Men. Decent, forward thinking, respectful men. At a time when sexist behaviour and gender politics is under scrutiny more than ever, when the actions of some reflect on us all, it’s time for us to speak up.
Not with the old, “not all men are like that” defence – because the last thing the world needs is another wounded, insecure bloke trying to pass the buck – but to call out those men who are dragging the rest of us down, hence this letter.
First, a bit of context.
A few weeks ago, I had one of those late night tube journeys most Londoners will know about: three post-work pints worse off, headphones on too loud, trying not to fall asleep. Across the carriage something else also all too familiar was happening – a couple of blokes, also drunk, leering over a young woman travelling alone.
Not everyone in the carriage had noticed, but for whatever reason – call it male intuition that another man was on the prowl – I sensed it straight away. What I didn’t do, to my shame, was intervene, justifying my inaction with the same old piss-poor excuse that I’d most likely get a smack in the mouth and worsen the situation.
When the woman got off the train, one of them craned his neck, trying to look up her skirt. Both men thought it was pretty funny. Only I didn’t - I felt embarrassed and sick. Not just for what I’d seen, but to be a member of the same sex.
Then last week I read a news story about two men using phones to film up a woman’s skirt at London Bridge. A day later I read about ONEE, a 'smart bracelet' women can use to communicate with and alert each other, in case one needs saving from an uncomfortable or threatening situation on a night out.
Men, what is happening to us? How did we get to this point? Isn’t this supposed to be the age of “modern man”? Yet we live in a world of victim blaming, of concessions for over privileged creeps and technology designed specifically to help women escape us.
In recent years, as awareness of everyday sexism and ingrained misogyny has grown, it’s been harder than it’s ever been for us men to defend ourselves. Not because we shouldn’t, and certainly not because we’re all lecherous sleazebags, but because the tide of the discussion, particularly online, has become so powerful it’s almost silencing.
Conservations such as #notallmen, which began a few years back, fought against men’s tendency to turn the conversation back to themselves by arguing that not all men are uncontrollable sexist pigs – rather than listening to women’s grievances and finding a constructive way to combat misogyny together.
Online conversations like this left men afraid to speak up for themselves. And I don’t believe for a second that we shouldn’t have a voice. That helps no one.
But instead of rushing to our own defence, our voices should be used doing exactly what I didn’t have the balls to do on the tube last week – challenging the kind of morons who make things like #notallmen necessary at all.
On the tube that night, I assumed the woman didn’t realise what was happening. She had her headphones on, never looked up, didn’t flinch at all. How naïve of me.
I’ve spoken to several women since who have told me how often this sort of thing happens – on the train, in the street, around the workplace. And how ignoring the situation, keeping their eyes down and not saying anything often feels like the only safe way to cope with it.
A close friend of mind said she expects sexual attention in public as default now, and has been harassed by men even when pregnant. Another told me , “I’ve been followed home, grabbed in the street by a man trying to feel my breasts, groped badly between my legs, audibly rated out of ten in a club. Even been told by a lecherous male colleague that I don't have stretch marks… I think most women could give you an example that actually happened in the same day or within one or two days from whenever you asked.”
Another friend, Aimee, told me about a networking event, where she was harassed by a client. “He followed me around the whole night when I was talking to other clients, and asked every single one whether they were my boyfriend."
Jazmine, 23, says: “One instance that sticks is when I was 17 and working weekends in a pharmacy. I had to get down on my knees to find a large prescription bag. The old man I was serving lent over the counter to comment, ‘If I'd known you were getting down on your knees I would've asked for something else’, and laughed.
A Trade Union Centre study published last month revealed 52 per cent of UK women had experienced sexual harassment at work, from dirty jokes and comments to actual groping. Then earlier this year, a YouGov survey found 64 per cent had been sexually harassed in public places. Only 11 per cent of those women reported that somebody had intervened.
And the more I look for these blokes the more I spot. They’re sexist clichés: men who think cleavage is an invitation to gawp; blokes who wolf whistle or make sexually charged comments as women pass by.
The worst thing, of course, is that I recognise some these men in myself, from bygone experiences of growing up and acting up in front of friends - and I’d wager plenty of other men would to. We may guffaw at the pervy antics of Family Guy's Glen Quagmire or Jesus from The Big Lebowski, but these are works of pure fiction, and anyone who thinks that debased humour should fly on the last tube home after a big session needs to seek therapy.
Which is why it’s even more important for us to make a stand – to remember the difference between acceptable and unacceptable, to remember boundaries and treat every single person with respect.
I often call myself a “recovering sexist”. My track’s record’s far from perfect. There are things I said, thought, and did as a younger man that I would never say, think, or do now. I’ve joked with other men about female colleagues, judged women based on how attractive they are, and made sexually charged comments without understanding how abhorrent and inappropriate they were. We’re embedded in a patriarchal society, surrounded by men for whom casual sexism is second nature, and fed a diet of movies and media that objectify women.
And as for attraction, it’s nature - that all-powerful, instinctive allure of the opposite sex will never just stop – it's just the way we’re wired, no matter how self aware we become, but it’s being able to recognise and reflect on those faults that keeps us in check. The line should never be overstepped.
For those men struggling with the evolutionary process, it’s time to catch up or die out: you’re destroying whatever progress we’ve made, giving the rest of us a bad name.
It might not be you; it might be a leery friend whose idea of laddy bantz is making inappropriate comments to women from his driver’s window, but by not bringing him up on it, by letting him think it’s acceptable for this to carry on, then you’re making it an even larger problem.
Because worst of all, you’re making women’s lives uncomfortable in a way that, as men, we can’t even begin to understand.
Next time I see it happening, I’ll say what I should have said two weeks ago, and which should be said to lecherous, sleazy blokes everywhere: stop it. And stop it now.
That's not what being a man is about.