I was in the pub the other night, and two men were talking loudly about feminism. They were early thirties, clearly well educated – one was a teacher – and both parents of young girls. And they felt that feminism in general and the #metoo movement in particular had gone too far.
People like Harvey Weinstein were abominations, monsters, they said. But they were incredibly rare. And because of their monstrous behaviour, all men were being unfairly accused. Most men are not monsters. Most men are good men. Good boyfriends. Good dads. Good husbands. Good friends.
They were right, while also being dangerously wrong. People like Weinstein are rare, but it’s not because abusive men are rare. It’s that most abusive men with that kind of power and privilege aren’t usually stopped. One of them, you may have noticed, is in the White House.
And yes, most men are not monsters. But every day women are harassed, exploited, abused or controlled by people who are not monsters. Good boyfriends, good dads, good husbands, good friends. Every single woman I know has endless tales of abuse: some of it in the street, some of it at work, some of it in their homes. Often by people they thought they could trust.
The guys at the bar were essentially arguing that now the likes of Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Louis CK have been exposed (although not necessarily punished: CK is making tentative steps to return to his millionaire comedy career; many other people identified in the #metoo campaign don’t seem to have suffered anything beyond bad publicity) it was time for women to stop. The problem has been solved.
The problem hasn’t been solved.
In the UK, a nine month inquiry by a government select committee has confirmed what every woman already knows. Sexual harassment of women and girls is “relentless” in bars and clubs, in universities, in parks, on public transport, on the street and on the internet. The stories my girlfriends tell me would break your heart.
Men don’t see it because they don’t experience it. And because they don’t see it, otherwise intelligent men like our two bar patrons choose to believe what they have, or rather haven’t, experienced. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’ve never made a girl or woman feel uncomfortable, pressured someone to do something they didn’t want to do, had a sexual encounter where consent was murky. Because they aren’t bad guys, no guys are bad guys.
For as long as men won’t listen to women, for as long as women’s experiences are dismissed by men who think they know better, women will continue to feel unsafe. Because they are.
Update: there was a discussion about this very thing on Radio Scotland this morning shortly after I wrote this post. As contributor and retired policeman Graham Goulden put it, “some men are the problem, all men are the solution.”
This isn’t about demonising men. It’s about recognising that the world is different for men. Men are never told to walk without wearing headphones, as women are currently being told to do in London while a serial attacker remains free. Men are never told to stay home at night when there have been a series of attacks. Men don’t have to worry about people spiking their drinks. Men don’t generally get sexually harassed at work, or fear sexual violence.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell our daughters to be careful. But we should also teach our sons not to be, associate with or defend the kind of men our daughters need to be careful of.