What I need from the men I love.
To men trying to do better in the midst of an epidemic of sexual violence.
Ihave become a tempest, an unpredictable squall, churning with anger, sadness, frustration, mourning. I know this new emotional undertow is a mystery to you. It’s a mystery to me, too. I am awash in an ocean of grief, and the startling grip of its undercurrent has seized us both. I have been marooned by the tsunami of sexual assault and harassment stories flooding every shore, waves of actors, politicians, comedians, producers, every kind of public figure, crashing over us both.
The storms never seem to end. Until recently, their wreckage didn’t seem deserving of the lofty titles of assault or harassment. These were the routine actions of men my mother taught me to expect. These were the hazards of living in the world as a woman, an everyday inconvenience that I simply needed to move past. Like an ankle twisted on uneven pavement, these were the risks of moving through this world, and they were too unremarkable to warrant a report.
That’s why I didn’t speak up about the apartment manager who denied me housing when I declined his advances.
His actions were his own, but when it happened, through some strange, dark magic, I felt disgusted with myself. I laid in bed the rest of the day, ignoring phone calls and laying in silence, telling myself to snap out of it, insisting on the urgency of finding a new home. At the time, my reaction felt like too much — a mountain out of a molehill. Gale force winds from the simple flapping of some wings.
I told only one friend, who swore to keep the secret of my inexplicable shame. I did not tell you.
I didn’t tell you because I struggled to admit it to myself. I hadn’t been hit or raped. He hadn’t brandished a weapon or made a threat. I was fat and queer, too, and I was certain that sexual harassment was for thin women, beautiful women, straight women. It was a symbol of desire, and bodies like mine were never desired.
I didn’t tell you because I knew the questions that could follow from nearly anyone. Did you give him any signals? You’re very friendly, I can see how he would misread that. Or, worse still, the congratulations. You should be flattered! Because when you’re fat, even the most unsettling harassment should be cause for celebration, signs of a desire that’s assumed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I didn’t tell you because when it came to sexual harassment and assault, you were silent. You didn’t say anything negative — no victim blaming, incredulity, support for harassers. But you also didn’t voice renunciations, reflection, vulnerability, concern. And I certainly didn’t see you take action in the face of harassment.
When men say nothing, I cannot assume they are good guys. Even as much as I love you, I cannot assume you’re a good guy. Good guys are often unhelpful, the voice of reason that keeps us from reporting. Good guys ask well-intentioned, horrifying questions about how we might have led him on. Good guys are the reason for many of our #MeToo stories. The property manager was a good guy.
Most men who commit sexual harassment and assault aren’t Harvey Weinsteins or Roy Moores. They aren’t legendary villains with storied histories of entrapping women. They don’t twirl their mustaches while they tie women to the rails. They don’t scheme about how to use their considerable wealth and power to entrap women.
Most men on the other side of #MeToo stories are friends of yours. They are guys who got drunk and stopped hearing no, and never listened for yes. They are nerds — good guys who got frustrated when women they wanted didn’t want them back. They are good bosses, the kind you can say anything to, who asked out one of the women he just hired during her hiring probation period, because he’s only human, right?
The men on the other side of #MeToo stories are not shadowy figures harboring some diagnosable pathology. The world isn’t that tidy. They are your coworkers, classmates, friends, mentors. They are good guys you like and look up to.
I have not told you because I am terrified you might be one of them.
This moment must be so unsteadying for you. You may not have crossed the bright lines of assault or harassment, but you have spent a lifetime believing that you are a good guy, not a perpetrator. You didn’t mean to cause harm. You liked women, and you felt respect for them. If you didn’t notice harm, it didn’t happen. You would have apologized if it did.
Now, though, you find yourself revisiting every dusty, catalogued memory of your interaction with the women you know. You turn each one over in your mind, looking for cracks, moments where their experience might have differed from yours.
What terrify you most are the moments that didn’t lodge themselves in your memory — the ones that felt so normal, so comfortable that you jettisoned them long ago. What if they lodged in her skin like shrapnel? What if their infection festered? What became of her after that? What had you wrought so recklessly?
How do you find your way back to the safe harbor of being a good guy? In this moment, how can you show you’re not a threat? You can feel the palpable distress around you, oceans of grief as big as mine — bigger — threatening to carry you out to sea. And amongst all that, the water is muddy, a mix of algae and silt clouding everything. What’s the right answer? What is the buoy you can grab for?
But right now, there are no right answers, and no easy access to trust for men — even good guys. Too many of us have been hurt, thoughtlessly or ruthlessly, at the hands of too many men.
You’ve lived a lifetime in a world that insisted your actions didn’t warrant examining because your intentions were good. And while the standards for your actions haven’t changed, the consequences for those actions have. And there’s no way to be sure you’ve charted the right course, because you’ve never navigated these waters before. You’ve stood safely on the dock, surrounded by waters that never touched you. You’ve spent a lifetime living on land. You have a lot to learn about oceans.
There is no safe harbor now. I cannot provide you the security of guidance, a checklist of sanctioned actions that will clear your name, return you from these choppy waters to good guy’s solid ground. But I can tell you what I need.
I need you to sit with your confusion. The accountability you face is changing. Until this point, your behavior was largely beyond reproach. The world around you painted clear pictures of heroes and villains. As long as you weren’t raping a stranger at knifepoint, a glassy-eyed villain from Law and Order who meant all women harm, your status as a good guy was secure. It’s never been that simple, but moving through the world as a man allowed you to believe it was.
I need you to allow yourself to mourn. It’s okay to feel sad or frustrated that people you liked — Louis CK and Al Franken, Bill Cosby and your friend from college — all of them have done terrible things. It’s okay to find yourself awash in the grief of the women around you, to feel stunned at the depth of their pain, to reckon with the frightening depth of those oceans you didn’t see.
I need you to ask for direction, and accept it tenderly. It’s okay to ask what’s acceptable and what isn’t, what’s helpful and what’s counterproductive. You don’t need to have all the answers. I certainly don’t. You don’t need to comfort me, to provide the false certainty masculinity told you you should already have.
I need you to feel how you’re feeling. And I need you to sit with that uncertainty, mourning and murkiness so it doesn’t curdle into something more acrid. I need you to be vulnerable enough that you don’t reach for the buoys of defensiveness and anger, the old friends that keep you afloat in the face of women’s pain. They will lead you to dark places — defending aggressors, or insisting on forgiveness that isn’t yours to give.
I need you to bear witness. I know this is nowhere in your training. I know no one has taught you to sit quietly, feel the texture and fullness of someone else’s pain. I know the itching impulse to argue, to debate, take the issues of the day head on. But this isn’t an issue debate. This is grief — slippery, messy, wily. Half the world is reliving wounds and losses. Offer us condolences. Don’t play devil’s advocate when there are devils all around us.
I need your active participation. Do not disappear into deference. Yes, women need to lead this conversation. But fundamentally, misogyny is a problem for men to fix. It is homegrown amongst men, a problem of masculinity. Only women can know if solutions are working. But only men can enact them.
I need you to know that you are not immune. Your status as a good guy didn’t protect you from making missteps. I know the inventory you are taking now is painful, and I need you to stay with it. Because you don’t have to intend harm, try to bed teenagers, end up in the newspaper to do this. You don’t have to be Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein. You don’t have to have a long and public history of repeated complaints, damning evidence that was callously ignored. But you might have that, too.
I need this to be your clarion call to examine your own behavior more closely. When do you write women off? When do you let men’s bad actions slide? When do you comfortably pronounce that experiences like mine aren’t your fault, that they aren’t your fight? What do you do when friends and coworkers talk about conquests that felt too grey, expressed too exuberantly? You are there when the butterfly flaps its wings. What do you do to stop the tsunami that washes me out to sea?
I don’t need you to beat yourself up. I need you to stay engaged, stay active, stay vigilant. And more than that, I need your vulnerability. I need you to be real enough to try, to mess up, to do better. In this moment, listening and learning are important, but they are not enough to keep us safe. That can only happen with action.
So what’s the action you’re going to take?
Like this piece? There are more like them, including Body positivity and its discontents and How to love a fat person. You can also find Your Fat Friend on facebook and twitter.