A friend asked me this when the #MeToo movement first started gaining momentum and I’ve been considering a response for some time.
My first consideration is that the usual advice doesn’t seem to be working. Publicly shaming every guy who ever made a woman uncomfortable doesn’t seem to be working. And as much as we can talk about men also being the victims of a lot of violence, it is overwhelmingly men who are the perpetrators of violence, sexual and otherwise. It is a male problem and “stop making it about men” also isn’t helping. So what would help? I’m not sure, but I’ve given it some thought. This is the advice I would give to men who are wondering how to start becoming part of the solution.
1. Don’t be a “Good Guy”
It is very easy to become defensive of criticism when the world is divided into “Good Guys” and “Rapists”. Learn not to say “I didn’t do it” every time somebody tells you that you made them uncomfortable. If you can’t ever see yourself as anything less than perfect in every sexual encounter then you are going to walk all over other people’s consent and eventually you will rape somebody all while thinking you are still a Good Guy.
Instead, use each encounter as a learning experience. Communicating consent isn’t always going to be intuitive. It is something you learn. That learning experience means that sometimes you are going to push somebody’s boundaries and by a combination of inexperience and enthusiasm it is inevitable that you will end up in situations where somebody ended up doing something they weren’t comfortable with. Talk about it and learn from it. You aren’t expected to be perfect right away. You are expected to learn from your small mistakes and adapt your behaviour so you don’t make big mistakes in the future.
2. Making the First Move
As a man, you are culturally expected to initiate ALL physical interactions you may have with women.
This is not a perfect situation but it is what you are working with. It is inevitable that if you are putting yourself out there you are going to encounter rejection and you are going to cross somebody else’s boundaries at some point while you learn how to see boundaries. In that acknowledgement, if you think you may have crossed somebody else’s boundaries: ask. If you did, apologise without defending or explaining. Try to understand how they felt in the situation. Learn how to read the situation better to avoid doing it to someone else. Keep experimenting and communicating. It’ll make sense one day.
3. Quit Slut Shaming
Quit telling sex workers that they don’t have a real job, or that they are selling anything other than a service. Quit trying to limit access to abortions to punish women for having sex by forcing them into parenthood. Quit telling women what they should and should not do with their bodies.
This might come as a shock, but this ridiculous mating dance we’ve created where women pretend they aren’t interested in sex (to avoid being labelled a slut) and then allow men to “convince” them is where rape culture comes from. If a woman boasts to you about a sexual conquest, give her a fist bump. Do NOT tell her that her body is like a car or a flower or some crap about people not wanting to buy cows. Pretending that women have to be “pure” rather than empowered is every bit as dangerous as any “locker room talk”. Shut it down when you see it, especially when it is said by somebody in authority.
4. Gendered Communication
Try to learn the differences between how boys and girls are taught to speak and behave. Women have a lot of social pressure telling them to be agreeable and humble while men are expected to be confident and competitive. Breaking down that culture is a bit much for any man, even a very confident one. Instead, seek to allow space for the women in your life to express themselves in the way they’re comfortable with. Women may not be able to outright say what they want. Instead of just doing what you want to do in the absence of a clear “no”, give her opportunities to have an input into your shared experiences without having to outright turn you down.
5. Sex-Drive Myth
Don’t buy into the myth that men are supposed to want sex all the time. A huge portion of public sexual harassment of women by men is men displaying their sexuality to other men. This kind of behaviour is mostly engaged in by men who are self-conscious about their sexuality. Encourage the men in your life to bond with you over interests other than sex and displays of physical prowess.