#metoo — so #whatcanmendo?

I see a lot of men lately asking how they can respond to the #metoo campaign. I have been blessed with many male allies in my life, but when I think about ways that men have explicitly helped keep me safe, I remember one story in specific.

This story does include the a story about a scary and threatening situation, though no physical assault occurred, so trigger warning on that.

The Story

My college didn’t have sports or greek life, but we had a LARP game that, for a lot of us, was about as big of a deal in terms of campus culture. Immediately after arriving on campus as a young 17 year old freshman, I was pretty desperate to get on the ‘inside.’ I was tiny, unathletic, and a girl, but I wanted nothing more than to be ‘one of the guys’ and be taken seriously enough to have as much fun as they seemed to be having.

One player, who I saw as a ‘big guy’ within the game’s culture, approached me pretty early on. He was older than me, lived off campus in his own apartment and had a car, which were both pretty rare among men at my college. He seemed interested in me and I was thrilled to have his attention. (Later, I would be approached by some girls a few years ahead of me, also players in the game, who had seen us together and wanted to warn me that he was “a creeper” known for preying on new female players.)

He asked me out on a date, which was nice — he knew I liked animals, so we went to a park and looked for frogs — but I didn’t actually feel any romantic or sexual attraction to him. After that first date, I let him know that I wanted to be friends but didn’t like him in “that way.” I was probably just as disappointed as he was, but I couldn’t fake interest that wasn’t there.

The next week, he asked me if I wanted to come over to his apartment to have dinner and watch a documentary that had been made about the game a few years prior. He knew I was excited about the game and was leveraging that. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that — after all, what I wanted was a well known player to take me under their wing and draw me into the game’s culture. But I heard “dinner at my apartment” and got wary. Again I told him that I was not interested in dating him and that I would have to turn down the invitation, since it sounded like a date.

He assured me that it was “just as friends,” and I had no real reason not to believe him. But when he came to pick me up, he was dressed really nicely. I said something about that — something along the lines of “I was clear that this wasn’t supposed to be a date, right? You look like you’re dressed for a date and I’m not super comfortable with this. Maybe I shouldn’t come over.” He told me he’d come straight from work and was just wearing his work clothes. Made sense to me. I got in his car and we drove to his apartment.

It continued to feel very “date-like” as he cooked me dinner (which was delicious), but I had never really been in a situation like this before. For most of my life, when I did have friends, they tended to be guys, and I’d hung out at boy’s houses before. Many of my new freshman year friends were guys, and we hung out in their dorm rooms all the time. So while some alarms were going off in my head, the rest of me figured he was just a grown-up guy who cooked nice meals and wore nice clothes and wanted to be my friend. (At this time I had just barely turned 18, and he was older than 22).

Then we sat down on his couch to watch the documentary. And that’s when things got scary. He put his arm around me and tried to cuddle. I pulled away and said no, that I really didn’t want anything physical. He said right, right, he understood. But a few minutes later he tried again. At that point I started to get really uncomfortable and said something again. He stopped for a while, but then started trying to tickle me. During the tickling he ended up on top of me on the couch. And that’s when all the alarms started roaring in my head.

I scrambled out from under him, got up from the couch and backed away from him. I asked him to drive me home. He said no, that it was really late, and that I should sleep over. I said I absolutely was not sleeping over. He promised that it would be just as friends, and nothing would happen. That he had shared beds with female friends platonically before. But I didn’t believe him. I said I needed to be back in my own bed on campus and that he needed to drive me home right now.

He started to get wheedly and whiny and kept refusing. He said he’d seen me around campus being snuggly with other male friends, as if that meant I was obligated to get platonically snuggly with him. I kept standing, kept saying no, kept asking him to take me home. And he kept making excuses and denials and insisting that I sleep over.

I realized in that moment just how trapped I was. This was before smartphones — I had my little flip phone with me, but no way to look up a cab’s phone number, and no way to pay a cab. Despite my mother constantly telling me to keep $20 on me at all times for emergencies, especially when going out with men, campus life was so insular that I only kept my dorm key and my campus card on me in a little purple zip pouch — no credit card, no cash. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring cash, or anything else, to hang out at a friend’s place.

I had zero clue where I was, and I mean absolutely zero. I had only lived in this area for a few months and rarely left campus. I had paid no attention when he was driving to his apartment, and even if I had, I still wouldn’t really have a sense for where I was. It was dark out. I started running through my options. Could I run outside and call the campus security line I had put in my phone during freshman orientation? If so, would they be able to find me? Could I call one of my friends on campus? What would a bunch of car-less new freshmen be able to do? Could I try to knock on a neighbor’s apartment door and ask for help?

Then I threatened to call a male friend of mine — another freshman, but someone who had already made a name for himself within the culture of the game. What made this friend the right guy to invoke was not that he was a shining feminist ally. I’d only known him for a few months and he hadn’t done anything like explicitly profess to be a Feminist Ally or tell me I could “always count on him” if I was in a bad spot. Friend Guy* had not done anything above and beyond “being my friend” that made me decide he would be Extra Safe or Super Helpful in a situation like this. I didn’t think he was more likely than anyone else to believe me, or more informed about rape culture and sexual assault. Friend Guy didn’t even have a car or a license and couldn’t really have helped me. But that wasn’t the point. It was the fact that Predator Dude knew who he was and respected him.

The Moral

Men, this is the part I want to get through: Yes, Friend Guy was a good guy. He was my friend. He was nice to me. But that was the bare minimum, the foundation on which his ability to protect me was built. I had plenty of other male friends on campus, some of whom were even more outspoken as “feminist allies.” Their wokeness was useless to me in that moment, in that apartment. What helped me get to safety — what I was able to invoke — was Friend Guy’s position within the social world I was trying to navigate when I got into a scary spot.

Threatening to call one of my other male friends would not have worked, since Predator Dude did not know or respect them. Threatening to call one of the other big players within the game would not have worked, since Predator Dude knew they were not my friends. It was Friend Guy’s combination of a.) position within the game culture and b.) care for me that did it.

Once I invoked the name of Friend Guy, I got my ride home. It was terrifying and uncomfortable, and Predator Dude subjected me to a very bizarre rant about his entitlement to women’s bodies and affections while I kept one hand on the door handle and scanned street signs to try and figure out where I was, but I did get home safe.

The moral of this story is: I was a woman who got into a bad situation because I wanted some kind of social or career advancement. I was trying to get an ‘in’ within a specific culture. That made me vulnerable to the predations of a man who already had clout in that culture. And because it was desire for social capital within a specific culture that got me into trouble, the way I got to safety was by calling on the already-existing power of a man within that same culture.

Whether it’s running with the cool kids on a tiny college campus, or getting a coveted movie gig, or anything else, this is a common risk women take, because we’re often shut out of the inner circles of our hobbies and professions. If I hadn’t needed Predator Dude’s attention to feel like I had a chance at becoming one of the gang, I wouldn’t have ended up where I did that night. When men command respect, that can make them very dangerous. But they can also use their powers for good.

Remember that in this situation, Friend Guy didn’t really do anything to help me. He didn’t face down Predator Dude, he didn’t come pick me up. He just existed as my friend who already had a reputation that mattered to Predator Dude. It’s easy to plan out, or promise to take, heroic actions, specific things you can do in one scary moment to swoop in and help. And those are super important! Don’t be a bystander! But there’s more to the story about what men can do.

Start thinking about the power dynamics in every community you belong to, and how those can either create or mitigate dangerous situations. At the time I don’t think Friend Guy consciously realized that he had a power that I did not, and that I could borrow from that to protect myself. So how much more could we do if we all took some time to analyze the way respect, power, leadership, reputation, legacies, and social capital operates in our own communities, then acted with intentionality and awareness to leverage an already existing system to keep each other safer?

Men: Where do you have social capital? In what communities are you respected? Consider both online and irl spaces. Now: how can you spend that social capital to keep women (and other vulnerable people) safe? What can you do to make your name easily invoke-able against dangerous dudes? How can you share your social capital with others? Who might be trying to get into spaces where you are respected? How can you help them? Who is preying on people’s desire to get into that space?

What Can Men Do?

The communities and in-groups I discuss here can include: workplaces, sports teams, churches, social cliques, dance studios, music scenes, Burning Man camps, LARPs, gaming groups, even extended families. If you take your position within a group for granted, you may not be aware of the structures or even existence of the in-group. But they do exist, and chances are, there are women making a deep study of those structures to try and advance within them.

  • Make yourself aware of communities where you may hold a position of “power,” even subtly. It’s easy to assume that everyone around feels like as much of an “insider” as you. They do not! It can be hard to believe that anyone might look up to you as an “insider” with power. They do! Be self-aware about the social capital you have accumulated.
  • Do what it takes to include women in your communities. Explain inside jokes. Explicitly invite us to outings and events. Make sure we get the same “in-group signifiers” as everyone else, whether that’s nicknames, t-shirts, etc.
  • Think critically about in-group signifiers that might alienate women (and other people). Is your trivia team name offensive? Is there a bonding ritual that disadvantages people with smaller bodies (like binge drinking) or who don’t have certain skills that many people aren’t good at for reasons often related to gendered socialization (like classic video games or sports)? If so, do you teach people how to play, adjust the game to be more inclusive, or are some people excluded? (It’s totally fine to play intensely competitive Mario Kart or Ultimate Frisbee if a bunch of you enjoy that. But take a look around at who’s just spectating. And listen carefully to how people talk to, and about, people who are sitting out.)
  • Understand how people earn social capital in your communities. Who has power, and how did they get there? Who are the stories told about? Who do you look up to, and why? Do you have a clear conception of the path to “in-group” status? How might someone “on the outside looking in” see their path to the inside?
  • Are women who participate in the group with their male partners seen and treated as “the girlfriend” or as their own entity? Often, partnering with a male in-group member can be a way “in” but also condemn you to a permanent second-class status. Be aware of this.
  • What are the taboos in this group? Do they apply to everyone? Who does the group exclude or avoid? What values of the group do those taboos try to preserve?(Note that it’s totally okay for groups to be exclusive of certain ideas or behaviors; I’m advocating for intentionality in this.)
  • Who has a safe enough position within the group to get silly? Whose behaviors are cheered on? Who is more likely to be judged or critiqued? Who is most at risk of being seen as an annoying outsider or hanger-on? I have memories of pulling stunts that were ignored or making jokes met with silence, only to witness the exact same behavior embraced and enjoyed when performed by male peers. This excerpt from Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Prep captures this agonizing frustration better than anything I’ve ever seen.
  • Are there any broken stairs in your community? Fix them. Remember that I was warned about Predator Dude, but after he had already gotten me to his place. And that I was warned by other women. Don’t leave it to the women to keep each other safe.
  • Realize that while you’re spending your social capital on building a safer, healthier community, many men spend theirs on Predator Passes. Remember that Predator Dude got into the position he did because he was a big shot game participant on my campus. Believe women when they accuse men you may like and respect of predation and don’t let power dynamics within the group create circumstances where men can become dangerous.

Once you’re aware of these dynamics, talk to your male peers about them! Point out behavior or attitudes that make things tougher for women. Befriend women and honor their contributions to the group without holding them to invisible double-standards. Be a Friend Guy. Share your social capital. Let us in. If there are safe, healthy ways for us to get in, we won’t be nearly as vulnerable to the Weinsteins and the Predator Dudes of the world. Plus, we’re a lot more fun when we aren’t wound up so tight about managing our strategy for getting in on the fun while keeping ourselves safe.

*I do have “Friend Guy’s” permission to publish this. We are still friends nearly 10 years later. A few years after this incident, he got a coveted leadership position within the game and made me his “right hand woman.” We rocked it together.