I was talking with a group of guy friends recently, the sole woman amid a collection of dudes as they stream-of-consciousness workshopped their way to understanding the ongoing storm of sexual harassment accusations. It’s not a pleasant position to be in — I was glad to be able to help them understand things, but thinking about that stuff at that level and having to articulate it that way was exhausting and also made me want to go home and take, like, twelve showers. But they and others have asked what they need to know and what insights they need to have when discussing sexual harassment with women. So here’s some.
I do have to note — and Aforementioned Guy Friends, on the off chance you’re reading this, I am not trying to call you out specifically, just observing a phenomenon — the number of things they didn’t ask about, on top of the things they did. The number of things they didn’t ask for clarification about, because they thought they already understood. I watched their eyes get big as I explained that getting hit on by a persistent guy in a bar isn’t just annoying — there’s often a sense of danger involved. If I put him down hard, is he going to get angry, and if he does, will get get violent? If I let him down easy, is he going to leave me alone? How many drinks are there between “being rude” and “leading him on”? And if I do agree to have one drink with him, just to get him to leave me alone, and he ends up raping me, how blamed am I going to be for it? (Answer: Very blamed.) Most guys, being good guys, can’t imagine doing physical harm to a woman, and thus can’t figure out why we’d be worried for our safety around guys. It’s hard for them to grasp that our objection to being harassed on the street or harangued at a bar goes beyond mere annoyance.
That’s one reason I think that sexual harassment in the workplace has become such a focus of late, even though both it and social harassment have been around since time immemorial: because both men and women know what it’s like to be vulnerable professionally. A man might not know what it’s like to fear for his safety as he goes about his everyday life. But he knows what it’s like to worry about the security of his job, and so while he might think women are being hyperbolic when we talk about fears of physical attack, he can understand “I didn’t say anything because I was afraid I’d lose my job.” He might not sympathize with a woman who thought she’d be raped by Harvey Weinstein, but he can sympathize with one who thought she’d be fired by him, and so here we are.
Of course, even in the workplace, women are, as a whole, still more vulnerable than men. Women in general make 80 cents on the white male dollar — and it’s just 63 cents for black women, and 54 cents for Latina women. We’re statistically less likely to be sitting in the corner office and more likely to be answering to the white dude who is. We’re less likely to be directing or producing the movie and more likely to be fetching coffee for the white dude who is. And we’re more likely to be willing to take a deep breath and put up with a lot of abuse for the sake of simply holding our ground in industries with support structures built for the sake of putting and keeping those white dudes in power.
If you’re a single parent, you don’t have the power to just walk out on an abusive boss without a job lined up. If you have a disability and rely on your job for healthcare, you can’t just walk out. If you work in the service industry and know that there’s a line of yous waiting to put food on their own family’s table, and the guy whose drink you bring or house you clean or kid you watch decides to put his hands on you, you have a choice to make, and if you choose hold your breath and hope he doesn’t do it again tomorrow, because both of the kids need new shoes, that’s your call to make. And the only wrong person there is the one who uses his power to victimize people who depend on him for their livelihood.
Standing together, and a little bit of marine wildlife
The women who choose to stay at a job with an abusive boss, who support each other and act as a node in a whisper network but never stand up and speak out, aren’t betraying anyone or enabling anyone — they’re doing what they feel they have to do to survive. The ones who do speak up? They’re GD heroes. Because for every Rose McGowan, there’s a Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov, whose comedy careers were waylaid after they spoke up about Louis CK masturbating in front of them in 2002. Or a Barbara Bowman, whose acting career dried up after she told her agent and a lawyer that Bill Cosby drugged and raped her in 1985. Pushing back, speaking up, exerting any sort of agency in the face of sexual harassment is risky, and it takes a lot of courage to be the first voice that gives strength to the rest.
And that’s how it works — the reason this is all coming to light now is that women are hearing other women speak up. Four women spoke up about Roy Moore, then five, then eight, and now nine, because they knew that while they’d be putting themselves in the line of fire in doing so, they wouldn’t be doing it alone. One woman spoke up about Bill Cosby, and soon it was 60 — not because they were inspired to make up stories or pile on, but because they’d felt isolated for so long and now had other women’s courage to borrow from. They weren’t safe, doing what they did, but doing it together, they were strong.
And that’s the difference between being protected and not being vulnerable — swimming in a shark cage, or being a shark.
Men are still on the hook to protect women to some degree. I hate it, and it’s freaking 2017, but that’s just the case. Men have to listen to women and to hold each other accountable to the rules — until there are women in the C-suite to do it, the men who are currently there will have to. As long as the Good Ol’ Boys Network is still 93.6 percent boys, they’re the ones who can make sure these offenses aren’t ignored or excused.
And it sucks to acknowledge that. Feminists and womanists have done so much for so long that sometimes it feels almost ungrateful to acknowledge that we’re still vulnerable. Women are doing better and better over time — our representation is increasing in business, government, and the media. We’re making exceptional accomplishments in male-dominated fields. (Did y’all see Wonder Woman? Because that was pretty awesome. It’s easy to come away from that movie feeling completely invulnerable.)
But we’re not invulnerable. For all the strides that have been made, women in the U.S. remain, on average, physically smaller and with less social capital than men. Until we have equal representation in those fields — and with it, the influence and authority to handle this shit on our own — we need men to, at the very least, call out your boys (on a social and a professional basis) when they do stuff that isn’t okay and hold them to account.
Make no mistake: If you’re not gonna, we’ll do it our damn selves. We’re smart and resourceful and used to getting things done. Current events are demonstrating that women are feeling more confident in standing together in the face of threats and amassing around us a degree of sharkness. But if, as a man, you’re going to make noises about caring now, while the subject is in the news, you’ll be expected to follow through in the long term. (And let’s not kid ourselves that this isn’t going to die down once the public becomes inured to seeing powerful men be exposed as predators — mass shootings what? Gun control who? Mental health huh?)
Answer the damn question already
So what can men do? The biggest thing is to not undermine us. That’s what “believe women” is about — it doesn’t mean immediately shooting a man twice in the forehead the moment a woman accuses him of sexual harassment, but it does mean taking accusations seriously and not immediately dismissing them as jealousy, morning-after regret, histrionics, or flat-out lying. Men launch personal attacks on sexual harassment accusers — Leigh Corfman once got a ticket for driving a boat without lights on! That means she’s a liar! — because they have nothing substantive to say about the accusations. When they see women standing together, they have to declare it a conspiracy, because the thought that they’re all telling the truth is far too damning. And that’s the kind of thing that makes women afraid to come forward in the first place, alone or together. Instead of reflexively looking for reasons to discredit women, just listen to their story.
Don’t try to fit our experiences into the frame of your life. Trying to empathize with us is good. Dismissing our feelings and experiences because they don’t track with yours isn’t. Think you wouldn’t be bothered by something? Be scared by something? Think you’d find something flattering? (Fun fact: You wouldn’t. Not if you were there.) That doesn’t mean it works that way for most women — see above in re: guys having no idea what it’s really like for a woman to get hit on in a bar. (Also, don’t try to argue with our lived experience based on the word of one chick whose name you don’t remember who says she actually does find it flattering. We’re sitting in front of you. If you choose to completely discard what we’re telling you, at least have the good grace to not tell us about it.)
Know that it goes beyond what’s currently in the news. Right now, we’re seeing it mostly in entertainment and government, but it happens in every industry, and a lot of them will probably never get voracious news coverage. Blue collar and pink collar jobs. Service jobs. And women with compounding oppressions — women of color, lesbians, trans women, women with disabilities — who so frequently get ignored or further punished when they speak out about offenses against them. And, yeah men. This isn’t just a rich, famous white people thing. It might be happening right now at your place of employment. Just ask some of your female coworkers — you might be the first guy ever to do so.
And the other big thing is to let women speak for ourselves. Instead of speaking over us or trying to tell our stories for us, signal boost us. Share your platform with us. Support us in supporting each other. We’re not sharks yet, as is evidenced by the fact that decade-old sexual harassment offenses are only coming out now. But we’re getting there. It’ll happen eventually, one way or another, and it’ll be better for everyone when it does.