Guys, gather round. I get it. I understand. You care about sexual abuse, sexual violence, sexual harassment.
In fact, you really, really care because unlike some we could mention, you care about all victims, not just the women, am I right?
You probably know the stats already. Wherever women and girls are victimised in sexual, intimate or gendered crimes, men and boys are victimised too. Pick a statistic – one in eight victims here, one in three there, one in four of this and one in ten of that.
Even on an issue like workplace sexual harassment, which is about as gender-tilted as these things get, you can still find plenty of men with their own stories of being bullied, harassed, coerced and victimised by male or female colleagues or bosses.
What’s more, the victimisation experienced by those men is not neatly isolated by gender. More often than not it will intersect with issues around sexuality or gender identity, racial stereotyping and racial fetishization, mental health and neurotypicality, social exclusion and vulnerability etc, etc.
Those issues are real. The pain and suffering of those involved must be acknowledged and we need to talk about those issues, develop solutions to help prevent it happening and to support those survivors who need help or access to justice.
If you agree with me, if you care about those men, if you want to help those men and prevent others suffering in the future, here is what we need to do right here, right now:
That is it. That is all. You don’t have to stop caring about men and boys, about male victims and survivors. Further below I will spell out how we can address our own issues and really make a difference but for now, today, tomorrow, this week, the story is about women being abused, assaulted and harassed by men. Deal with it.
The days and weeks since the Harvey Weinstein scandal began to unfurl have become something of a cultural watershed, a moment, even something of a social revolution. The Weinstein scandal snowballed into the remarkable social media phenomenon of #MeToo, in which literally millions of women put their heads above the parapet to say that they too had been sexually harassed or assaulted.
I think the best way to understand this is as an explosion of overwhelming rage and righteous anger. Someone asked me on Twitter last week why the Weinstein story was hogging the front pages for days on end when it was just about rich starlets and meanwhile no one was mentioning an impending nuclear war between China and North Korea. Criminologist Steve Hall (whom I should declare I have known for a long time and with much admiration) tweeted that he cared as much about the Hollywood superstars as they cared about the deindustrialisation of Sunderland.
What Steve misses is that I bet if you asked the women of Sunderland what they thought about the issue, pretty much all of them would have stories to tell about the lecherous boss who groped them behind the counter, the creepy men trying to pick them up in their cars, the men who have molested them in clubs and pubs and worse. They could tell him how those experiences have shaped their lives, in some cases ruined their lives and/or careers. They could probably also sit down and have a very well-informed conversation about how casualisation of their working conditions, de-unionisation and neoliberal restructuring of their working lives have left them more vulnerable and with less redress than ever before. The idea that these issues are remote from the lives of working people is spectacularly flawed.
This is why the Weinstein scandal is such big news. This is why #MeToo became such a tsunami of disclosures. From women’s points of view, this is not a story about one movie producer and a few dozen actresses. This is a story all about them, all about their friends, and about the men who have flitted in and out of their lives.
And it should be really easy to understand that from women’s perspective this is a story about women and men. From a female perspective, their abusers all have one thing in common. They are (with very, very few exceptions) men. When women are asked what they want to happen, what they want to change, they usually express it like this: we want men to stop harassing us, we want men to stop assaulting us, we want men to stop enabling and excusing other men who behave like this.
It’s at this point that men bristle. “But I don‘t do this,” we exclaim. “I don’t know anyone who does this! Why are you blaming me?”
This is the unfortunate truth. By and large, most men don’t do these things, at least not habitually. However most of us will at some time or another have misjudged a flirt, over-stepped a joke, made an approach which turned out to be unwelcome. We’re human, we all fuck up, we can learn. We can try and recognise where we’ve been a dick in the past and try not to do that again.
Probably more significant, amongst our numbers are a small minority (and I think it genuinely is a small minority) of prolific serial abusers and sexual harassers, often operating well below the radar of other men. If you have a workforce of 20 men and 20 women, it might only take one prolific sexual harasser to create a workplace where 95% of the men are entirely innocent and oblivious, but 100% of the women have experienced sexual harassment.
So how do we, as men, react to being told we are to blame?
Tip 1. Don’t take it personally if it is not personal. If you can read a list like this one and honestly declare that none of those apply to you in the slightest, then great. The person writing or sharing that list is not talking to you. More significantly, it is not about you and it never was. You do not need to make it about you. You do not need to declare your innocence or proclaim how hurt and offended you are. Nobody is helped by that. Women who have been assaulted, harassed and abused are not helped by you doing that. Men who have been assaulted, harassed and abused are not helped by you doing that. You are not entitled to a gold star for best behaviour or a cookie for behaving like a decent human being.
Tip 2. Don’t police women’s anger. We’ve all read the accounts of Weinstein’s behaviour, we’ve read the #MeToo messages, including those from our friends, family and loved ones, we’ve thought about the extent of harassment and abuse. Millions (probably billions) of women have felt shivers of recognition and waves of anger over what happened to them and/or their friends today, yesterday, last year or half a century ago. And yes, they are angry with men. Not necessarily you, Mr Random Uninvolved Men, but men as a gender, a class and a group. And they are right to be angry with men as a group because all too often men as a group have behaved fucking abysmally.
Tip 3. Challenge the abuse of men and support male victims and survivors, firstly as an end in itself and secondly to support the broader effort to end harassment, but never as a counterpoint or rebuttal to women’s experiences. Terry Crews pitched this just right last week. His disclosures underlined and emphasised the prevalence of sexual harassment in Hollywood. He was not seeking to undermine disclosures from women and I don’t think anyone criticised him for adding his own experiences to the mix. It’s the difference between saying “You don’t have a point because this can happen to men too” and “You do have a point and this can happen to men too.”
But perhaps better still, join us in carving out other spaces to talk about men’s experiences, separate and parallel to the conversations women are having. Those can happen at the same time or perhaps we can find more appropriate occasions. Even this week, to be blunt, if you have been trying to talk about men’s experiences of sexual assault as a rebuttal to the Weinstein allegations but you have not been highlighting the testimony at the Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry from Rochdale children’s homes about the revolting crimes of Cyril Smith, then you’re probably a shitty hypocrite who doesn’t actually care about male victims at all.
If I can urge you to take one thought away from this conversation it is this. We live in a culture riven with social, political and economic exploitation. Our lives and experiences are intertwined and interdependent. Suppose for a hypothetical moment your only concern is with boys and men being abused, assaulted and exploited, whether by other men or by women. You will never address that or mitigate that for as long as women and girls are being abused, assaulted and exploited in turn, because the culture that allows men and boys to be abused is the precise same culture that allows (or expects) this to happen to women. If you make efforts – any efforts – to prevent exploitation and abuse of anyone you will, even incidentally, help prevent exploitation and abuse of everyone.
The flipside of this is that by challenging sexual harassment and abuse, whether of women by men or any other combination, whether in Beverley Hills or in Sunderland, the women speaking out today are doing a huge favour to the men who also need our help.
Be part of the solution.