By Garth Baker
What does the #MeToo movement ask of men, and how can men effectively respond? New Zealand violence prevention researcher Garth Baker sought to answer those questions as an advisor to the country’s White Ribbon campaign, part of an international men’s antiviolence movement founded in Canada in 1991. The goal was how to best align with #MeToo to prevent men’s family and sexual violence. The result is a comprehensive report accessible to anyone working to prevent men’s violence against women—or anyone who works with men to transform their gender behavior and identity. In this exclusive article for Voice Male, Baker highlights some of what he’s learned.
While the phrase “Me Too” was coined in 2006 by the US civil rights and feminist activist Tarana Burke, it wasn’t until October 2017 that it gained worldwide use as a social media hashtag. Prominent women began publicly acknowledging that they had been sexually harassed or assaulted by Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. From there the chorus of women’s voices only grew louder as more women spoke out and more men were called out. #MeToo quickly became a viral social media phenomenon. While strongest in North America and Europe, the movement was global in scope, trending in over 85 countries.
#MeToo’s solidarity gave many women the strength to begin speaking out, demonstrating the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. It has grown into an international movement, revealing the extent to which women are victims of sexual harassment and violence in a wide range of environments.
In just one year, the #MeToo movement led to publicly calling out individual men for behavior ranging from serial, criminal sexual assault to nonconsensual sexual behavior. #MeToo is unique 1) for being a social movement driven by survivors of violence voluntarily speaking out; 2) because the women have been believed and seen as credible; and 3) because it accompanied a call to no longer hide or tolerate sexual harassment and assault.
The widespread disclosures of #MeToo—and the supportive response—were a consequence of ongoing advocacy and primary prevention work, especially in North America, that had been steadily gaining momentum over the last decade. Such efforts readied the dynamite: Donald Trump’s bragging about groping women and the Weinstein revelations fueled the volatility; actoractivist Alyssa Milano’s tweet ignited the match.
Today #MeToo as a movement is still big news, and popular media have provided the most prolific discussion of this campaign and its implications. Most sources tend to enthusiastically emphasize the positive impact of #MeToo, although it is too early to empirically determine #MeToo’s impact on social norms, including reducing violence. Proponents insist it is imperative to actively identify and promote violence prevention efforts that support #MeToo.
At the same time, #MeToo has stimulated considerable public discourse, which has led to widespread use of terms such as “rape culture” and “toxic masculinity” and more discussion of men’s accountability and responsibility.
The Impact of the #MeToo Movement
While it is difficult to definitively assess a movement while it is still happening, #MeToo has already had a wide-ranging impact. There’s now a greater understanding of the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, with increased credibility offered to survivors: “For so long, we’ve been telling men how prevalent sexual assault is: it’s taken a movement in which millions of women have shared their trauma for people to actually listen,” opined journalist Emily Reynolds in The Guardian in February.
The potential of this shift is significant: #MeToo has done for society what the law could not, eroding one of the biggest barriers to prosecuting sexual harassment, the disbelief and trivializing dehumanization of its victims/survivors. Women have been saying these things forever; it is the response to them that has changed, according to Catharine A. MacKinnon, the legal scholar who first laid the groundwork for sexual harassment law and went on to argue it before the US Supreme Court in 1979. It’s also become clear to perpetrators that even if they don’t suffer legal consequences, there will be social consequences.
#MeToo has prompted governmental responses: Sweden became the 10th Western European country to legislate that sex without explicit consent is rape; France has made public harassment a punishable offense; and some US states have outlawed agreements and arbitration clauses that restricted action on sexual harassment.
Facing an increasing number of sexual harassment complaints, US businesses are updating their reporting procedures and insisting on zero tolerance sexual harassment policies. Sexual and gender-based violence in workplaces has also been identified as an emerging investment risk that adversely affects productivity, public relations and, ultimately, a business’s stock price. The risk of losing or not attracting staff has also focused attention on workplace cultures. With the Miss America pageant dropping its swimsuit competition, there is a societal shift in what is now considered acceptable.
#MeToo has also prompted calls for greater diversity and in some places a popular resurgence in support for feminism, including a renewed focus on gender discrimination against women, their lower pay and underrepresentation in positions of power.
A range of allied hashtags quickly emerged to build men’s support for #MeToo, but they have faded away. A robust survey jointly commissioned by Glamour, a women’s magazine, and GQ, a men’s fashion magazine, gives insight into the limited impact #MeToo has had on US men:
- 41 percent had never heard of #MeToo.
- Some men who had heard of #MeToo were hopeful, noting that sexual harassment and other behaviors had gone on too long. Others were torn, genuinely supportive but fearful of a “mob mentality.” Some were anxious about how to communicate with women, while others were angry that their “normal flirtation” with women would now make them suspect.
- Some were skeptical of women reporting abuse while others were supportive.
- Some were scared they could be wrongly accused of harassment, especially if they had not heard of #MeToo.
- Most of the surveyed men in top jobs hadn’t heard of #MeToo.
- About half believed a man was entitled to sex with his wife or girlfriend and most did not comprehend what is involved in negotiating consent. Around half had not discussed #MeToo with anyone (emphasis added).
More than half of North American HR professionals said they have not seen a demonstrable change in workplace behavior since #MeToo, according to “Harassment and Bullying at Work,” a study commissioned by Jobvite. A similar number said that men were more cautious and found it difficult to know how to interact with women colleagues. Their awareness suggests men know something has shifted but aren’t clear what it specifically means for them.
Among the most comprehensive responses to #MeToo has come from the Swedish organization MÄN (Men for Gender Equality; see Spring 2018, page 22). The group quickly developed a module on “reflective conversations” for and by men. They have gone on to organize more than 30 groups working through this program. They have also linked men’s self-reflection with men intervening with other men, created a network of politicians who’ve pledged to make ending gender-based violence a main campaign promise, and engaged with businesses to promote preventing sexual harassment.
What #MeToo Asks of Men
Along with a general call for men to transform masculine behavior and identity, #MeToo’s wide-ranging discussion has consistently highlighted three actions as the key responses asked of men: Listen. Believe. Understand.
Listening to women is repeatedly identified as the best response for men to women disclosing their experiences. “How to Talk About #MeToo Without Shutting Down the Conversation,” an article on GQ’s website, noted that “this moment called for men to basically shut up and listen for a while” and to “listen to people who may not have had a voice on these issues before.…”
And, in a post on the Joyful Heart Foundation blog, men were reminded to “Really listen. Without minimizing, challenging, making excuses, or getting defensive. Without inserting your own narrative. Listen without judgment and practice active listening.” The act of listening to women is repeatedly allied with believing and empathizing with women.
As the “Gentlemen’s Guide to Rape Culture” blog points out, the goal of men listening to women is to “let their words change our perspective. Our job is to ask ourselves how we can do better.”
For men to listen and change their perspective requires responding openly, not defensively. A knee-jerk “Not all men are rapists” response, while stating the obvious, nonetheless closes down the conversation. In an article in the Spring 2018 issue of Voice Male, Sweden’s MÄN organization offers a constructive response for men, asking them to listen, confirm what you heard, practice self-reflection (what is my part in the problem?), talk to other men (don’t burden women with difficult feelings about being part of the problem), and take action (start to change your behavior and that of men around you).
The difficulties men have in listening and empathizing with women are a consequence of their socialization to always have an answer, interrupt, “mansplain”—to clarify what others (particularly women) say—and take charge of conversations.
Reflecting and Committing
The second action that #MeToo asks of men is to reflect on their own behavior as the initial step in becoming more gender-equitable and nonviolent. An article in The Guardian about how men can show solidarity with the #MeToo movement suggests men should reexamine their own behavior, consider whether they ever made sexist jokes at work, and recall if they ever tried to persuade someone to have sex who wasn’t really into it.
Asking men to reflect on and change their behavior has been a significant feature of violence prevention efforts prior to #MeToo. MVP Strategies’ “Ten Things Men Can Do to Prevent Gender Violence” is a good place to look (www.mvpstrat.com/ pdf/English.pdf).
Along with gaining new understanding of his own behavior toward women, a man also needs to reflect on how he reacts when other men are harassing or disrespecting women. This calls for men to take action: “Millions of women have shared their trauma…. If you do nothing now, you’re complicit, ” Emily Reynolds wrote in The Guardian. Like Sweden’s reflection groups, White Ribbon Canada reports a huge surge among men and boys wanting to get involved.
An example of how #MeToo prompted a man to reflect on his past behavior comes from the “I Thought I Was a Good Guy” blog: “Toxic masculinity praises sexually active men. Sex is conquest, competition, and a measure of self-worth,” a male writer requesting anonymity wrote on Vox last January.
Disrupting Other Men
The third most common action #MeToo asks of men is to prevent other men’s harassment. Writing on the GQ website, #MeToo commentator Lauren Larsen points out the power men have in intervening with other men: “You, as a man and a friend, are in a unique position of power… a position that is rarely afforded to women… [M]en are more likely to take the opinions of other men seriously.… A woman saying, ‘Stop bothering me,’ or suggesting through nonverbal cues that she’s feeling bothered, should be the end of the bothering. Often, it’s not. When [a man says] ‘Stop bothering her,’ the bothering is over.”
Calling on men to disrupt disrespectful behavior or to intervene to stop violence “is where our field (violence prevention) is at” now, according to an article in MSU Today, a publication of Michigan State University. “For 20 years it’s been about how to not get raped; how to avoid being sexually harassed. But now we’re moving towards bystander intervention. It’s about getting boys and men to step in when it looks like their friend is about to say something derogatory or potentially do something predatory towards women.”
Transforming Masculine Gender
As I wrote some years ago, I believe that gender transformation must focus on men developing respectful, trusting and egalitarian relations with women and with other men, and promoting positive constructions of masculinity. The aim is to replace the socialized links between masculinity, power and violence toward women with more flexible and equitable identities and behaviors. This is achieved by supporting men to make positive changes and by affirming positive and health-promoting formations of manhood.
#MeToo has clearly and repeatedly challenged men to break out of the rigid man box. Writing in “The Establishment” blog on Medium, Ijeoma Oluo said: “You (men) get to hear about the way in which women have been harmed by men and decide to be a better man. You get to choose a better path. Or, you can keep arguing to uphold the way things are. But… whichever way you decide, you are telling us, and yourself, what type of man you want to be.”
An analysis of tweets in the #HowIWillChange campaign concluded that education about the “socialization process of toxic masculinity and sexist beliefs” was needed. #MeToo’s call for men to change their behavior and identities is entirely consistent with established violence prevention strategies, but what’s different with #MeToo is:
- More women are openly calling on men to change not just their behavior but their understanding of their identities as males.
- There is wider discussion in popular media about the links between men’s harmful behaviors toward women and male socialization. For proof, look at the increased use of the terms “toxic masculinity” and “rape culture.”
Efforts to engage men in transforming masculinity and manhood will be effective if they are humane and empathetic rather than focusing on guilt, shame or fear. This involves demonstrating positive examples of equitable, nonviolent behavior; strengthening current nonviolent actions, attitudes and values; and framing discussions around men’s responsibility.
Where Do We Go from Here?
#MeToo has boosted public awareness, especially of some of the nuanced, casual aspects of violence, and done so in a way no violence prevention campaign could. We now have a once-in-mylifetime opportunity. It’s sound violence prevention work to promote #MeToo’s recommended three key actions—listen, believe, understand— along with a broader mission of breaking the links between masculinity, sexism and violence.
Thanks to #MeToo, the heightened awareness and expressions of support for these changes increases their relevance and impact. These actions also offer men ways to respond to #MeToo and to be more respectful and nonviolent toward women. Even if there is never another #MeToo tweet, now is the time for individual men and profeminist men’s organizations to step forward and work to achieve real, lasting change.
New Zealand White Ribbon #MeToo Report
The full research report from which the accompanying article is drawn from—on how New Zealand’s White Ribbon campaign can best align with the #MeToo movement— is available from whiteribbon.org.nz/wp-content/ uploads/2018/08/Report-on-White-Ribbon-aligning-with- Me-Too-Movement-24072018.pdf
The report covers the #MeToo movement, its impact, and what it asks of men. It also discusses how New Zealand’s White Ribbon campaign already supports the #MeToo movement, while recommending further action.
Information on New Zealand’s White Ribbon 2018 campaign, which aligns with #MeToo, will be available in November from whiteribbon.org.nz