In the past few weeks, some of the women in my life have approached me and asked a similar question, the gist being: “What do you think of #metoo? Has it gone too far? And is sexual harassment as bad as they say?”
It’s a funny question to ask me, a white male of significant height and weight who perhaps to some appears to inhabit a position of power, to answer. My wife insists my resting face is intimidating and makes me unapproachable. And yet, my experience being raised by a single mother, as a journalist in newsrooms and covering the state government has made me more than sympathetic with the #metoo movement than a casual observer might suspect.
My response, a particularly impassioned, detailed and long diatribe, can be distilled simply. #metoo hasn’t gone far enough. There is much more work to do because sexual harassment and the systematic discrimination and imbalance of power that favors men creates workplace dynamics that absolutely horrify me. The sexual harassment I’ve witnessed early in my career as a journalist and while covering state government has been rampant, ugly and unchecked.
Amazingly when I finished my diatribe these older women revealed that they themselves had been subject to some horrible degradation, rape, molestation, or abusive relationships that they kept quiet for decades due to fear it would hurt their careers, family, or social standing. Having them share these stories with me was overwhelming but affirmed the power that #metoo has. It was stunning that all it took was my acknowledgment for them to share these powerful stories. Who am I to validate their experiences?
In my first journalism gig, female staffers were routinely forced to spend inordinate amounts of time with a certain editor, go on trips with him, tolerate his usually drunken presence in their social lives after work, allow him to pester them in their hotel rooms during industry conferences.
To this day I regret that, at times, I made light of the situation. It wasn’t that I approved of the behavior–it was out of helplessness. As a young journalist, I made a pittance and had no other career prospects at the time. The women who were subjected to the situation either had no other employment opportunities at the time, or moved on as soon as they possibly could.
I’m sure this editor thought he was just playing the game, that these women were actually attracted to him and that the fact that he controlled their ability to survive had no impact on the situation. But it did.
Over the past year, I’ve also spoken to a host of younger women who are still focused on their careers. They’ve described serial harassment by peers in journalism. The frequency with which they are propositioned by married coworkers. The degrading questions about their love lives they get from sources–questions they are forced to tolerate to maintain relationships. Routine discrimination by their powerful bosses. Being admonished because of responsibilities they have as mothers. Being dismissed by men who don’t take them seriously.
To be frank it is an outrage that they should no longer have to tolerate.
This should be a period of extended reflection for men. I know I was to blame for two emotionally damaging relationships early on in my life. I believe the best thing I can do to atone for them is to ask other men to use empathy to change their behavior.
Should you be afraid of the #meetoo movement? If you’ve treated women terribly and you’re in a powerful position, yes, you should be. But you could apologize and change your behavior rather than attack the movement.
Are you someone who thinks because you’re “affectionate” or “artistic” you get to put your hands on every woman you know? If so, it’s probably time to check in with the people you’re touching and make sure they are OK with it. It’s not your right to be handsy.
That isn’t to say I don’t have concerns with #metoo. Babe.net’s story on Aziz Ansari was simply a terrible piece of journalism. What might have been effective as a blog post by the woman who went on a bad date with Aziz Ansari was instead reported breathlessly with inane facts, and petty details. It read like celebrity gossip reporting. Was there a bigger story there?
Yes, but it wasn’t about Aziz Ansari, it was about the culture that prevents women from simply acting in their own best interests–that stops them from telling family members they’ve been molested so as not to cause a familial rifts, or prevents them from telling a coworker to stop asking about their sex life out of fear they will offend.
I believe with all my heart that #metoo can be successful. It can put women on the equal footing they deserve, it can expose the systematic abuses and the abusers. More women need to be encouraged to share their stories. More women need to be made to feel assured that men will be there to support them–that we will tear down the system that has allowed so many abuses.
The women in my life shouldn’t feel like they need to take me aside in public to whisper their stories to me. They shouldn’t be forced to live with shame. It’s time for men to forget “the way it’s always been” and think about how they would see the world if they were subjected to the status-quo that women in America have lived with for decades.