To The Men Wondering “What Can I Do?” #MeToo

Let’s create a scenario here: you’ve been hanging out with friends. It’s about two in the morning, and it’s time for you to go home. You didn’t plan on driving home, and there’s a short walk between the place that you’ve been staying and the bus stop. It’s late, dark, and none of your friends are planning on accompanying you to the bus stop because it’s only about five minutes away and no one else is heading in that direction.

So, you head out. As you’re walking, you become aware of how empty the streets are, so late at night. At some point, however, you become aware of movement behind you. You look behind, and there’s a man following you. No, not following you; walking behind you. He’s just another human being, on his way home like you are. You continue walking, but the knowledge of that figure behind you has not left the back of your mind.

You turn a corner, and just out of curiosity, you glance over your shoulder. The man turns the same corner, still walking behind you.

Your mind flees off to the stories you have heard before, of the girl who got off of work late at night, pulled into an alleyway and beaten. Of the man who was stabbed on his way home from the bar, and had to drag himself, bloodied and weak, to get help.

You become aware again of the fact that, if this man were to do something to you, help would be a long way away right now.

But, of course, something like that won’t happen to you. He’s just walking behind you. There’s no proof that he wants to hurt you.

Still, just to be safe, you reach into your jacket pocket and slip your house key between your middle and pointer finger. Just to be safe.

The man is getting closer. Your chest tightens. But nothing is going to happen. You’re going to be fine.

He’s getting closer.

He’s beside you now. Your breath catches, but he keeps on walking, going on with his business. You release your breath and, in your pocket, your house key.

Now, this man could be literally anybody. Maybe he was just walking home. Maybe he has a wife, a daughter, an elderly parent who he’s caring for. He could be a student, an off-duty cop, an activist who campaigns for the rights of the homeless. So, if that’s the case, were you wrong to be afraid of him in this scenario? Were you judgemental? Cruel? Should you have acted differently?

This is a question that I’ve seen asked from time to time, particularly in discussions around street harassment and feminism. I mean, I didn’t give a gender to the ‘you’ in the scenario, but many women, in the wake of the recent “Me Too” campaign, have come forward admitting that they do not feel safe in the streets. Heck, the scenario that I have just described has happened to me on multiple occasions, partly because of stories that I have heard, regarding horrors that have have happened to other women, and partly because I have had men yell at me in the streets, harass me, or make unwelcome comments, and the possibility that all it takes is one man to take it too far remains at the back of my mind every time I walk alone at night.

But in response to these women coming forward, there have been some men (or, at least, I’ve mostly heard men making these comments), who ask, “well, what are we supposed to do about it? Can’t you understand how bad it makes me feel, to see women afraid of me when I’m not going to hurt them?”

Every time I have heard these comments made, the intention behind them seems to be less, “what can we do to make you women feel safer in the streets?” and more, “don’t you realize that not all men attack women? You shouldn’t be so afraid of us; we’re not all going to attack you”. And, on the one hand, yes, not all men attack women in the streets. That is a fact. No one is saying otherwise. There are men who are genuinely good men, who actually do wish that women could feel safe in their presence and on the streets.

But there are also men who do attack and harass women in the streets.

According to a survey from 2014, 65 percent of women in the United States report being harassed in the street. Twenty-three percent report being sexually touched, twenty percent report being followed and nine percent report being forced to do something sexual. This is compared to twenty-five percent of men who report being harassed in the street, the majority of which are LGBT men facing homophobic or transphobic slurs. The organization that conducted this survey, however – known as Stop Street Harassment – admits that street harassment is an under-researched topic, so exact statistics are difficult to discern for certain.

And all that I know from my own empirical evidence is that I have been cat-called, insulted, followed, and screamed at by multiple men, simply because I happened to be in public at the same time as they were.

But then, this poses another question: although the majority of women are harassed in the street, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority of men are harassing. I mean, we don’t even know the statistics of how many men engage in this behaviour, and who would admit to it for the purpose of a survey anyway? Perhaps the majority of men in the street are perfectly innocent, and if that’s the case, is it fair to punish the innocent because we’re so afraid of the guilty?

Well, in my personal opinion, in this scenario, we have to think about what, exactly, is meant by ‘punish’. How are the innocent punished by women who fear being harassed? In the majority of cases, they are punished by women refusing to speak to them, looking away, reacting rather generally with fear.

And why do women react this way? Because, when you’re on the street and interacting with strangers, it’s difficult to tell for sure who is going to harass you and who isn’t. Maybe the man walking behind you is perfectly innocent. Maybe he isn’t. End of day, you don’t want to take the risk, because if you do engage with him, then you run the risk of him thinking that you’re ‘inviting’ his inappropriate behaviour, or fixating on you more than he might have otherwise.

And, I mean, yes, it is a shame that women cannot be open and friendly with every single man on the street, but statistics and empirical evidence give a very convincing reason for why we shouldn’t. And men should not be angry at women for reacting this way; they should be angry at the society that forces them to react.

So let’s go back to the original question: “well, what are we supposed to do about it?”

If we want women to feel safer in the streets, then there are actually things that we can do, believe it or not.

We can not react with anger or offence when a woman does something to protect herself, even if she is doing it completely without immediate reason.

We can respect boundaries, not touch people who have not given us reason or invitation to touch them, and treat them like our equals.

And if we are already doing all of this, then we can keep an eye out for the people who aren’t. When our friends decide to make loud and unwelcome comments about a woman’s body, we can tell them to stop. When we see a man groping a girl in the subway (and she isn’t making any indication that she knows the guy, or she obviously isn’t into it), we can ask her if she needs help. We can walk with women who look like they are being followed, we can offer ourselves as company to make them feel just a little bit safer. The majority of the time, women who are feeling vulnerable and threatened will be grateful for your help. Even something as seemingly insignificant as watching out for a girl who is being yelled at, or walking up to her and striking up small talk can make a world of difference.

The problem is not women’s reactions to harassment. The problem is the harassment itself, and in an ideal world, when women stop having reason to be afraid on the street, they will stop being afraid. So this is what we need to focus on.

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The Only Choice We Have is Perseverance

I was once told, from someone I trust, that if you want to succeed at something, you need a combination of two of three things: luck, talent, and perseverance. I heard this and I went, great. I need only two of these things, and I can guarantee that I have at least one. I mean, talent is something that I strive for, luck is an elusive bitch that I try to catch, but perseverance is something that I can control. It is within my power to decide whether or not I give up or not.

Turns out, perseverance is almost as much of a bitch as luck is.

Perseverance is easy to aspire to in the beginning, when the only obstacle in your road is actually starting what you’re going to do. It’s simple enough to say, “yes, I want this, so I’m going to do this, no matter what it takes”.

And then you actually begin, and the world crashes down around you.

You begin, and the beginning is such hard work that it leaves you exhausted. So exhausted that it’s difficult to do anything more than merely begin, even though there’s so much else to be done, so much that needs to be covered in such a short amount of time. You take caffeine pills and coffee and tea and tell yourself that you’re not tired, all the while snapping back at anyone who dares to speak to you and crying over the tiniest thing, but you’re not tired. You’re too busy to be tired.

And in those late hours, when there’s still things to be done and you haven’t gotten to them all yet, when you can think of nothing you’d rather be doing than lying in bed and staring at the ceiling because at least that would be a fucking break, the thought crosses your mind that maybe you shouldn’t do them. Maybe it would be alright if you just quit.

And when the rejections keep piling up. E-mail after e-mail, letter after letter, so many that you stop expecting anything but. You used to get excited to receive a response, but now it’s all just the same. You know what you’ll find. You’ll open it up, and you’ll read the automated message that they send to everybody, because you didn’t even leave enough of an impression on them that they cared to dignify you with anything original. And sooner or later, you inevitably began to wonder why you even bother. You just keep getting the same response, over and over and over and mother. Fucking. Over. Again. What’s going to change if you stop, really?

We tell ourselves that failure isn’t an option, and really, it isn’t. It’s inevitable. We may not choose it, and we may not want it, but it happens anyway. That’s just the way of things.

And that’s where perseverance comes in. Because perseverance is a difficult choice to make, and sometimes, especially when we’re tired and beaten down, giving up really does look like the best option.

But what would we do if we did give up? What would be left of us? Of our lives? Would it be worth it?

These are questions that we need to ask ourselves in these moments. Because, yes, perseverance is a bitch, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthwhile. It doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be chosen in favour of the things that matter to us. Because if it matters, if it truly, honestly matters, then we need to find it within ourselves to keep fighting for it.

Because, believe it or not, perseverance does offer a difference from giving up, even in the moments where all perseverance buys you is failure: it is the difference of possibility. If you give up, then you lose all possibility. What you want to happen most certainly will not happen. If you can live with that, then great, whatever, I hope you find happiness in something new. If you can’t live with that, then the only option you have left is to persevere, because at least with that, you still have hope. You still have that chance that something might change. That among countless exhausted, run-down days, you might have one where you’re bright and full of inspiration. That within that endless pile of automated rejections, you’ll eventually receive that one acceptance that will change your entire life.

These are the thoughts that keep us from giving up. These are the thoughts that we live for, when there is noting else to keep us going.

And, no, it’s not fair. It’s not easy. It’s not how the world should be, but it’s how the world is. And at the end of the day, you do have control over perseverance. And if you keep trying, keep trying, keep trying, sooner or later, either someone is bound to notice your talent, or you’ll simply get lucky. I wish that I could give you something more than that, some guarantee that you’ll be okay, that today’s pain can easily be swallowed away in favour of tomorrow’s hope, but I can’t. All that I can ask is whether or not it’s worth it. Can we accept the exhaustion, the disappointment, the rejections, and the labour, all for the possibility that it might work out in the end? Are our dreams worth all that for us? Because if they are, then the only choice we have is to persevere.

 

It Is Never Too Late To Discover Your Abilities

We as a society seem to preach a certain order to things, a flow that all lives are supposed to follow.

Get born. Spend the first six or seven years wanting to be a fairy or a race car driver or a a princess when you grow up. Decide that isn’t practical and move onto something that is. Dedicate your high school years to fine tuning that plan. Graduate, and go to college or university with your plan in mind. Achieve your practical plan, and get a job in that field. Work at that job until you’re dead.

And I think that most of us, once we actually set out on this path, began to realize that it just isn’t realistic. Or, at least, we do if the fact that 80 percent of students in the United States change their major at least once indicates anything. And then there are the kids who graduate from high school without a plan, the ones who were too busy or too young or too indecisive or too surrounded by outside influence to really know what they want to do.

I think most of us realize that it just isn’t realistic to expect kids to decide what to do with the entire rest of their lives, all in the most formative eighteen years of their lives. And yet, we continue to preach this order to kids. And, to a certain extent, we continue to expect this order of ourselves.

We feel let down by ourselves if we haven’t fully decided what we want to do by the age of eighteen. I know that when I realized, at the age of twenty-two, that I didn’t actually have a plan for a job that would pay enough to keep me alive, I felt like I was behind everyone else, that everyone else had already figured this out and here I was, still developing.

We feel as though we cannot change our minds later on in life, as though once we have decided on our job, then that’s it. This is our career forever.

I mean, statistics indicate that this just isn’t true anymore. The days of working at one business your entire life are apparently over, as some surveys indicate that the average person works at least four jobs by the age of thirty-two. But do these surveys matter to us? Apparently not, because I still hear people express regret at not having chosen a different path, not having sought out a certain job that they showed promise in at once point, but forewent for one reason or another.

We act as though there is a script to our lives, and we have no choice but to follow it. Yet, this has never really made sense to me, because it is far from the truth.

I mean, sure, there are some obstacles that might get in the way of our dreams. Perhaps a physical disability might make being an NFL player difficult, and perhaps going back to school will be difficult if you have only enough money to keep you and your family alive.

But at the same time, there are often ways to do the things you love, in one way or another, whether it be seeking out a sports team made for people with disability or applying for scholarships or whatever the case may be.

And, more than that, I have even heard these lamentations made by people who have absolutely nothing standing in their way besides themselves.

If you want to switch careers, and you have the means to do so, then do it! If you want to start writing a book despite having never done so before, then now is as good a chance to start as ever!

The reason why we do not do these things is not because we can’t; it’s because we accept that we can’t. We say that we want to do something, and everyone around us says, “why? Isn’t that difficult? Are you sure it’s practical?” and so we do not do it. We tell ourselves that it’s impossible, and so it becomes impossible for us.

But if we gave it a try, we might be surprised. I mean, sure, things might not work out for us, but maybe they do. We won’t know for sure until we try.

So long as you are still alive, anything remains possible. We preach a simple script to ourselves and to our peers, but that script does not exist. We are limitless. We are capable. And it is never too late for us to discover our abilities.

Are You Unlucky?

Sometimes, I do want to think that things are outside of my control.

And I’m not necessarily talking about situationally, well-I-did-all-I-could-now-all-I-can-do-is-wait-for-the-results kind of outside of my control. I’m talking about higher powers than teachers or employers or friends and family. I’m talking about luck, this idea that some people do well in this world because some force outside of their control has decided that their worthy.

I think we all like the idea of being lucky, and we’re consoled by the idea of being unlucky. When something goes wrong, then that’s okay; we just weren’t lucky, there was nothing else we could have done. When something goes right, then that’s great; we’re lucky, and things are going to keep going right for us. Either way, the result was outside of our control; we didn’t necessarily have to do anything to earn it, we just earned it by way of existing. For some people, this might be a comforting thought.

But at the same time, it isn’t really true.

Not everything is always within our control, of course; sometimes things just happen, whether they’re bad or good. Sometimes we are subject to the choices that others have made. Sometimes we lose something, or someone. Sometimes we can control what happens to us, but not always. Not often, in fact, and trying to control everything will only make the world that much more frustrating for us.

Life is a game with too many players, too many chances, for us to be in control all the time.

So when bad things happen to us that we can’t control, why wouldn’t that be because we were unlucky?

Well, in my opinion, it’s because these bad things don’t necessarily have to be bad things. We sometimes get so lost in this idea that life has dealt us a bad hand, life is being so unfair, we are so unlucky and doomed to be unlucky forever, that really, we create our own suffering. We’re so focused on the idea that we’re unlucky, and so that is all we see: terrible luck, everywhere. But the truth is, bad things happen to everyone, at one point in their lives or another. And maybe this is a rough patch in your life. Maybe things are a little bit harder right now than usual. But things like that happen to everyone at one point or another; you have not been singled out by the universe.

And more than that, I am firmly of the belief that even bad things have their purpose and meaning. And, yes, I know that can be a controversial statement for some people: people want to know what the meaning for some of the world’s most terrible crimes can possibly be, and I don’t have a blanket answer for every single scenario. But what I do know if that, in my life, my greatest suffering has been used for a purpose. I learned from my mistakes, lessons that I never could have even imagined if I hadn’t gone through them. I took my pain and I used it to relate to other people in a similar scenario, to help them. I do not regret a single tear that I have shed, because they all led me to where I am today.

So, ultimately, I don’t know if the bad things in our lives can necessarily be labelled simply as ‘bad’, not when they have their good sides as well. They most certainly hurt, yes, and they might require time to heal from, but they don’t have to be entirely negative aspects in our lives.

So when you fail, when you get knocked down and suffer loss and betrayal, can it be said that that was entirely bad luck? Is the scenario bad because it caused pain, pain that you may eventually heal from, stronger and smart than ever? Or is the scenario bad because you have decided it is bad? Are you unable to see the potential growth and change that it can offer you because you are too single-mindedly focused on the pain?

Flowers grow from mud, after all, but not if you stunt their growth and ignore them.

And I know, the world isn’t even as simple as all this: saying that all you need to do is change your perspective and focus on the good is all fine and dandy in a world where mental illness doesn’t exist. But, unfortunately, we live in a world where it does, and depression and anxiety sometimes does all it can to obscure our vision of the good. But, again, from my experience, that doesn’t mean that the good isn’t there, and that doesn’t mean that you can’t train yourself, try, to see it. All you need is time, patience, and practice: just keep looking for it, even when it seems impossible.

And, of course, you aren’t always going to see it, even if you don’t deal with mental illness. Sometimes the pain is still too fresh, too raw. Sometimes the good is hard to find, or far away, waiting to be discovered at another time. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to look for it.

Finding the good won’t magically turn the situation good, either. I’m not trying to say that we will consistently have ‘good luck’ throughout the rest of our lives if we do this. All that I’m saying is that we won’t consistently have ‘bad luck’; we’ll just be. Sometimes, things will hurt, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t grow from it and that doesn’t mean that all of our lives are pain. Sometimes, bad things happen, but that doesn’t mean that we are unlucky or that only bad things ever happen to us. That’s just the way that life is; messy and complicated, but not awful. Not so long as we train ourselves to see the brighter sides that do, most certainly, exist.

 

I Wasn’t Made to Be Silent

“Be silent, child,” they said. “The world does not care for your troubles. If they ask, they do not mean it. Just look pretty, smile, recite your niceties, and all will be well.”

“But, sir,” I said, “my heart hurts, sir. I do not feel anything behind the smile. It is not real.”

“Of course it isn’t,” they said. “No one’s smile is real.”

So I smiled.

“But, sir,” I said, “the world is hard, sir. I know a girl who is starving herself because the world keeps telling her she’s too fat. I know a girl who was raped and will never see justice done because nobody believes her. I know a boy who parties every night, and I warn him to be safe because I fear that he will flirt with the wrong man and get beaten for it. I am scared, sir, because this world makes me scared, but I don’t know how to fix it without talking about it, sir.”

“You can’t,” they said. “There is nothing you can do. The world is hard, and that is all there is to it. There is no saving anyone. There is no fixing anything. Stay silent, child, for nothing that you say will matter anyway.”

So I was silent.

“But, sir,” I said, “I cannot stand this. My heart aches all the time, sir. I stay up at night and I listen to them cry, and I want to help them. This world is terrifying, sir. Is there truly nothing I can do?”

“You can be happy with your lot, child,” they said. “You can be grateful that you are not them, and you can rest easily knowing that things could always be worse. Do not complain, do not cry, because there is always someone out there who has it worse than you do.”

And so I tried to be happy. I really, truly tried.

“But, sir,” I said, “my heart still hurts. My heart hurts, and I feel it in my soul now. I carved red lines into my arm today, sir. I cannot contain this fear, it is everywhere, sir, it is inside my skin and I cannot escape it or ignore it anymore. Please, sir. My own blood is on my hands, and I need to do something.”

“You are wrong to think so,” they said. “Are you not grateful? Are you not happy? What is wrong with you, what makes you carve red lines into your arm? Normal people do not do that, child. So cover your arms with your sleeves, put on that smile, and recite your niceties. That is all you have to do. Why are you making this so complicated?”

“But, sir,” I said, “I cannot do this anymore. I do not believe you. I think you are disillusioned, sir, and I think your advice hurts me in the long run. So, sir, I will no longer be taking your advice. Thank you for your attempt, I know you were only trying to help me, but I must try something different if I am going to stop being so afraid.”

And so I spoke. For the first time in my life, I spoke loudly and clearly, to anyone who would listen to me.

“What are you doing, child?” they said. “Nobody cares what you have to say! Nobody feels the same way as you! You are changing nothing in the world, and worse, you are making everybody hate you! We think you are crazy, child! We think you are too aggressive, and we think you must hate us if you dare not take our advice! Why are you doing this to us, child, when all we ever tried to do was help you? Why do you hurt us so?”

“But, sir,” I said, “for the first time in my life, my heart does not hurt. The red lines in my arm have left scars, but they have healed. I am alright, sir, and I will be alright, and none of this would have been possible if I did not talk. I want to do the same for others, sir. I want to make them feel safe to talk. I want to make sure they know that the option is open to them, that they do not have to live in silence, that they can be perceived as crazy or aggressive or wrong, and yet that does not necessarily mean that they are. And maybe my voice is just one among the million. Maybe it gets drowned out in the crowd, and maybe I’m heard by very few, but at least I’m heard. And at least I’m talking. Because I think I need to talk. I wasn’t made to be silent.”

I do not think they heard me. And yet, I speak.