Let’s get one thing straight. You cannot sexually harass or abuse a woman without realising you are doing it. This is active, deliberate, targeted behaviour that some men choose to engage in. That means they don’t do it to everyone. They do it when and where they can get away with it, and they want to do it.
Last night I watched a Swiss TV report in which about 20 men were interviewed about how difficult it is now interacting with women and how they don’t know if they can give a compliment anymore. This was the line of questioning from the woman journalist. As in, literally, “do you feel like you can’t give a compliment anymore?” The report was part of a longer item on the #metoo phenomenon, a wave of truth telling by victims which grew from the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the numerous allegations against powerful men that have followed.
What a perfect example of conflating two totally different problems, involving two totally different groups of people. On the one hand, men who find it hard to gauge their charm skills, and on the other hand, men who get sexual gratification from making women uncomfortable or afraid.
Bottom line, if you worry about women taking your comments or your birthday hug the wrong way, you are not a predator, you are socially inept. Predators don’t worry about these situations, and falsely presenting predator behaviour as social ineptness is the very definition of disingenuous.
If this is the message that reaches those hearing about #metoo from a distance, people who do not even bother to read the stories of horrible experiences or ask the women in their life what it means to them, it is a crying shame.
Here is what #metoo means: humiliation, fear, shame, flashbacks, and nasty memories that make you sick to the stomach.
Remember, these toxic men cross the line when and where they can get away with it. One of the perks of getting older is that you fall off the radar of creeps like this. They know who they can embarrass or intimidate into silence, most often girls and young women. So, apart from the risk of a very random event, I feel safe now in my daily life. I am now a person who will tell an aggressor to fuck off, I will report them and, most importantly, I have credibility. They know that and they act accordingly.
But I know that girls and young women are still in the firing line. My direct experience of male sexual violence and harassment was worst between 11 and 22, give or take. I can think of at least a dozen incidents when I felt frightened, in danger, and disgusted by the behaviour of predatory men. And I’m not talking about compliments.
For starters, I’m talking about exhibitionists, the dirty old men and young men that waited in the lanes and backstreets of my neighbourhood to expose themselves to schoolchildren. If you think flashers are harmless, please understand that the victim does not know it will end there. Every time it happens you dread that maybe this will be the one that grabs you, and does those acts you don’t understand but you fear so much.
I’m talking about inappropriate comments in the workplace. When I was 16 and working in my first proper job serving drinks in a bar, there was a barman who would tease me with questions about my non-existent sex life. He only did this in front of select others who would either laugh with him or blush with me. Did you have sex last night? How many times did you do it? And on and on. He knew what he was doing. I did not know how to handle it. He would not speak to me like that now.
I’m talking about being followed and pestered on public transport and in the street, telling a guy to leave me alone and not being left alone, being called ugly names instead. I’m talking about a boss more than twice my age and weight trying to get sexual with me. There is nothing subtle about this, these are not misread signals or clumsy compliments, this is groping and forced kissing and someone trying to physically overpower you.
You good guys, you know who you are. You are the majority and we love you. Partners, friends, workmates, neighbours, cousins, you make us comfortable, you make us laugh or smile, you want to treat us well and you do. It’s that simple. The others don’t want to treat us well and they don’t. No soul searching or faux confusion required.
Based on what the wonderful women in my life have told me, I know that my experiences of sexual harassment are on the minor end of the scale and that is a serious relief. I have heard tales of child rape and gang rape that chilled my soul. I know there’s a hope that teaching young men about consent will make potential aggressors think, oh now I get it, respect women. I’m not convinced. My feeling is, you are either a decent man who cares how you make women feel or you are not, and you know damn well which one you are.
(That painting is Concept of a Woman by Robert Motherwell, 1946, currently on display at the Paul Klee Museum in Bern.)