How us men need to respond to “sex pest” stories

This article (one of all too many by women recounting their experiences of unwanted male attention), and the call of a female Facebook friend for men to do a bit of self-reflection when sharing it, helped clarify some thoughts knocking around since the Weinstein story broke:

The core issue is that we (straight men) all know we’re on the spectrum. We’ve all been a bit too pushy with women - especially when younger.

But we don’t really want to admit it.

We all recognise elements of ourselves in some of the stories that women have been telling across the web - and the natural reaction is to go defensive: "Hang on, I’ve done something similar to that - but I was just trying to chat her up, and I’m not a rapist or anything. It was innocent - and she seemed not to mind too much, so..."

But in excusing our own behaviour, we're also excusing the behaviour of others who are further towards the more obviously bad end of the spectrum.

This month is somehow already our 12th wedding anniversary, and roughly the 17th anniversary of our first date - so I've long been out of the game. I haven't had to put up with the stress and rising desperation of trying to find someone you like (and convince them you aren't a weirdo) for a good long while.

But this whole thing makes me wonder how I’d have ended up if I hadn’t ended up in a solid relationship for so long (and from so relatively young an age). Would I have continued as my clumsy, awkward-around-women adolescent self - gaining confidence with alcohol, and losing judgement with it? Would I have calmed with the years, or would I have got worse as the desire (and social pressure) to be part of a couple continued and worsened with passing time?

The reactions to the firing from various positions of one UK political journo, after stories of his actions towards a number of women emerged on Twitter, are a good case in point. In isolation, many of these stories (telling a woman he fancied who’d told him she’d prefer to be friends "I’ve got enough friends, I want to fuck") sound like things many of us have done while on the dating game - basically being a bit pushy, going a little over the line. In aggregate, and from some of the other stories, he took it further than most to the extent it was a consistent pattern of predatory behaviour - but most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, have made similar individual transgressions from time to time. I’m certain there are plenty of women I was at university with who remember me similarly unfavourably (although I hope not...)

In other words, it's precisely because it's so easy for us to see bits of ourselves in some of these stories - and that it's so hard to tell where the line is - that men are reluctant to self-reflect and so quick to reach for the classic "not all men" line. I've seen threads on Twitter about this journo where men who weren't there have been going "come on, it wasn't that bad" to a succession of women who experienced the guy's advances personally saying "yes, it was" and being ignored or dismissed as over-reacting.

Yes - wouldn't it be nice if it was all just an over-reaction?

  • Of course not all men are going to expose themselves at women.
  • Of course not all men are going to grope women.
  • Of course not all men are going to shout sexual abuse (which they doubtless think is a complement) in the street.
  • Of course not all men are rapists.
  • Of course there is a spectrum, and some unwanted actions are worse than others.

But no one is equating rape with a wolf whistle. That's a straw man piece of deflection designed to make us straight men feel better about ourselves, and to prevent us from having to self-reflect.

Because the trouble with acknowledging that there’s a spectrum is that you then - if you’re being honest with yourself - have to work out where you sit on that spectrum. And that may lead you to realise that sometimes your behaviour may have seen you drift further towards the unpleasant end than you might like to admit. And that there aren’t necessarily clear lines between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour (as much as it would be easier if there were), as so much depends on context, perception, tone of voice, body language, response, what you did next.

One bad action doesn’t make you a bad person. But juat because it was a one-off also doesn’t mean it wasn’t a bad action. Own it. Reflect on it. Don’t do it again. And don’t try and pretend it never happened.

Because one thing that is clear - even if we can't always position ourselves on the spectrum, we all have a sense of right and wrong (even if this varies slightly for all of us).

And if we want to be the "nice guy" we all think we are, we have a duty to act like it:

  • Nice guys don’t stand back and let this shit happen.
  • They don’t let other guys overstep the mark.
  • They call people on their actions.
  • They point out when someone’s being a dick to a woman.
  • They tell their drunk friend "leave her alone".
  • They physically pull him away from her if necessary.
  • They keep an eye out for a woman in the bar who looks like she’s being harassed, and get ready to step in - not in a patronising, paternalistic, knight in shining armour way, but in a "being a decent human being" way.
  • When they hear stories about the senior guy at work abusing his position of authority, they don’t laugh at it, or ignore it - they get *angry* about it.
  • If they feel powerless in such a situation and think there’s nothing they can do, they reflect on how much more powerless their female colleagues facing that shit more directly must feel - and start working out *how* to do something about it from their position of relative strength.

Because "how would you feel if you were the woman in one of those situations?" is something few men have ever had to ask themselves.

But pretty much every woman has.

They don't have a choice. We do.

So choose to do something other than keep quiet and hope it goes away.

It won't.

(Note: Article originally titled ‘How a “nice guy” really responds to Harvey Weinstein’)

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