The issue of sexual assault and violence against women has moved to the forefront with the latest mass shooting by Elliot Rodger. The #YesAllWomen twitter campaign shows the abuse and fear that all women experience on an almost constant basis. Disturbingly, reactions to this campaign also shows the depth of misogyny and male privilege that pervades our society.
Today I read a blog post by Pamela Gay, an Astronomy professor and science educator. She is the director of CosmoQuest and co-host of the Astronomy Cast podcast. She is an excellent science educator and is an inspiration for myself and numerous others.
This particular post was personal and upsetting because it dealt with sexual harassment at a conference and the betrayal of someone she thought was a friend. I won’t go into the details so please go read her post and then come back and read the rest of this one.
Here is my comment on her blog post:
It pains me so much to read this. I am constantly so angry and frustrated by how many men behave, and are protected by those around them. The truly sad and disturbing thing is that I don’t know a single woman, not one, who doesn’t have a similar story to tell. Every woman I know has been sexually assaulted in some way.
I hope you don’t mind me using your forum here to say something to any men out there who are reading this, but I try to speak up about this issue wherever and whenever I get a chance: Men, please listen, really listen, to what women are saying about sexual assault. Next, don’t stay silent. If you see another man behaving like this, speak up and make sure it doesn’t go unnoticed or unreported. When you are with your male friends and something related to sexual assault comes up, in whatever context, speak up. Let the other men in your life know that sexual harassment and assault are unacceptable.
Pamela, thank you for everything you’ve done to spread science and, even though it is painful, your experiences with sexual harassment. You are making the world a better place for everyone.
I’ve written here before about how I’ve tried to raise my daughter so that she doesn’t allow any man to get away with harassing her, and she has put several guys in their place who have tried to harass her.
Also, in my first post here on Grounded Parents I wrote about how my daughter made me a feminist. Most men who have daughters or sisters would be livid if a man harassed their loved ones, but many of these same men will harass women. It is a Jekyll and Hyde thing that seems to make no sense, but much of it comes down to privilege.
While I consider myself a feminist, and I’ve always thought of myself as someone who respects women, looking back I can see that this wasn’t always so. As a young man in college, I once tried to get into bed with a woman I was friends with by putting her into a difficult situation which made her choose either sex or leaving. She left. I lost that friendship, and deservedly so. It took a mutual friend scolding me and showing me how terrible I had acted and how freaked out I had made that woman before I realized that I was one of those asshole guys who take advantage of women. It was sobering and humiliating.
What I learned is that I harbored this hidden sense of privilege of having some kind of rights over women. This was in spite of the fact that I considered myself an enlightened, liberal man. In spite of the fact that almost every woman I’ve ever known who has weighed in on my personality has told me what a nice guy I am, how comfortable they feel around me. I never thought of myself as a predator, or a creep, or anything less than a good man who respected women and truly believed in women’s rights. I was part of the problem.
I was lucky that I have always (well mostly) been pretty self-aware and, more importantly, willing to listen to opinions about me that aren’t positive and don’t show me in a good light. Being mature and being mindful of how your behavior effects the people around you is something that you learn over time, but the key, is often, that someone needs to point it out to you first.
As a father, I’ve tried to instill the ideas of equality, respect, and mindfulness regarding relationships with women in my son and stepson so that they grow up knowing these things. The way we think about women, about their roles in our lives and our society are shaped by what we are taught and how we see other men treating women.
As fathers, men can only teach and lead by example, but as friends, coworkers, lovers, and fellow humans, we can, and must, do more. We must speak out whenever we encounter women being harassed by other men, whether it be intervening directly or reporting the harassment to others who can do something about it.
If we truly believe in women’s equality and in women’s rights; if we honestly think that no woman should ever be harassed or raped or attacked, then we must never, ever be silent.
Our place as men in this is not to tell women how or what they should feel about being harassed or attacked. Our place is not to just try to empathize or give emotional support (although that too is critical). Our place, our duty, is to speak up. It is to demand from other men that this behavior cannot and will not stand. We have to be willing to tell our best friend that he is an entitled jerk if he harasses a woman, or even expresses such sentiments. We need to be willing to risk friendships, professional relationships, and even alienating family, to make sure that no incident of harassment that we are aware of goes unnoticed or unreported. We need to shame men who harass women and if they have no shame, then we need to ostracize them and make them outcasts in our company and society.
It is a very big, and very difficult problem to deal with. Women can, and do, speak out, protest, sue, implore, attempt to legislate, etc. just to feel safe, never mind to have equal rights. As men, at least at this point in history and society, we call the shots as far as how women are treated and the expectations that men have of them. It shouldn’t be this way, and it is changing, but too slowly and with too much violence and pain.
Featured image by the Author.