Earlier this month, the New York Times broke the story of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s alleged serial sexual harassment and abuse. Shortly after, The New Yorker followed with an even more detailed, more damning report. In response, millions of people who’d experienced sexual abuse of their own tweeted their stories with the hashtag #MeToo. The idea was to demonstrate the scale of the problem — and thereby to counter the inevitable chorus of It isn’t really that bad.
More than 50 women in the industry have now publicly detailed their own abusive encounters with Weinstein. Still more have shared stories about other powerful, abusive men. Post-Weinstein, nine women accused Gilbert Rozon, the founder of Just for Laughs. Thirty-eight women accused director James Toback. It seems possible that this momentum will help create a shift to a culture in which survivors feel they can speak up — and abusers realize they might actually face consequences for their actions.
As someone who’s written both about my own experiences with rape and about movements that undermine anti-rape advocacy, I’ve been asked to give several #MeToo interviews these past few days. I’m happy to do so, happy to help to carry on the conversation in any way I can. And yet — and this question has come from both men and women — I can’t decide what to say when I’m asked what men can do to help. (One radio announcer responded to his own question: “Well, other than not rape.” Well, yes, other than that.)
I understand the motivation behind the question. The onus shouldn’t be solely on survivors to change the culture. Those in power must change, too. If we’re to get anywhere, it’s essential that they help keep this discussion going. But here’s the thing: we’re still doing the work when we’re asked to provide men with instructions, like some sort of survivor IKEA. (Build your own decent human!) And, yet, in the wake of the Weinstein allegations, how-to articles on being decent have proliferated.
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The Guardian printed a (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) list of things men can do to help women in the workplace, including such sage advice as not telling misogynistic jokes and paying women equally. Toronto actor, director, and television host Nicole Stamp gave CNN 14 on-point examples of what “good, decent” men can do, such as being mindful of how they introduce women to others, reading feminist writers, and amplifying women’s voices at work. GQ ran an article titled “A good man knows he has to do more”; fellow men’s magazine Esquire went with “What to do if you see a female coworker being harassed.”
Encouraging men to step up is a good thing, and when I get the “What can men do?” question, I give answers similar to the above: men can speak out against locker-room talk; they can bring up these topics in their own circles; they can try to assess their own behaviour; they can learn more about consent; they can realize survivors can’t shoulder all this work alone and that they can help, too. I explain that men can start with the myriad small comments — like when they call us not by our names, but by “babe” or “sweet” or “lovely.” They can value our work more; they can even promote us. We can all do a lot to help.
So, yes, it’s great that we’re talking about this, and I do mean it, even though I’m so very tired of the question. Even though I can’t believe we still have to ask it — that we still centre the conversation on telling “decent” men things that should already be obvious. In 2017, do men truly not know they can (not to mention should) stand up to so-called locker room talk, to sexual comments in the workplace, to instances of physical assault? Do they really need media, or a sister, daughter, girlfriend, wife, or female friend to tell them sexual abuse isn’t okay? When we accept the idea that they need to be told this, we’re giving them the opportunity to use post-abuse excuses like “I didn’t know.”
We need to do better now. Treating women like equals who are valued beyond their appearance isn’t that hard — although the flurry of recent articles imploring us to do so has revealed that the idea is, somehow, still groundbreaking. I’m not saying we should stop writing these articles. But let’s acknowledge how frustrating it is that we still have to. Let’s acknowledge that they should not merely be informative, but should serve as a call-out: a way to say, “We all know this already.” We know it, and it’s time to stop collectively pretending we do not.
Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.
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