How I Made One Woman Say #MeToo

The #MeToo meme going around Facebook in the wake of the flood of allegations against Harvey Weinstein has elicited many responses. Most women I know, or who are just on my friends’ list on FB, have chimed in, and a lot of men have expressed genuine, heartfelt support and solidarity. I’ve seen a few repulsive responses, but mostly it’s been a hugfest. And that’s good.

But there’s an important question to be addressed: is this just a fad, the newest way to be a social media good guy/gal? Or will this have a real and lasting effect?

For me, this is tied up in a bigger question. Those expressing support do so under the implicit assumption that it’s “other guys” who are doing these things. I’m sure in many cases that’s true, but the sheer number of #MeToos suggests that a sizable number of these well-meaning men have contributed to rape culture themselves at some point.

If we really want to stop this, we need to open a wider discussion.

It’s not just Weinstein that’s the problem. Nor is it even a President of the United States whose supporters were not put off by the sexual assault allegations against him, the recording of him talking about grabbing women by the pussy, and who menacingly stalked the woman who was his opponent on stage at a nationally televised debate.

No, it goes much deeper. The current name for this is rape culture. But whatever we call it, it includes everything from forced, non-consensual sex to catcalls and leering at strangers, to the routine objectification of women.

How do we deal with that? It starts by talking about it, and, in many cases, admitting our own sins.

These next paragraphs are the hardest ones I’ve ever written, and certainly the most frightening. But it’s a true story.

About twenty-five years ago, I worked in an office at a small non-profit in Northern California. I was at the bottom of the hierarchy there. One day, we hired a woman who was also at the bottom of the hierarchy. Our equal technical statuses (although having been there a while, I was really of a slightly higher status) made me feel like it was ok to flirt.

We seemed to get along well, and enjoyed each other’s company, even occasionally getting a beer after work. There was certainly friendliness, but I couldn’t tell if there was anything more.

After about a month, there came a day where we were talking, and I was behind her while she was working at her desk. As we chatted, I reached out to her and started to gently massage her shoulders. She stiffened, I stopped. She said that was inappropriate, and I apologized. We finished the day out, awkwardly, but with no further incident.

The remainder of her time at that job was characterized by an icy relationship between us. Words were only passed when necessary, and she wouldn’t (couldn’t?) look at me. I reiterated my apology once and she said something to the effect of “it’s in the past, don’t worry about it” or something, but clearly whatever friendship there had been was gone and she had been hurt. Some two weeks later, she found another job.

I spoke to friends, all of whom were women, and they made me understand just how out of bounds my behavior was. I felt awful. There was nothing more I could do, except to learn from it. I believe, and certainly very much hope, that I did. I can at least attest that I have never done anything remotely like that since.

Let me be very clear: at that time, I held genuine and heartfelt feminist views. I just didn’t always live up to them. I hope I do better now. But this sort of behavior was something I hadn’t thought about. I should have, but I didn’t.

I check myself to see if I’m using that male privilege of mine, but sometimes forget to check or just don’t see it. I don’t beat myself up over that; I’m human, and a product of the patriarchal culture I grew up and live in. I do all I can do, and that is to strive every day to do better. Some days I do, some days, I don’t. I’d like to think that, on balance, I do more to oppose and strike against male supremacy than I do to reinforce it. I can’t make that judgment, I can only do my best.

What I do know is that if #MeToo is to be more than a momentary expression from women about how widespread the problem is and more than an opportunity for men to be the good guys in supporting them, men need to take the initiative.

The reality is that most of us have contributed in some way to male supremacy and continue to do so. It may be to a great degree or a small one, but the sheer number of women saying #MeToo tells us that we all need to check ourselves and most of us probably have something in our past that we regret.

It’s scary, I get that. As I write this, I am very worried about how friends, family members, colleagues, Twitter followers, and Facebook friends are going to look at me. No doubt, at least some of them will think much less of me.

But the fact is, women are doing what they can. Men must do more than express support. And admitting what we’ve done as individuals helps to move the conversation forward and means we can work together toward a solution.

The View From Both Sides

I posted the following recently on Facebook:

“I fended off an attempt at rape, and I feel like it would be helpful for people to realize that men are victims too, but there is very much a patriarchy issue here that I don’t want to step on. Happy for that to start a conversation, as long as it’s clear it’s all about supporting the many brave women standing up now.”

Patriarchy hurts men too, and it hurts us in many ways. That “fragile male ego” we often make fun of is not a natural phenomenon, it is created by the roles patriarchy thrusts on us.

I posted that point for several reasons. One is to make it clear that men are not immune to being victimized by sexual predators. Nor, incidentally, are women immune to becoming predators.

But that should not, must not, be interpreted to mean that rape culture, as it is called (and I find the term problematic, but that’s a different topic; it’s the term we have right now), is not somehow a product of male supremacy. It absolutely is, and the issue of sexual predation is, undeniably, a highly gendered issue.

So, please, the few of you that I’ve seen posting #MenToo: stop. No, it’s not like the racists who were posting All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter. But it is bringing the very legitimate issue of male victims of sexual predators into a conflicting, rather than helpful, position vis a vis women standing up against sexual assault and harassment.

I was thinking about my own disreputable actions when I posted the story of my attack as well. How many of us have been on both sides of this issue? I have no answer for that, but I’d be willing to bet good money that it’s more than you or I think.

The incident I referred to above was one where I was being forced into a sex act against my will. I resisted and got away. Without going into too much detail, I can assure you that a key factor in my ability to do that is that my assailant could not use his size or strength to intimidate me.

Some women (in fact, more than many might think) can do the same, but the average woman matched against the average man cannot. But there is a more important distinction here. It is male supremacy that engenders the predatory behavior. Thus, while I can be both victim and victimizer, and it is possible for a woman to be either as well, it is all based on a culture that is trying to empower me as a man by disempowering women. That reality means that, while the actual assault can happen to me, smaller, day-to-day harassments and the atmosphere of threat are things that, due to my gender, I don’t have to deal with in the way women, all women, do.

I should add that, by necessity, I have reduced a lot of this to binaries that don’t really exist. The fluidity of gender also translates into a fluidity of the effects of male supremacy. People experience these things along a spectrum, not in binary terms. But I’m only trying to start a conversation here, not come up with the answer. Doing that is going to require the efforts of a lot more of us, of all genders (and none) for a long time.

Maybe the response to Weinstein is a sign that the tide is turning. But if that is going to happen, we all must take the hard steps. It’s not enough for the victims of sexual assault and harassment to stand up and say #MeToo while the rest of us cluck our tongues and offer support. We must all also stand up and examine our own behavior, and yes, speak about it. Maybe then we can move toward a world where women who say #MeToo are the exception rather than the rule.

Postscript: There is an #IHave meme now on Facebook, doing just what I am suggesting. But we still need to see this happen on a much wider and broader scale. 
Thanks to my dear Shelly for pointing this out to me.

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