At the moment I’m trying not to go on social media too much but when I’ve dipped in and out recently I couldn’t help but notice #MeToo, where, mainly women, are sharing their experiences of sexual harassment or assault.
I thought I was aware of this stuff. But the amount, the brutality and the banality – how it has been normalised – has been an eye opener. I knew we lived in a messed up patriarchal world, but it’s much worse than I thought.
How though can cis-men respond to this? What can we do with this information and contribute to ending sexual violence? How can we do it in a way that fosters collective liberation – recognising that heterosexist patriarchy harms all of us – and that it’s not about “helping” or “protecting” women – which I use in an inclusive sense for cis-women, non-binary, trans and gender fluid folk who are disproportionately affected by sexual violence – but dismantling oppressive systems and creating better, more loving worlds.
I recently came across the four I’s of collective liberation – Internalised, Interpersonal, Institutional and Ideological – and thought I could use this framework to look at how to respond this issue. This frame could also be applied to other oppressive systems: racism, ableism, xenophobia and so on, and it’s important to recognise that none of these systems are separate and in fact reinforce one another in ways that compound their effects on people with intersecting identities.
We live in a society infused by oppressive systems: patriarchy, heterosexism and rape culture form part of this.
If you grow up in this society you can’t help but learn some of these oppressive beliefs. Oppressive systems are like smog, you sometimes don’t see it, but you can’t help but breathe it in and out unconsciously. But, if you become aware of these learnt beliefs, then you can start the work of unlearning them.
As a heterosexual cis-man, for example, I often catch myself noticing the attractiveness of women in public – actually it’s all the time. Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with finding people attractive. I do, however, think it’s messed up that the first thought that comes into my head about women I see is about their attractiveness, whereas the thoughts I have about men are completely different.
These are learnt thought patterns. It’s the result of hyper-sexualised advertising, the roles women are given in films, music videos, literature etc that reinforces the idea that women are objects and how they look is what’s important.
Each time I have one of these thoughts, I try to be conscious of it and not internally judge myself as being sexist, but relate that thought to where it came from – patriarchy – and use it as a way to start unlearning it. I might never stop thinking this way entirely, but noticing these patterns also disrupts the idea that it’s normal and is a step towards change.
The number one way for men to end sexual violence is this: don’t rape. Ask for and check you have consent.
I’m assuming that the people reading this will think that that doesn’t apply to them. I hope it doesn’t apply to me. As far as I am aware, all of my sexual interactions have been consensual. I’m aware, however, sometimes that we can find ourselves in situations we’re not 100% comfortable with but just go along with it anyway, and in a world where women are taught – by the same systems – that their value comes from being attractive and submissive to men, they might not always feel able to speak up. So it’s important to remember that consent is active. It’s not just “not a no”.
Beyond this, men can play a big role in affecting change through calling out/in other men in their sexist behaviour, as it can be safer or more effective coming from a man than leaving it to the woman who was affected.
I know I don’t do this as much as I could. I also know that it’s important to do this within our spheres of influence and not feel that we have to do it all the time.
I sometimes work in construction for money. This is a very male, very sexist environment. I don’t think that if each time my boss made a comment about a woman, if I were to say “Hey, do you know that’s sexist?”, I would either affect much change or keep my job very long. Sometimes I try to make jokes about it back e.g.:
My boss: “Oh, she’s nice”
Me: “Oh really, did you speak to her?”
For the most part I just don’t participate, which I accept could be seen as not doing enough to challenge these attitudes and perhaps I should try to do more. It doesn’t, however, go unnoticed. After a couple of days working with one guy, he asked me how come I don’t join in, so then I told him that I’m not into it. I could maybe have gone further, but I think that he started the conversation was a positive step and that he was curious meant he would also have been a bit receptive to my different viewpoint.
Other areas of my life I have more influence and therefore more responsibility. If a close friend were to say something sexist or behave in a sexist way, then I feel I should do something. Calling people out/in is hard emotional labour and it shouldn’t be left to women and especially not to the ones affected by these behaviours. I also feel that men need to learn how to respond to being called out, without getting defensive or explaining away our behaviour. We need to listen to how people feel and take it on board.
To what extent do our activist groups, workplaces and friendship circles foster a culture that is loving and treats women as people?
Having lived in an “alternative” community for a couple of years, I’ve experienced how these spaces fail to create cultures that challenge sexist behaviour and how apologist attitudes can be widespread. This has been painful for me to realise when it clashes with what I thought the values of the space were and even worse for the people we’ve failed to support.
In these spaces we should, again, put the work in to make sure that these issues are taken seriously. For example, men can join “wellbeing” working groups that focus on these dynamics and if that means that they have to cut back on other responsibilities then that might just have to happen. It’s important that we have the processes to prevent and deal with issues when they arise – the Salvage Collective has great resources and runs workshops about how to do this.
For groups, it can also be about the overall priorities of the group. For Resist and Renew for example, should we put our training efforts more into Direct Action trainings to shut down fossil fuel infrastructure, or should we do more consent workshops in schools to help foster a respectful culture? We all have limited time and resources, so the choices we make implicitly say what we think is important and what’s less important.
Lastly, how can we change our frame of reference and learn about the experiences of women and people of different backgrounds, and how that’s important for making social change?
To do this, we need to change our sources of information. What we read, watch and listen to. For over a year and a half I’ve stopped reading books by white cis-men. I’ve loved reading stories with strong lead characters that are women from Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy and Ursula Le Guin, been shocked by Assata Shakura’s experiences for the US criminal justice system and blown away by Silvia Federici’s Caliban and The Witch that outlines how the burning of witches, taking of women’s power and slavery, were essential for the rise of capitalism – a perspective you would never get if you just read Marx or another hero’s story where the cis-man kills the bad guy and saves the defenceless woman.
There are also countless blogs and podcasts out there that talk about these issues. They aren’t women’s issues and by looking for these public sources of information, we as men don’t need to rely on asking our friends who are women about their experiences.
These suggestions are a few ways that men can, and should, step up. Regardless of how much “nice a guy” you are, these all affect you. You may already be doing things in all of these areas, but the extent of the #MeToo revelations shows we can all do more. If we’re committed to making better worlds, then we have to see this as our fight too.
Ali Tamlit is a facilitator for Resist and Renew. As part of our work we offer workshops on consent for schools, youth groups and activists, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like us to run a workshop for you.