Men paralyzed by #MeToo: Here’s why you need to speak up—and how

Men need to realize that sexism, sexual assault, and harassment are their problems, too.
Men need to realize that sexism, sexual assault, and harassment are their problems, too.
Image: AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, File
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Like many women, I’ve been disturbed and enraged by the allegations that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has been sexually harassing and assaulting women for decades—and by how closely the story resonates with my own experiences, and those of every woman I know. The harsh reality is that no industry or community is safe from these behaviors. If we want real change, everyone needs to speak up.

And so I’ve been struck by the silence of many men on the subject. Shortly after the news on Weinstein broke, I wrote a long Facebook post calling on men to speak out against the sexism dominating our cultural consciousness. “Your silence is deafening,” I wrote. “If you are an ally, now is the time to sit down, educate yourself, and speak up. Not sure what to say? Worried you’ll say the wrong thing? Too bad. That’s the risk women take every damn day.” Roughly 90% of the people who offered supportive comments or “liked” the piece were women. Others deemed my reflections “aggressive” and “accusatory”; all of these people were men.

Since that post, I’ve received many private messages from men sharing their thoughts and questions. The volume of those messages has increased in the wake of the viral #MeToo campaign, which has led millions of women to share their experiences with sexual harassment and assault online. Some men have joined in #MeToo conversation, either by discussing their own experiences with sexual harassment and assault, or by communicating their solidarity and commitment to change with hashtags like #Guilty, #IHave, #IDidThat, and #IWill. But many men have held back.

I believe that it’s necessary for both women and men to engage in productive conversations about sexism. Sexism is not a women’s issue, or an issue for women and men with daughters. Until all of us, irrespective of our gender identities, take responsibility for ending misogyny, it will continue to oppress us and those we love.

So I’ve decided to publicly answer some of the questions men have been asking me, and themselves, about how to engage with the reality of sexual harassment and assault. It’s important to note that men also experience sexual harassment and abuse, and that no person’s experience of sexual harassment and assault is the same. My responses—drawing on the wisdom of friends, writers, and colleagues—are not comprehensive, nor is my advice flawless. But at a time when many men are wondering what to do, here is a place to start.

“Is it important that I say something on social media?”

Some men are staying silent about sexism on social media because they don’t want to take the mic away from women. Others aren’t sure what to say. Still others feel that posting on Facebook or Instagram doesn’t constitute “real action.” And some men don’t care, or would rather post about something else.

If you’re a man who feels no desire to publicly denounce sexism, that’s your prerogative. But for men who are feeling conflicted, consider this: A Facebook post certainly won’t topple the patriarchy. It’s no substitute for calling out a buddy who makes crude comments about women, or reporting a coworker’s inappropriate behavior to HR. But it’s a step, and it’s far from meaningless.

Posting on social media shows the people who have been affected by sexual abuse that you are tuned into the cultural conversation. It shows women who have taken a risk and publicly made themselves vulnerable that you’re listening, that you believe them, and that you agree sexism should not be tolerated. At a bare minimum, it shows that you give a damn, and other men should, too. If you’re on social media often enough to watch #MeToo unfold, there’s no downside to a brief post, or even acknowledging women’s thoughts via an affirmative emoji or a “like” on Facebook. Just make sure that your action doesn’t stop there.

Women are not keeping tabs on which men stay silent. We do not have the emotional energy to police inaction, nor is it our responsibility. But I can say with confidence that many of us are taking note of, and appreciating, the men who do make themselves vulnerable by speaking out.

“What if I say something wrong or insensitive?”

First of all, if you’re asking this question, thank you for considering the potential consequences of your actions. This self-awareness is a critical first step.

I’m not going to sugar-coat the answer: Whenever you post about systems of oppression, you run the risk of saying the wrong thing and offending other people. Does this mean you should avoid saying anything at all? Absolutely not.

The risk that men perceive about potential backlash for writing or saying something insensitive—women experience that risk, too. We risk vicious online harassment every time we post a potentially controversial thought online, as well as the possibility that we’ll make a mistake, or that others will rightfully point out our blind spots. But it’s necessary to take that risk in order to learn and improve. Staying silent for fear of messing up only bolsters a culture of silence around sexism and abuse.

“What if I get attacked?”

Some readers may think, “I see women calling out men for the stupid things they’ve said, and I know I’ll be judged for speaking out, too.” To that I would say: I celebrate your discomfort.

Frankly, it’s entirely fine—actually, it’s great—that many men feel judged and personally attacked over recent debates about Weinstein and sexual abuse. The reality of sexism and sexual violence makes women feel uncomfortable and judged every single day, from the catcalls we get on our way to work to the way we hesitate before sharing our opinion in a meeting. For women of color, trans people, gay people, and gender-queer people, this daily judgment and discomfort is only amplified.

That men are finally starting to experience the negative consequences of sexism may be a way for them to understand how women and non-gender-conforming people feel all the time. If you’re feeling judged or attacked, channel those sentiments into thinking critically about how you can do better—in both your public and private fight against patriarchy.

“What should I say?”

This doesn’t have to be complicated. Write or say what you are thinking. It could be as simple as, “I believe all of you.” It could be, “I will do better and help others do the same.” Be willing to admit it if, like so many other people, you don’t know what to say. It’s extremely helpful both for people who have personally been affected by sexual abuse, and for other men who are unsure of how to join the conversation, to understand why you’re uncomfortable and to know that you’re trying to overcome that discomfort.

On the workplace messaging app Slack, for example, one editor posted this note:

“hi, cis straight man here… i think sometimes I feel like posting/saying something is a good way to get out of stewing in a bad feeling, to kind of push it out, and i feel it might be a good thing for me and people like me to kind of stew in this shitty feeling and kind of see what we learn from it, and so that’s part of why i’m not directly moving to ‘ah yes and me too and i support you.’ i feel extremely poorly today and i feel like i have no proper outlet for that but I also feel like that’s ok”

His vulnerability was met with sincere gratitude and relief. “I hear you – and I understand that. But I’m not sure that indicating support is a barrier for actually stewing in the discomfort,” one woman wrote back. “Hard to overstate what a relief it is to women to see the men in their lives engaging in this conversation earnestly.”

Another editor noted, “Solidarity doesn’t have to come in the form of a statement, also. Asking questions can be a much more powerful way of engaging. In this case, maybe it’s as simple as asking a woman/women what she/they think or want to add to the conversation.”

“Should I talk about what I’ve done wrong?”

If you feel that you’ve been complicit, it can be useful for you to admit it. But do not turn the conversation into a dramatic mea culpa. When men admit to hurting or abusing women, they’re too often congratulated for personal growth.

There’s no need to wax poetic, or to self-flagellate over all your sexist wrongdoings. Whether it’s intentional or not, detailing bad behavior looks like an appeal for applause or reassurance, and invades the privacy of the victim. If you, like at least one man I have seen on Facebook, decide to detail your assault as a means to redeem yourself online, without the survivor’s consent, you are (again) exerting unjust control over that person and re-subjugating them, and those who love them, to assault and abuse. The story of how you’ve hurt women is not a tragedy for you, nor is it your story to tell.

“Are you implying I’m a bad guy if I don’t say anything?”

I cannot tell you how many times I, and other women, attempt to engage men in conversations about sexism only to be met with intense defensiveness. Most of us have a lot riding on the idea that we’re decent human beings. Some men seem to feel that this self-image is challenged whenever the topic of sexual harassment and sexual violence is introduced.

But as my colleague Thomas Page McBee explains in a recent post, the binary of “good guys” and “bad guys” is both toxic and fundamentally unhelpful. Writing about the Weinstein scandal, he notes:

“Maybe the problem is, in part, the hunt for ‘good men,’ which encourages a moral distancing that lets the rest of us off the hook. ‘Good men’ are raised in the same culture that enforces a cone of silence around around all sorts of nasty behavior. If legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s sex crimes made him a “bad man,” who else knew and said nothing?,” writes McBee. “‘Bad’ becomes, in the end, merely a matter of degree, when ‘good’ men remain silent, or offer generic messages of support on social media, claiming wide-eyed outrage and surprise.”

McBee continues:

It’s easier if there are ‘good’ men, even if they’re harder and harder to find, than it is to ask the more meaningful question, about all of us: What is going on here?”

In other words, if you want to help fight sexism, you may have to let go of the idea of “good guys” and “bad guys,” and start interrogating the patriarchal system in which we all—willing or not—play a part. New York University psychology professor Niobe Way tells McBee, ”The way to keep the patriarchal structure intact is to basically make it about an individual problem, and to isolate the problem … Then it’s about blaming the person, and not understanding that at the root of all of these problems is a culture of toxic masculinity, about what it means to be a man.”

So, no: If you don’t engage in conversations (online or offline) about sexism and sexual violence, that doesn’t make you a “bad guy.” If you do engage in those conversations, it doesn’t make you a good one. That’s because there’s truly no such thing as a “good” or “bad” guy. This binary, which is inherently juvenile and oversimplified, evades the reality that our culture raises all men with toxic ideals about masculinity, and that we all share responsibility for ending the misogyny that makes so-called “bad” guys do “bad” things.

If there’s one generalization I can make, it’s that women want men to think critically about how, whether or not they are conscious of it, they are surrounded by and take part in the patriarchal systems that make sexual harassment and assault so common. No one—regardless of their education, hometown, or politics—is immune to sexism. That’s how institutional oppression works.

“How can I change, and bring about change?”

The most important step toward becoming a better feminist and ally is learning to be uncomfortable. Admit what you don’t know. Admit that you’ve made mistakes. Talk about sexism even if you’re worried you’ll screw up. Call out harassment and misogyny even if people make fun of you. This discomfort is productive.

Here are a few other pieces of advice. Check out writer Emily Reynold’s Twitter thread, director and television host Nicole Stamp’s Facebook post, and Helen Rosner’s Medium post for more ideas on how to help.

“Practice these phrases: ‘That’s not cool’ and ‘That’s a shitty thing to say.’ Say them to other men who are saying disrespectful things to or about women.”

“When there’s an issue and you’re going to share an article about it—especially if it’s a gender issue—take a minute and try to find one written by a woman (same goes for other marginalized groups—seek articles about race written by IBPOC, seek articles about disability by writers with disabilities, etc.).”

  • Ask questions, and listen. Listen to women, especially women of color; to queer and trans people; and, most importantly, to anyone who has experienced sexual harassment and assault, if they are willing to share their stories.
  • Ask that people call you out when you say the wrong thing, and mean it. If you don’t welcome critical feedback, you won’t grow. If you’re not sure how to say this, try the words of one of my colleagues: “I’d like to thank the women I have spoken to privately about [the Weinstein case] for being open and calm in response to questions, and to please welcome all those to tell us (or at least me) when I get it wrong.”
  • Call out other men on their misogyny, no matter how “small” a particular thing may seem“Locker room talk” is all around you. Shut it down. Stamp has several practical suggestions in her recent Facebook post calling men to action:
  • Promote women and minorities’ voices at work, online, at home, in government, and beyond. As Stamp continues:
  • Get in the habit of noticing when men talk over and dismiss women and minorities’ contributions (I promise, it happens daily). Call this out as it happens, using phrases like “Hey, Zahara has a point,” as Stamp suggests.
  • If someone tells you that they are uncomfortable with your behavior or demeanor, listen, and think about how you may have misstepped. If someone tells you your actions made them uncomfortable, your response should never be “You’re wrong.” This self-awareness extends to sexual and romantic encounters, along with workplace conversations and digital and offline communication.

“Anything else?”

One last point: As active as we need to be about dismantling sexism and sexual abuse, we need to bring the same energy to fighting racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and all other forms of prejudice. These are intersectional issues, and we need to approach them accordingly—by actively seeking out and elevating diverse voices, and listening carefully to what people affected by these biases have to say. Learn what you don’t know, and commit to doing something about it. And remember the words of writer, feminist, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde: “Your silences will not protect you.”