Why Would This Time Be Any Different?

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Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Deadspin/GMG, photos via Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Deadspin/GMG, photos via Getty Images

Here we are again in the midst of another news cycle involving a powerful man being accused of sexual assault and harassment and women sharing their own traumas in the hope that something—anything—will change the way men treat women and our bodies.

If you remember, we went through this—women exposing their most sensitive memories—precisely a year ago, when a sexual predator was running for the presidency. Before that there was the Bill Cosby cycle; before that there was the Woody Allen cycle; before that there were various cycles. Naming them could go on for a while.

Has this exercise not grown stale yet? It’s grown stale for me. I’m tired of talking about the men who have violated me, and tired of putting myself out there and bringing information to men who, for the most part, can’t be bothered to seek it out themselves. Most of the women I know are similarly fed up, and even if it’s taking place in one narrow corner of the word, and even it’s part of a cycle that’s gone on before and will go on again, hundreds of thousands of women talking and posting about and insisting on the reality of their own traumas is something to behold.

Does it matter, though? Does it ever matter?

Here’s what I find most aggravating: The men I know get to pick and choose when the subject of sexual harassment and abuse inconveniences them. They don’t want to talk about it too much, brushing it off as, “Yeah, I know it’s bad.” I’m a liberal man, I abhor sexual assault. Which, thanks! I would like, though, for the men in my life to actually sit with the conversation at hand and stop thinking about how it affects them and whether they’re on trial. I would like for them—even, perhaps especially, the good ones—to allow their worldview to be disrupted, and to think about the ways they’ve affected the women in their lives.

I know men—many men; nearly all the men who talk about it—who profess to abhor and do abhor sexual assault and harassment and yet struggle to really engage with the issue because no one in their right minds wants to sully the way they see their friends or themselves. Sure, there are some bad men, a lot of bad men; we as women and we as men know that. And still, when I have tried and urged the men in my life to really take a look at how absolutely insidious this issue is and what role they may have played or be playing in it, their walls have gone up. It’s a thought they find unsafe, a perspective they don’t want to have. I’m not like that.

At this point, I say, “Tough shit, dudes.” How men treat women, our autonomy, and our physical safety is the undercurrent to every woman’s existence, ramifying on everything we do, at all times. It doesn’t matter how you identify: Lesbian women get harassed by men, trans women experience harassment most of us cis women can’t even imagine, non-binary people and their experiences get erased, women of color experience harassment and violence at nearly exponentially higher rates than white women, and even the better men only become aware of it intermittently , when forced to. This is what the world is, whether you like it or not, and I don’t see it changing now—not because a self-defining sector of women are opening themselves up to be discounted and, well, further harassed, and certainly not over a hashtag.

I can’t count the number of times I have been out on the street, harassed by a random man until he sees that I am with another man—any man; simply a friend—and backs off, not wanting to interfere with another man’s property. I walk free of harassment when I am out with my boyfriend. (Our walks together amount to nearly three years being routinely free of the daily hums and calls of men.) Then I go outside, go for a walk, go to the post office, alone, and there it is again.

Where the fix needs to start is with this: Men—all of them, including the ones who wouldn’t necessarily feel written into this sort of instruction—need to begin to understand consent, and see it not as a binary of good and bad men, or of rape or not-rape. They need to understand coercion, and power dynamics, and how a woman feels queasy when an older, more notable man says he “forgot his wallet” in his hotel room, and hopes he was telling the truth. They need to understand the consequences of enabling friends who harm women, brushing off or excusing their behavior because of their otherwise positive qualities or because they think that they can help fix the problem through some unspecified mechanism. They need to shut down the jokes made by their asshole friends, rather than disagreeing in their own heads but pretending they didn’t hear because that would be … awkward.

But they—you—don’t often do that. And so it falls to women to push back, call out, and stand up, often alone or with only the support of other women, when men harm women. It’s not just bullshit, it’s ineffective. Men who prey on women only listen to the feedback of men.

It’s not as if men never know when their friends are creeps, or worse. I’ve spoken with a number of men this past week who have told me that they have reflected on their past behavior. I’ve realized that when I was bothering women, hitting on them at bars, I was just getting in the way of their good time for the sake of my need to get laid, the man says. It’s a start! But a few others have told me they have thought more about the actions of their friends—men known to be creepy or shitty to women—and how little respect they have for them. “So what are you doing about it?” I’ve asked. The response has been a chorus of stammering Um, uh, wells … It’s a set of wholly unsatisfying responses from men who want to represent themselves as, and believe themselves to be, definitely not part of the problem.

If you are a man who truly didn’t know—who has now heard something on this line from a woman you are close to and who is finally opening up with her story to you about a mutual friend, or family member, or colleague—ask yourself why it took so long. Ask why it took yet another run through the cycle for her to trust you. Ask yourself why the women you know haven’t shared the massive accumulation of information they have stored on their mental hard drives by their 20s if not before with the men who are good, who know better than to treat women as objects.

If you leave this issue to women, if you refuse to make your friends or yourself be better—whether by intervention or by consequence—you are part of the problem, no matter what you make of yourself. If you are closing yourself off from the information that has been out there for too long to be worth considering about gender, power, and violence, or the cyclical flows of personal anecdotes about them, you are not excused. It has been too long, too obvious, and presented too many ways for anyone to claim ignorance.

If you are surprised to learn that you, personally, are not part of the solution, but part of the problem, you have closed yourself out on purpose, choosing to stay ignorant out of fear of acknowledging the world as it is for all genders, rather than just yours.

This is not a problem for women to solve alone; this is not a problem women can solve alone. For too long, men have considered sexual and other gendered violence to be the problem of women. It is a problem for all of us to solve. Yet men have gone on, frowning and furrowing their brows. They are doing it now. They give it the old How horrible, I agree it is horrible and go about their days.

For women, this often is our day. This is a constant. We live with the unceasing fear of what a man is capable of. We know that it’s not convenient; we know that the urge to prey on women does not discriminate by how a man presents to the world otherwise, and especially the men around him.

It’s time for this to get inconvenient for men—for, perhaps, you. It’s time for them—you—to sit with this issue, not just for a day or two, but as part of your life. It’s time to assess values and priorities. Otherwise, why would (and how can) this cycle be any different?

Excuse me for being a pessimist. Please let me know when I, too, should reconsider how I view the men in my life.