At the risk of being one more voice in the near-white noise of the #MeToo movement, I wanted to take a moment to answer some questions and share advice for the men out there reeling from the fallout. Even some of the best men I know – allies in gender equality – are starting to question where this whole thing is going. They are wondering if they will get their moment in the barrel, with some college hook up surfacing on social media to nail their name to the proverbial door next. First, calm down fellas. Second, follow my first point:
Listen more and defend less.
I get the need to defend oneself and other good guys in your gender. But this is not your time to talk. Do you even fathom the magnitude of this moment? Women have come a long way in many regards, but pertaining to this, we have NEVER HAD A VOICE. And the ones who did were shamed for what they wore, where they went, what they drank, who they had slept with before, and so on. We have lifetimes of a culture that has protected, enabled, and empowered men to see themselves as naturally deserving of sexual gratification – some of whom perhaps only pushed boundaries, others who willingly took what they wanted, when they wanted it. Look, if it helps, listen to the men of the #MeToo movement – the men who were abused and molested as helpless children and the impact it has had on their own sexuality, faith, and ideals of what it means to be a man and a father. Trust me, no one wants to make their splash and get 15 minutes of fame from sexual assault. I guarantee you. It’s just that these are things that women talked about together over wine, tears, and prayer. There was no space in any societal conversation (see: Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, etc.)
Understand this is going to have layers.
This moment isn’t just a reckoning for sexual predators; it is an opportunity for all of us – both men and women – to take a hard examination of our culture of sexuality. We need to examine our cultural tropes and norms to see what has perpetuated and nurtured predatory behavior. You know how when you move, you have to take apart your bed and move your couch? It’s downright nasty. But we don’t leave all that shit there. It’s one thing to bring the ugly into the light; it’s an entirely different one to clean it up.
We need not confuse the reckoning with the healing, though admittedly, the latter cannot happen without the former.
I spent a great deal of years in therapy working through the trauma of my rape. What that man did permeated into every aspect of my life: my faith in God, my faith in humanity, my self-worth, my loss of innocence, my views about sexuality, a culture of suspicion and fear, and my interactions in future relationships. What I know about healing through sexual trauma is that silence breeds shame.
And it’s not enough to just admit in words and detail what horrors took place. The real work begins once it is out in the open. It’s tough soul work, and you have to be willing to peer into every crevice, pull out the darkness that you never really admitted was there, and find healthy ways to reconcile it into the light. Those of us who never deal with our trauma find ourselves spiraling for years in self-destruction in an attempt to fight this difficult soul work. There’s a lot of men out there who are starting to see the darkness in others – and in themselves. You have a choice to fight it and defend its right to be there (that was just the culture, I didn’t know at the time, it seemed okay with her, etc) or you can make honest amends with it. As the great Maya Angelou (also a sexual assault victim) once said, “We do the best we can with what we know, and when we know better, we do better.” Regardless of your situation, you know better now. Time to step up the “doing better” game.
Be an instrument of healing.
If there are sexual encounters you’ve had in your past that still don’t really sit well with you even until this day, then that may merit a conversation with that person. Be humble enough to ask them, even if it was 20 years ago, “Did you feel okay about that? Because it still bothers me, and I know you may not have said anything then, but I also know now that you may not have felt comfortable using your voice. I didn’t understand then, and I’m sorry. I know better now.” And then LISTEN. Don’t justify anything, just listen. And hopefully, that person will be willing to honestly share their recollection of it, and if need be, offer a sincere apology. I don’t know that he would ever do it (because honestly, the man who raped me was a violent predator), but to hear an apology after all these years would be an integral piece in my journey to healing. We’re in the digital age where you can literally find anyone, anywhere, so I can pretty much guarantee locating them isn’t going to be the issue. But if you really want your house clean, you have to be willing to move some couches and see what’s under there.
Ladies, we also know better now.
The Aziz Ansari circumstance has thankfully added a new depth to our conversation about consent. I’m not going to weigh in on it, but I think everyone can agree that both parties felt convoluted about what happened. I’ve been there, y’all. I get it. In my younger years, I was a pleaser and hated upsetting people. I went along with things that I wasn’t comfortable with to make other people more comfortable, and that wasn’t right. Those instances were not assault. There wasn’t necessarily an enthusiastic consent, but there wasn’t a lot of pushback either. And yes, that was pretty much the norm because we were taught to not be a “bitch” or aggressive. That we could expect men to be men, and it was up to us to either remove ourselves from a situation or just expect that if you do stay in it, you get what you deserve. It doesn’t make it right, but that was the cultural norm. (Remember when I talked about layers?) But we know better now, and we can do better. Let’s not force our sexual partners to read between the lines to discern our intent; if you want it, be forthcoming about it. If you don’t, be crystal-clear about it and get the hell out of there if you can. And if he dares to continue without your consent, report and out that man to anyone and everyone willing to listen. Hold men accountable for their aggressive behavior because now is not even what it was six months ago. For the first time in our lives, people believe us and are giving space for our voices and stories. Use it.
Start with your sons.
I recently wrote a piece for a women’s magazine titled “A Letter to my Rapist.” And at the end, I said, “The future is here, and it is female. The misogyny, entitlement, and enabling that fostered an environment for you to get away with your crime is going to die with you.” You have an opportunity to change the culture from the ground-up. For decades, we have trained our daughters how to avoid rape: dress modestly, don’t accept a drink from a stranger, don’t walk alone at night, don’t go to a man’s home alone, learn self-defense…you know the shtick. What if we redirected all that energy into talking to our sons about bodily autonomy and consent? That they are never entitled to whatever target their sexual desires lead them?
I’ve already started with my 8-year old. We don’t talk about sex at this age, but we have a family motto: “Respect their choice.” If his sister doesn’t want to be hugged or wants to be left alone and she uses her words to communicate it to him, I tell him, “Respect her choice.” If I say no to something that he wants (like those damn Minecraft add-ons he keeps bugging me about), I say, “No means no. Respect my choice.” And likewise, when his little sis is being a nosy, nagging sister, he locks his bedroom door and reminds her, “No means no. Respect my choice.” When he’s developmentally ready, we’ll have the tough conversations about sex, but I don’t fear it because we have already established a common rule about consent. I’m just going to transfer it to a touchier subject. Men, you have the chance to literally revolutionize masculinity, respect between genders, and sexual culture by focusing less on “Rules for Dating My Daughter” and more on “Rules for Dating Someone Else’s Daughter.”
You know better now. Time to do better. And it’s going to take a village. Let’s get to work.