No one likes to be wrong; no one wants that feeling of having some part of what you consider to be true ripped away or revealed to be full of thorns. No one thinks they’re bad – probably most of us believe we’re good, doing what we can to make the world a better place. We don’t want to hurt anyone.
But intention, as they say, isn’t magic.
Presumably we recognise, as adults, that we live in a world with different people, of different beliefs, different life experiences. We men are lucky, in this regard, in many ways. The problem is not recognising our sex or gender is what gives us this privileged position – and how that then blinds us to the life experiences and various disadvantages of those who are not us.
This blindness isn’t composed of mere ignorance. Instead this blindness to the struggles of others, in this case women, is a bit more insidious.
We don’t want to be wrong; but many of us spend more time fighting to defend views we’ve long had, than examine whether those views are correct and even worth defending. Sometimes, though, we need a hard lesson to undo the blinkers – this is especially true to what many men consider a “woman’s issue” – or maybe a “feminist” issue: everyday sexism.
Ask yourself: If a woman said a strange man – any man she doesn’t know – troubles her when she is alone with him in an alley or street, is your first response to tell her she’s overreacting? Would you say “not all men” are dangerous, certainly not you or most men you know? Do you shake your head at women writing articles about the unfairness of life, even though they don’t live in Saudi Arabia? What about how some women “can’t take a compliment”, declaring a poor dude “creepy” even though he didn’t even touch her?
If respond like this regularly, you are part of what makes environments unwelcoming to women. You’re saying her experiences and perceptions are wrong and you, a person who’s never experienced these things, are right.
You might reject the assertion that you’re the problem, claim “It’s not me! It’s the real creeps.” Maybe you’ll shrug and declare: “Guys will be guys, so those builders are going to say something about her in that short skirt.”
I want to tell you, as a man myself, this is not how we make women feel safe. This is not the way we should conduct ourselves, if we care even a little about making spaces – work, gym, the street, parties, anywhere – better for women.
Indeed, dismissing women because women are “looking for problems”, are “overreacting”, or “playing the victim”, tells me two things: first, you care more about maintaining the world, which women have just told you and constantly tell us makes them uncomfortable and unsafe, than making it better; a world where one out of four women receive sexual harassment in the workplace, even in places like Canada.
Second, you think you know more about someone’s experiences of safety, acceptance, comfort than the person themselves.
This doesn’t mean people are right just because of what they feel. If that were true, we wouldn’t have evidence-based policy and laws which fly in the face of majority opinion (legalised abortion, no capital punishment, etc.) But these women’s constant raising of these concerns is at least a reason for men to examine their beliefs about the world and the way it treats women.
Yes, a large part of the problem is men acting, at best, like children and, at worst, violent thugs; but part of what gives these men immunity is other men’s silence or dismissal at women – who “just whine”. That silence, our silence, can come from a somewhat legitimate fear of “getting involved” or wrongly assuming “it’s no big deal”.
In order for us to change things, we have to want to do so. We need to recognise something is a problem in order to fix it. There are entire websites, campaigns, and data to prove women are not just “looking for problems”. The actual problem is, thus far, it’s really only women who suffer. That means they’re the ones responding, without support.
We don’t, for example, get catcalls from men every time we walk down streets; added to this, we also usually don’t see women we love get catcalled because we’re with them because, to these thuggish men, these women are “claimed”. (It’s why an unfortunate effective measure women use to get rid of men is telling them they have a boyfriend. Men disgustingly can’t and won’t accept “no” as an answer.)
Worse still is that many women don’t bother discussing it with men because, as we noted above, they know the responses men will give: “You’re just being reactive, emotional, etc.” And we all know, the more people say something, the more it’s perceived to be true.
No wonder women feel ashamed and blame themselves, when they have no reason to – it’s the men’s fault for treating them that way; it’s the wider environment of accepting this as the norm. That’s why men can grope a woman and ride away, without anyone asking if she’s OK. That’s why men can openly tell a woman they’re going to rape her “because she’s sexy”, she’s “hot”, and so on.
We can do something.
But it starts by thinking maybe we, as men, don’t know everything; maybe you don’t know what it’s like being a woman in a world that you know benefits men just because you’re a man.
No: women aren’t infallible. No: they can be wrong. They’re people and therefore imperfect, like us. But that’s no justification to think they’re wrong, exaggerating, or making things up when there are plenty of reasons to listen to them. Ask yourself: What would it take to make you believe women are harassed, treated poorly, on a consistent basis in the world?
Look at science. Look at gaming. Look at social media or the internet in general. Look at business. This doesn’t even take into account Islamic or traditional societies. Again and again women are undermined because they’re women.
Women should be able to wear what they want and not be judged for it; they should be able to move about without being targeted; they should be able to pursue any hobby or career without their sexual lives or abilities brought into it.
I could tell you to change this because you don’t want your lover, your wife, your daughter, your mother to experience such treatment. And if you spoke to them, listened to them without judgement, it wouldn’t take long for them to tell you about their mistreatment based on their sex.
But rather, I’d tell you to care because women are people, deserving of the same rights, freedom, and sense of safety as we are lucky enough to have.
I can’t convince you to care – but hopefully you already do. And if that’s the case, and you do want more people to feel safe, to feel less afraid, you can start examining what you’re doing to make the world hostile.
You may not be the one catcalling women in the street, but your silence and dismissal of women’s concerns allows it happen. Maybe instead of directing our ire at women, we direct our criticism at other men making women’s spaces worse.