#MeToo and Men: Hope and Caution
#MeToo has given me hope. The campaign has a reach and momentum greater than other recent anti-violence campaigns, and I believe that it has led to some slight weakening of the social norms which underpin men’s sexual violence against women. #MeToo has informed increases in awareness of men’s violence and in the perceived credibility and legitimacy of victims’ allegations. More widely, it has prompted some level of rethinking of patriarchal forms of flirting, dating, and interaction. It has intensified attention to male sexual entitlement and the need for alternatives to sexist manhood. These are encouraging developments.
In the wake of #MeToo, some men are reconsidering the impact and meaning of their behavior for women. In a US survey in late 2017, half of men said that recent stories about sexual harassment had made them think about their own behavior around women (while half disagreed). In another, more recent US survey, over one-third of men said that #MeToo had made them reevaluate their past sexual experiences. In a 2017 survey among young men, 40 percent said that #MeToo had changed the way they act in potential romantic relationships, while in another survey among adult men, 35 percent had changed their dating habits in response to #MeToo.
Yet there is also backlash, resistance, and inertia. There is predictable pushback, as there has long been to feminist efforts. And we should not overestimate #MeToo’s reach. Among the surveys mentioned, 41 percent of men in one had never heard of #MeToo, and in another, 47 percent of men had not discussed #MeToo, with anyone, ever.
Men’s reactions to #MeToo show the same promise, and limitations, as those for other violence prevention campaigns. While many men agree that rape and harassment are not okay, they mistakenly see these as perpetrated by only a tiny minority of deviant men and they recognize only the bluntest and most grotesque abuses of power. Many see the issue as a women’s issue, and they miss or even resent any idea that the problem is one they share. We must strive still to make the case to men that violence against women is an issue of personal relevance and concern. And we must mobilize men as educators, leaders, and troublemakers.
It is entirely possible that #MeToo soon will fade to nothing. For this and other campaigns to make real change, they must be complemented by grassroots community campaigns and mobilizations, and continuing efforts to prompt community discussion and effect policy and institutional change.
Time’s Up, Men
It’s been a year since the #MeToo campaign became a global movement. In that time many renowned men in positions of power, including in the media, have been exposed for their misogynist and abusive actions against women. Many of the women who had been harassed or abused also come from media backgrounds.
In India, we also have had our share of women who work in the entertainment industry sharing their experiences of abuse. Some of them even recalled how they were abused as child artists and finally, for the first time, had the courage to speak about it openly. Unfortunately, we did not see a proactive response from Indian men; even those working in media haven’t been very forthcoming. What has been highlighted are the cases of rape and sexual assault on children (especially girls), and women in general. These incidents have been on the rise or, at least, they are now being reported more. When the #MeToo movement began last year, I saw women sharing on Facebook that they had been abused even though most did not share the kind of abuse or where and when it happened (unlike what was happening in other countries). I also saw a few men sharing that they had been abused, which to me was unusual. That speaks to the power of a campaign—when men also feel that there is space for them to share their experience of being powerless. However, since then I haven’t heard much from men. There is still a lot of resistance. When women share about incidents of violence or abuse, men ask: “Why now? Why this incident?” And defensively reply, “Not all men.”
These were some of the common responses. All these reasons are used as an excuse to silence victims/survivors and supporters, and are part of an effort to discourage survivors from talking openly, from speaking out. It has become another way of saying, “You’re making too much of the issue.”
Some men feel threatened and uncomfortable, especially since some of their actions—which in the past were shockingly taken for granted (like stalking women to “woo” them)—are being called out for what they unambiguously are: harassment. The culture of silence and the justification of daily misogyny are still so strong that these reactions are to be expected. Nevertheless, this should not deter women from calling out violence for what it is—wherever and whenever they see it.
India also saw a number of academicians who had been accused of sexual harassment outed on social media. These posts actually split Indian feminists into two groups; some supported the move and others put out a statement supporting the need for due process before indicting anyone.
Perhaps a campaign like #MeToo is just what is needed to break the culture of silence and the “justification” for violence against women and girls. Once more people speak up, it is more likely the violence and abuse will decrease, that inappropriate behaviors will get called out for what they are—sexual harassment, abuse and/or violence. The time for “normalizing” these behaviors is over.
#MeToo and Raising Boys
All the women in me are tired. (Nayyirah Waheed, nejma)
As a manager of the Sexual Violence Research Initiative, a global research network on violence against women, I find it difficult not to be both overwhelmed and incredibly saddened by the number of stories generated by #MeToo. Nayyirah Waheed’s powerful seven-word poem, which I found online, beautifully mirrors feelings elicited through this campaign. Yes, some days I’m just tired, as are many of my colleagues, friends and family. Tired of all the stories, of the pervasiveness of the misogyny in society, how heartbreakingly normal sexual assault and sexual harassment are. #MeToo has been described as having unleashed a tsunami—and some days that is how it feels, a huge wave crashing over us all.
Other days, #MeToo is like a beacon of hope, of renewal, a platform for dialogue and discussion. #MeToo has brought sexual harassment into daily life discourse. I am inspired by the conversations #MeToo generates. I am a mother of two sons, 15 and 17, and #MeToo is a great discussion starter. We discuss #MeToo in the car, debate it over dinner, the boys discuss it at school. According to my eldest, #MeToo and questions about feminism are often included in English class in which they are asked to read a newspaper article, answer questions and give their opinion. The youngest says that they have talked about feminism and #MeToo during assemblies.
We discuss and argue (yes, argue—and not always in our dayto- day voices but in our shouty voices) about a range of related matters including feminism (and why isn’t it called humanism?) My youngest says, “Feminism is important and necessary, but it is often portrayed badly in the media, making it seem extreme and silly—the media needs to up its game in how it represents feminism so we can discuss it more sensibly.” Other topics we wrestle with include: consent and respectful relationships (why we all need to be respected), power (girls have power, too), rights and responsibilities, why sexual harassment happens (it happens to boys, too), why women (and boys) often don’t tell anyone, and how this movement has been so essential in addressing stigma and shame attached to sexual harassment and has opened up space for women to share their stories.
My boys’ views are sometimes breathtakingly ignorant and sometimes amazingly sensitive. Discussing these issues with them provides an opportunity to understand their views, to challenge and debate, and to promote within them gender equitable values. Of course, role modeling gender equitable and respectful relationships is also important—my husband and I try hard to do that, too.
The conversations we have with our boys give me hope as #MeToo has generated space for my family and society more widely to talk about sexual harassment in a more detailed and nuanced way. Without dialogue and discussions in schools, at dinner parties, on the sports field, etc., sexual harassment will always be with us. Only by raising the issue into mainstream discourse, engaging with young people, and by asking and challenging ourselves on what each of us can do to make our communities safe for all of us can we begin to build a more gender equitable future.
Waking Up to the Reality of Women’s Harassment
I remember when the hashtag #MeToo first appeared on my Facebook timeline. I wondered why so many of my Kenyan female friends had posted it. I decided to Google it and boy did I cringe! I could not believe that all those women had undergone some form of sexual assault and harassment. These were women that I knew personally and professionally, women I looked up to. I remember feeling utterly helpless that something of this magnitude could happen to so many women and nothing was being done. I also felt disgusted that there are men who are capable of such atrocious acts and they get away with it.
A year on, I feel hopeful. This is because brave and resilient women all over the world have helped us to look at perpetrators of sexual harassment not as strangers on the streets but as people we know, respect and maybe even love. It definitely made me reevaluate my past sexual encounters to check whether they were consensual or not. While the conversation primarily was taking place in heterosexual settings, I felt the need to be introspective about what might have taken place in same-sex contexts. When we started talking about it as gay men, we realized that most of the sexual encounters involving older males, or males in senior positions, did not involve direct and explicit consent and somehow that was seen as normal. The result? Nobody spoke up.
I am proud of the men who have spoken up and joined the conversation while respecting the women—and believing the women. For example, the NFL football player and actor Terry Crews talked openly about his own harassment, going further to prove that heterosexual men can also be victims of sexual harassment and abuse. It was definitely not an easy thing to do but it certainly was the right thing. It was not easy because men and boys have always been portrayed as sexually active and always ready for sex. Going against that narrative and admitting that men can be victims of sexual harassment and abuse is a difficult thing to do. For those who kept silent, for fear of implicating themselves, or because they did not have the range when it came to sexual harassment, I hope they will find their voice and do whatever they can to hold other men accountable. They need not be experts in the subject matter, they need not have survived sexual assault; they just need to be part of the wave that will stop such offenses from happening in the future.
We need to listen to and believe the women who have shared their stories of sexual assault or sexual harassment. Active listening, without shouting “#NotAllMen” or policing survivors’ tone. One of the ways of practicing this is by not making this work about ourselves, and how good we are. We need to take our cues from the #MeToo movement and act on their recommendations. We also need to hold ourselves accountable in this work and ensure that we ourselves are not perpetrators of violence masquerading as allies.
Just because the men and boys we engage in gender justice work are supposedly good men doesn’t mean we can shout, “Not all men.” We need to call out our friends, brothers, priests—and any other male who has been implicated in sexual harassment cases. At the same time we need to actively work toward dismantling the patriarchal systems that allows sexual harassment and sexual assault to continue and that go unreported. We need to create safe spaces where survivors of sexual harassment and assault, male, female, transgender, nonbinary, can speak up and be listened to without facing backlash and/or victim blaming. It is only through these actions that the silence will be completely broken and change can occur.
What Complicity Feels Like
I have been working to challenge men’s violence and male supremacy for nearly 20 years. What strikes me looking back at all the reports and toolkits and curricula that I have both read and written is how little has been said about the emotional discomforts behind the words that litter these texts: words such as “ally” and “accountability” and sometimes “solidarity.” Indeed, there is often very little emotion at all in all the writing about what is increasingly referred to as “gender transformative” work with men and boys on gender-based violence. As if the question of how to be “transformative” could be answered without mention of what it might feel like to live in gender justice, in truly transformed relations with ourselves and each other.
I was reminded of these emotional silences with each new revelation about men’s sexual violence and harassment since the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and particularly when survivors went public about their experiences with leading profeminists. Like many others, I felt angry, dismayed, depressed, ashamed even, not only about how widespread the violence was but also the complicity, not least within the field of work which has been my professional and activist home these past two decades. The sexual violence and harassment that #MeToo has highlighted is often an open secret, preserved by silence. How is it that the colleagues of these men, especially other men committed to a pro-feminist politics and practice, said nothing, did nothing? Probably for the same reasons that I have sometimes said nothing, done nothing, in my own life when I have been in situations with men whose behavior felt abusive: fear of retribution and/ or ridicule, fear of emotional upset and discord, fear of taking a stand in a situation with whose unspoken rules everyone else seems to be in agreement.
This is Active Bystander 101, but with #MeToo coming home in the way that it has, our collective failure to practice our own teaching is striking, a failure manifest in our silences. These are not just the silences of failing to speak up when we witness abusive behavior, nor even our own silence when we are confronted with our abusive behavior, but also the emotional absence that pervades so much of the work that is done under the rubric of gender transformative programs and interventions with men and boys. Amid all the talk of rigorous evidence and theories of change, how little is said about the feelings bound up with declaring a commitment to working for profound personal and social change, about the anger and anxiety, the defensiveness and desire to fit in, the cynicism, the ego and ambition, the hope and the despair. We rarely get to read and discuss what it feels like to be trying to do gender transformative work. But without this kind of emotional openness, how can we hope to be honest with ourselves and each other when we fall short of the commitments we have made?