This essay is addressed to men because we are the problem and we are the solution. Women are of course welcome and invited to read, and criticise, but the audience is unashamedly and deliberately men.
I wrote parts of this quite a few times in my head and I decided, quite a few times, definitely not to publish it. My hesitations are probably as important as my decision, but more on that later.
My thesis is simple:
IF we agree that in our society women are suffering gender-based abuse, harassment and violence THEN it follows that we are not doing enough to prevent it.
There. How hard was that…
The hard part is “we”.
I’m assuming that everyone agrees with the predicate. If you don’t agree that in our society women are suffering gender-based abuse, harassment and violence then this essay isn’t for you, because I’m not going to argue that point. If you don’t agree with that you are almost certainly male, and you are certainly part of the problem.
The hard part is that, whether you agree or not, all males are part of the problem. That would be “us”.
Because, overwhelmingly, the abuse, harassment and violence against women comes from men.
We, as a gender, are the perpetrators. Men abuse women. We are the subject in the sentence, women are the object. The verb, the “doing” word, belongs to us. If we want to stop what’s being done, guess who has to stop doing it? Not women.
So this is the point where we, men, all turn to each other and say “It’s true. It’s true. Now I, personally, have never knowingly abused a woman, but we, collectively, are responsible.” A few of us, braver or more self-aware, are even putting their hands up and saying “#MeToo. I admit it. I have, once or twice, in the past, abused a woman.”
Which is fantastic. Or is it? For the deluge of “#MeToo” from women, there isn’t even a trickle of “#MeToo” from men. Yet somebody is doing it. Not years ago. Not a few weeks ago. Today. And tomorrow. So who is it?
Us. Men. All of us.
Let’s face it. There isn’t a tiny, hard-core minority of men who are committing all of this abuse and violence. It’s endemic. I’d go so far as to say it’s woven into the fabric of our society, into our institutions and into our economy, however that’s for further down the page. What matters first is that we, men, us, we are responsible.
Which brings me back to my thesis. If we agree that “We” are not doing enough to prevent this violence, then that would be all of us – all of us men, that is. We can’t escape responsibility by saying “but not me personally”, because, look, we just agreed it is a problem, and we just agreed we obviously aren’t doing enough, and guess who “we” is?
Because there isn’t anybody else.
Because for every man who cat-calls, for every man who makes a demeaning remark, for every man who abuses his power or status or simply resorts to his greater physical strength there is another man standing by. Doing nothing. Or worse, participating. Another man.
Many of us are probably sure that we, personally, have never knowingly abused a woman. The catch, of course, is “knowingly”. Because for the woman it makes no difference whether the abuse was deliberate or unconscious, it was just abuse. And the more we reassure ourselves that we are not personally responsible the more we are contributing to the problem, because instead what we should be asking ourselves is:
“How many times in the past week, or past month, or past year, have I observed or known about a man abusing a woman?”
I’m sure the answer isn’t “never”.
Then the next question is obviously:
“How many times did I call it out, how many times did I intervene?”
For now the answer probably is “never”.
For that is the crux of it. Yes, we must teach our children better, yes, we must pay more attention in the home, in the school, yes, we must do more than pay lip-service to the workplace rules, but we are never going to have a gender-abuse police running around catching infractions. The gender-abuse police is us.
We have to speak up.
Us. Men. All of us.
We have to speak up.
Women can’t stop it, because women aren’t the perpetrators. We are; us, men, and we aren’t stopping each other.
Now I am sure that each and every one of us men has abused a woman. Really.
I am prepared to give many of us the benefit of the doubt, and believe we were blissfully unaware of having done it, because women rarely point it out, and more importantly men very, very rarely intervene. In the end though it doesn’t matter, because the net result is still an abused woman. I am even prepared to believe that most of us would be mortified to know we had done it, which is more important if it means we wouldn’t do it again. The problem is that we weren’t told, or if a woman told us we didn’t believe her, which is abuse itself. We, men, also have to speak up.
Because I am sure that for those of us men who don’t understand or don’t believe or don’t care that what they are doing is wrong it will still be a powerful deterrent if every time they abuse a woman their behaviour is called out by other men, and they suffer disapproval or ostracism by other men. Demonstrably, the opinions and feelings and reactions of women have never been enough to stop this in the past. Why? Because whether they have reacted or not, we, men, haven’t reacted.
It’s time for US to stop the abuse, and the way it’s going to happen is for us to start calling it out, start intervening to stop each other from doing it.
Us. Men. Starting now.
*** *** *** ***
So why did I decide not to write or publish this?
Well, first of all I have to admit I was scared to put my head over the parapet. I know what a contentious and charged issue this is, and that pretty much any and every opinion is going to be tested in the fire; not only the fire of the intellect and wisdom of people a lot smarter than I, but also the fire of trolls, ideologues and misanthropes, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to have to watch my arguments wither in the flames or spend time defending them against fools.
Secondly, I wasn’t sure I could frame my argument in such a way as not to speak for women. I guess this is a bit paradoxical, because the whole point is to prevent the abuse of women, but I didn’t want to try to speak with a woman’s voice for the simple and obvious reason that I’m not one and no amount of empathy or understanding is going to allow me to fully understand what it’s like to live your entire life in those shoes. Just imagining it makes my blood run cold, and then boil, but as an entitled, old, white first-world male I am in the unfortunate (hah!) position of never really having suffered serious discrimination in my life. So what would I know?
Thirdly, I had to face the unpalatable truth of my own argument: that it’s not probable, I’d say that it’s certain that I have abused women, even if I only have glimmerings of how or when I did it, apart from one occasion when – mirabile dictu – another man told me I was doing it. At the time I was incensed that someone else was intervening in what I thought was none of his business, but it stopped me doing it, and of course in retrospect I realise he was doing exactly what I am advocating now.
Fourthly, because I realise the massive inertia inherent in our society and the difficulty in changing something as entrenched as this. I was an adolescent back in the swinging sixties, a time when we thought we were rewriting society. Women’s Lib (as it was back then) and flower power, massive anti-war demonstrations of a kind not seen since, there seemed to be a real and permanent change happening. And here we are today. Yes, there has been social change, but not much faster or slower than it ever has been when it hasn’t been accompanied by some huge disruption like a world war. That’s not an argument against starting, it’s just an acknowledgement that it’s going to take time.
Lastly, because as I said earlier I believe this problem is imprinted in our social DNA. We are a patriarchal society. Our institutions have long been dominated by men, our laws are mostly written by men, men run most of our companies, and the economic model we claim to follow is one based on essentially male values of competition, winning, losing, dominance and submission. Small wonder that the basic interplay between genders mirrors the testosterone fuelled model that is repeated everywhere else in society… Again, this is no reason not to change, but to fail to understand this or recognise the challenge it poses is to ignore the bigger problem.
Ultimately, our society is based on the same behaviours we are trying to eradicate here, and while it doesn’t matter which one we change first, they both have to change or neither will.