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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There Is Nothing Wrong With How You Feel

Very frequently, we will feel the need to hide the way that we truly feel.

This can be in a very small way, like pretending that something that someone else said didn’t hurt you just to avoid unnecessary confrontation, or it can happen in a much larger way, like spending years of your life pretending that you’re straight, or that you aren’t severely depressed and considering taking your own life.

And, similarly, this can happen for several different reasons. Maybe we’ve been told in the past that other people aren’t interested in hearing how we feel. Maybe we feel like the way that we feel is inappropriate, that we’re simply exaggerating to ourselves or seeking attention, even if we haven’t even told anyone yet – we’ve just internalized this idea that the way we’re feeling is always associated with attention seeking. Or maybe we don’t want to burden someone else with our honesty, we don’t want to make them worry about us or angry with us or look down upon us. We want to maintain a certain image before them – a strong, healthy, normal image, even if we don’t feel like we match it.

And so we keep silent.

We say nothing, but we keep on suffering. We keep on feeling.

And we keep on feeling alone.

So let me take this opportunity to say this: you need to say how you feel.

Now, maybe you need to be selective about who you say this to. For example, if are currently closeted, I am not advocating coming out to people who you know are not going to accept you, but rather will try to hurt you, either physically or mentally. If sharing the way that you feel is guaranteed to cause you harm of some sort, then I am very sorry for you, because you do not deserve that. You deserve the opportunity to be open and honest about how you feel without fear, and if you can’t be, then that is not your fault. That is the fault of the other who is causing you harm, whether they are doing it intentionally or not.

But regardless, in every single situation, it is important for people to not shoulder their burdens alone. We as the human species need people; we need to open up, to communicate. And once you do that, whether you’re talking about a mental illness, your identity, or a mere fear or anxiety that has been plaguing you, a miraculous thing happens – the burden becomes easier to bare. All of a sudden, you are not alone in this world. There is someone else out there who knows how you feel, who understands you and shares in your experience.

And furthermore – when you talk to someone else about how you feel, it can either validate it, or help you to work through it. Too often, our own minds become toxic places to hold thoughts, especially if they hold them for a long time. The longer they’re in there, the more that they sour, becoming something that doesn’t even reflect reality, and sometimes, the only way to recognize what they have become is by getting them out there in the real world to be discussed. Maybe you’ll realize that the way that you’ve been feeling is ridiculous, and maybe you’ll realize that the only ridiculous thing about all this was holding onto it for so long, or thinking that you were wrong to think it in the first place.

Too often, I hear from people who have been holding onto thoughts and feelings for years and haven’t opened up, haven’t even explored them. We as a society tend to encourage others to bottle up their emotions, to buck up and be strong and go through it alone. But going through life alone is incredibly lonely, and sometimes we need to talk to others.

So let’s talk.

Let’s offer people in need our ears.

Let’s refuse to bottle up our emotions and leave them to fester.

Let’s stop promoting this idea that reaching out is weak, or that naturally occurring emotions can be wrong.

We all need to talk, and we should all have the opportunity to talk. Because there is nothing wrong with you or how you feel; there is something wrong with a society that keeps us all silent.