The Man in the Mirror
We have heard this before.
Last month, Alyssa Milano used her prominence to prompt a visible showing of solidarity around survivors of sexual assault and harassment. A hashtag formed and spread across social media platforms into millions of networks.
In illustrating the pervasiveness of threat that every woman experiences, #MeToo echoed previous attempts to raise awareness. Kaye M.’s #YesAllWomen, Christine Fox’s #WhatWereYouWearing, Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project, and the original Me Too support network started by Tarana Burke are movements that voiced the reality of rape culture.
This is an old and largely one-way conversation. The theme that runs through history is that women live what they struggle to share and men excuse what we must actively condemn.
The worst is invisible
For me, #MeToo is particularly devastating because the voices are close. Many friends and family shared just those two words, and it was more than enough to shift my perspective from speculation (“I know it happens everywhere, so it must have happened to you”) to confirmation (“It happens to you”). This is a realization that feels like a death.
I already knew some of their stories, though aware of none in their moment. Among the posts, one new revelation stood out:
Age 16, rapist: English teacher.
In knowing and remembering its author, this truth is not part of the narrative of her that survived my youth. Five words now have me replaying my life, placing myself at 15 in the same high school, at the same extra curricular activities, trying to recall when we first met. Trying to cast the villain.
I’m stuck on three big problems that fall from those words.
First, how could I have known this sooner? It took three decades of evolution in technology and her own emotional processing to lower the barrier enough for my friend to share her trauma publicly, to implicitly include me as audience. In ways I cannot see even now, I am complicit in making that journey long and difficult.
Hindsight suggests carrying that second-hand memory would have reshaped my own three-decade journey. Inevitably, every accusation that followed would have been more believable and the assault less comprehensible. I would have seen movie dialogue as less harmless and my college campus as more threatening.
It bothers me that this seems true, especially since it is not my story to hold, nor her responsibility to make any part of it known. I should not have to be in proximity to assault to recognize this societal iceberg, the largest chunk submerged out of sight. #MeToo showed what’s under the water.
Second, did my friend need to survive rape to qualify as threatened? I am undeniably shaken by the baseness of the assault, but such acts are built on a foundation of smaller aggressions, things both done and avoided. Many small decisions and choice of words serve to encourage this larger abuse and exact the after-effects of survival.
As with any other *ism, our blindness to threats is self-inflicted. We don’t have to argue the legality of consent, weapon and context to understand rape is an act of violence. However, there are no laws penalizing under-representation of women in movies or government, nor against the slants in how they are portrayed by media. There is general acceptance of segregating participation and marketing by gender, and of the objectification that follows. There is a baked-in expectation about who does the heavy lifting with relational care, even at risk to their own safety.
We limit our vision by the definitions we choose.
Finally, what is justice for my friend? The abuser, now old or dead, is either changed or uncaring, remorseful or oblivious. There is likely no chance of legal justice and not enough resource for a civil one. A tarnished reputation years after the fact may offer catharsis, but anger and fear will persist. Even with the power to bend time and retain the wisdom of three decades, my friend might remain powerless in that moment. Damage like this cannot be undone, only healed.
Every man she encountered played a role, through silence and ignorance, if not something seedier. Does justice now look for me?
I snapped bras on the playground, leered at bare arms, and slapped bottoms. I remained silent in the presence of sexist jokes and Googled photos of starlets. I compartmentalized the professional work of favorite directors from the abuses they piled on others, or forgiven their transgressions as one-time mistakes. I questioned motives, side-stepped drama, and failed to call my representative about VAWA because I don’t like talking on the phone. I gave advice about how to walk around town or engage others online, from my privileged experience of doing so unchallenged.
The iceberg is visible because of the many things men do beneath the surface to make it float. Avoiding the act of rape will not absolve me of my contributions to rape culture.
Lift the emotional burden
Learning requires effort, and #MeToo certainly invites improvement. To this end, Reductress editor-at-large Nicole Silverberg crafted a long list of things men can do better, including the obvious low-hanging fruit (paraphrased):
- Don’t touch women you don’t know.
- Don’t call women crazy.
- Don’t make misogynistic jokes.
- Don’t make assumptions based on how she dresses.
- Don’t expect praise from her for being decent.
- Don’t send pictures of your penis.
Much of the remaining work challenges default behavior and therefore takes some awareness and practice to achieve. I practice daily and fail often.
For example, creating space for women in conversation requires the presence of mind to avoid talking over other people, or halting a conversation to return focus to someone who was cut off. If you are used to aggressively winning an argument, listening can be a challenge. Apply whatever power you hold to create shared opportunities, whether in projects or social events, and intentionally make spaces safe.
Since everything that shines a light on threats to women also illuminates how men are contributing to those threats, it is easy to react defensively, or to attack in response. Pause, breathe, and then consider asking a question to clarify what you heard or dive deeper into what she’s saying. Furthermore, believe what she is saying.
An apology doesn’t require explanation. It is simply an apology.
Silverberg also suggests some actions that certainly move me out of my comfort zone. Speaking up is not easy for anyone; it requires a relational risk. These risks can dissuade me from challenging the sexist speech of a co-worker or proactively talking to a friend who is acting like a creep. Since the cost of my silence is usually greater for women, my comfort should be secondary to someone else’s safety.
My biggest hurdle on this path is arguably at home.
Just as women are culturally trained to do the heavy lifting of calming relationships, men are raised to avoid it or even punished for attempting it. My spouse pointed me to a piece by Kate McCombs that explained emotional labor using a potato metaphor: Emotional labor is the relational work done to prepare the kitchen to bake the potatoes together, where the potatoes are the issues needing attention.
I have argued—as have many other men, it seems—that I’m not asking for help with my potatoes, or that my spouse be responsible for preparing everyone’s potatoes. Even if there is truth in the presumption that floundering will help me learn both the need and the skill to prep the kitchen, my struggles won’t help her sleep at night.
The hardest work I may do as an adult is learning to internalize this and help take on the burden of emotional labor, to treat every day like a first date and provide respite from the worry of caring for our shared relationships. When that practice of relational care extends into my community, safety grows.
None of this will undo the harm done to my friend or many others who struggle with her, nor can it erase my own reckless trail. Undertaking this work, however, can change me and improve my corner of the world to lessen the threat to the women who share it.