In the midst of sexual assault scandal storms sweeping industries from Hollywood to politics and everything in between, many men have just now come to realize that this is the ugly reality women from all walks of life have always had to face. While naming names and outing prominent men help put a face on the issue and show how frequent and widespread it is, the truth is that women have known and denounced these types of behaviors all along and have just not been taken seriously.
The scale of the problem does come as a surprise to many men, however, and it should serve as a wake up call even to those who already saw themselves as allies. To many, the situation has fostered increased empathy and genuine desire to help the women’s cause, but the first lesson they need to learn in doing so is to listen to women for guidance instead of assuming they know best.
First, men need to understand that when women make general assertions about problematic male behavior, they might not literally mean that every single man is part of the problem, but enough of them to make the generalization justifiable. It also means that not enough of them are making an effort to be part of the solution. The “not all men” attitude is comfortable as a defensive mechanism, but just plays into the instinct to distrust women’s accounts and experiences as victims of a toxic culture, which is what got us here in the first place. If a man’s first reaction when a woman denounces a problematic trend of behavior is to get personally offended, chances are they have some work to do.
Second, it is just as disheartening to see men willing to call out and show horror towards the actions of Harvey Weinstein and the likes, but do nothing when problematic behavior or words come from their own friends. In this case, silence speak volumes, and all the contributions they think they otherwise give to the cause are meaningless. Culture change starts mainly at the micro level, and if men condone sexism just because it is packaged as a joke, then they do not combat it at all. Men need to stop overlooking this type of behavior as if there is a time and place that it is ever acceptable. They need to remember that the mere option of not having to look at life through the gender inequality optic when it is not comfortable is in itself a privilege – one that women don’t have.
Not actively participating in misogyny is not enough, and men need to do better than being passive or only mentally disapproving sexism when they encounter it. As writer Angela Larsen wrote on her call to action for the Odyssey on June 2017, men need to call out that friend who makes a rape joke or “talk about sexual behavior that may violate a woman’s consent.” Address the one who catcalls women and/or describe them in demeaning words, judging how much respect or shame they deserve based on how sexually active they are.
Every time men resort to these behaviors, they are looking for other men’s approval and reinforcement, so resisting the urge to avoid confrontation goes a long way. Men need to start questioning those behaviors on the spot, or saying “that’s not okay” in a public manner, and especially when it comes from those close to them. That is at the forefront of the feminist battle against misogyny.
A third way to be a helpful ally is for men to acknowledge they have a privilege and that they can use it as a force for good. Men need to use their voice to let women speak up for themselves, instead of speaking for them, and an effort to grant women a platform and access to power is necessary. A 2014 study by George Washington University showed that women were 33 percent more often interrupted by men than when men talk with other men. In a Nov. list compiled by Twitter user @kateleth, statements men need to practice include “she wasn’t finished” and “actually, that was her idea,” which cause men in a position of privilege to shed light on the challenges women face in the workplace, and that women would not be able to draw attention to otherwise.
Ultimately, there are important ways in which men can be allies, and the interest many are starting to show in helping the feminist cause is long overdue. It is about time men help shake the sexist dynamics in our society to the core and stop perpetuating misogyny and enabling it to prevail. But good intentions alone are not enough and the first place they should start is by asking women. They have known the inner workings of this culture for way too long and it is time for men to listen.