The thing about privilege: even if we know we have it, we aren’t always aware of how we wield it.
Never has this been more evident than in the outpouring of #MeToo posts in the last week. Actress Alyssa Milano tweeted:
What followed was an overwhelming wall of accounts across social media, detailing harassment, abuse and rape. Sexual assault is - and has always been - as endemic and widespread as women have been saying for years. This time, though, everyone could see the exact full extent in one heady gulp.
Though some men have used the hashtag #HowIWillChange to illustrate their commitment to reflecting on, and changing their behaviour, it’s safe to say that the volume of these posts doesn’t even come close to the Me Toos that inspired them. “Me Too” is the response to something being done to women. But by who? For every woman sharing her experiences, there’s at least one man who’s harassed or assaulted. So where are the men saying they’re committed to change? Where are the men calling out their mates? If something traumatic happened to one of your female friends, you can count on the fact a man you know is probably responsible for something similar – so why the silence?
This doesn’t mean that all men are rapists – very obviously they’re not, and nobody is suggesting they are. But the toxic masculinity that enabled Harvey Weinstein to continue his abuse of women is not black and white: it’s a sliding scale, and from ‘harmless’ sexist joke to drunk pawing to “playing devil’s advocate”, most people have, at some point, sat somewhere on that scale. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge: nobody wants to admit to being complicit in, or, worse, responsible for, abuse. But women have done enough now. We’ve shared our trauma, we’ve tried to call out our abusers: what more can we do? It’s up to you now, lads.
The good news is that it’s actually very easy to change your behaviour.
Self-reflection is key – did I really need to laugh along with a joke that I knew was sexist? Did I really treat that friend or girlfriend right? Do I absolutely, definitely have to bring up my most pedantic quibble with feminism when a woman is talking about sexual assault or rape? Mostly, the answer is going to be “probably not”. So, y’know… don’t.
There are also practical things you can do. If you’re interested in masculinity, feminism or gender, read around the topic yourself rather than asking women to explain basic concepts to you. Being knowledgeable doesn’t excuse you, though – someone can nominally be a feminist but fail to reflect on their own behaviours and continue to treat the women they know incredibly poorly. It’s one thing to recognise unacceptable conduct in others, but that alone doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to recognise it in yourself.
Switch up the way you consume media generally – is everything you read, watch or listen to made by men? Change it! Women write books now, you know, and some of them are actually quite good.
Stop excusing bad behaviour with “sorry, I was drunk”. If “sorry, I was drunk” sums up your relationship with women: stop drinking.
Re-evaluating the power balance of your relationships can also be a useful exercise. Are all your female friends much younger than you? Are you in a position of power over them at work, financially or socially? These imbalances make a big difference to the way relationships operate, how deferential people feel they ought - or even ‘have’ - to be around you. How often do you consider this in your interactions?
Don’t expect praise for behaving respectfully towards women – it’s the bare minimum, dude, you don’t get a medal. And certainly don’t get defensive if someone calls you out.
And even if your behaviour around women is generally thoughtful and respectful: what about your friends? Can you call them out when they make a shitty joke about women? (A simple “that’s not cool” can go a long way). Can you remove them from situations where they’re making women uncomfortable? Can you, at the very least, unfollow or unfriend men that women have accused of assault?
Or why not stop making excuses for people? Telling boyfriends or male friends that their mate is a creep has often, for me, been brushed off with “oh, ignore it – that’s just him!”. It doesn’t have to be “just him” – why should making women uncomfortable “just be him”?
But above all else – before you decide to stop interrupting and start listening, before you call your mates out on their dodgy WhatsApp banter, before you stop being complacent about your own role in toxic masculinity – just believe women.
Believe us when we’re accusing your friend, even if you swear you’ve never seen him do anything inappropriate before.
Believe us when what we’re saying makes you uncomfortable – especially when it makes you uncomfortable to hear it.
Believe us, even if you don’t like us very much.
Silence has been tolerated for way too long now: say nothing, and you’re complicit too.