselves when they do x’, just as men who are compelled to get into fights can describe a red mist. Again, none of this as an excuse, I’ve got to be really clear on that. There’s no plea for diminished responsibility. But if we don’t acknowledge this sort of darkness, it makes it hard to fix, and it makes it hard for men to realise that they don’t need to be a 2D villain to be an actual, real-life villain.

Back to my friend: she was one of the bullet points, above. We still talk. We get on really well. We help each other out through life. Today I apologised again.