Over the last week, there has been a lot of talk about Harvey Weinstein, and from a larger perspective, sexual harassment and its pervasiveness in our society. I feel like this is a part of the cycle we in the western world live in. The power dynamic in society is always on display, and despite our attempts at change, we have only changed the methods of how we engage in that toxic power dynamic.
I feel that the voices that have come out over the last week in terms of sexual harassment, from celebrities to everyday women using the hashtag #metoo, are vitally important for us to begin talking about what we need to do as men to 1) stop this behaviour in ourselves, and 2) call out this behaviour when we see it.
To begin with, with this post, I will group people rather generally, “Men,” or “Women,” and other terms are meant to talk about the general aspects of these groups, but I also want to point out that we are not slaves to our gender, that we are not defined by our gender or group, and most importantly, not everyone in their gender or group think or act in the same way. So please do not mean to take this post as equating to everyone in a particular group. These are only my perspectives and the things I have noted and seen in my personal life.
My experience with sexual harassment personally started as a younger gay man coming out first in the rural Midwest, and then the American East Coast and onwards. From there, I have experienced the effects of sexual harassment that have been done to women. I have had friends and loved ones sexually harassed, and even then I know that my knowledge of these events are very limited, as I saw to my consternation with the #MeToo protest throughout social media. (And my consternation that I was surprised that so many friends have experienced this)
In the face of widespread experiences of this nature, one must take a step back and ask “What can I do?” How can I help break this cycle of abuse, outrage, cosmetic change, and repeat? I don’t want my niece, or my nephew, or my friends or family to have to experience this abuse, but at the same time, I am just a single person, in an out of the way country in the world. I am a gay man whose interactions with women are decidedly non-sexual, so what I can do in the face of such an overwhelming problem that has pervaded our culture since we *had* culture.
The first thing to do is the acknowledge that this is a problem. Yes, we have a problem with how we, as the male gender, treat women and at times, each other. This is not a new issue, and on a larger level, it is an issue that we only selectively condemn when it suits the parties involved. The fact that Harvey Weinstein is being destroyed publicly while Donald Trump became President is proof enough that this type of abuse is weaponised or ignored depending on who is the perpetrator.
Second, we need to call out those who exhibit this behaviour. Just as speaking out against pejoratives towards someone’s ethnicity, or calling out other things we find not in the keeping of a good and pleasant society. We, as men, need to be strong allies for women, as well as each other, in confronting this toxic behaviour. This is something that, as a culture, we say is important, but in practice, leaves much to be desired.
So it is the time that we put up, or shut up.
In my small world, I look at how gay men treat each other. In the Bear community, there has been a lot of discussion about sexual harassment, and it generally comes from older men towards younger men (again, not always though). Today, there was an article in USA Today about our behaviour in gay bars. This behaviour is seen as pretty normal, however, it typifies the male experience: if you like it, you react to it. Over the years, the calls from younger men or men who freshly come out, are confronted with how pervasive and acceptable it is to grope someone you like and are often told to quiet down if they push back or are uncomfortable. This mentality is seemingly baked into the gay male experience, and it is one that we need to honestly examine within ourselves and change.
I know that as a gay man, I have been pressured into sex by men. I have been in situations where I have had sex to get out of a bad /dangerous situation. I have had situations where I had to be insistent on saying “No” to other men. I have had online dates turn into awkward moments where I had to decide whether to push back and cause a potential incident or let it go in order to stay “safe.” I have been shamed for pushing back and been called a prude. I have been told that I am too thinned skinned by friends and I have been told that “This is what you should expect” as living life as a gay man.
And in conversations over the past few days, I know that I am not alone in this feeling, not only from Gay men but by far from more women.
I will admit. In a gay bar, I tend to be more affectionate. I reach out, and though I almost always do it with permission or with friends whom I am comfortable with. However, I can recall moments when I have reached out to someone I do not know before I seek permission. I have also been in situations where I have been attracted to someone and be turned down, and I have always respected that, but I can identify where the impulse to react harshly or ignoring the refusal can come from. There is a sort of “code” in the gay world in certain situations where actions and advances can be made and rebuffed without blowback, but that code often is blurry and is used all the time, everywhere, rather than in specific situations.
But also, Sexual Harassment happens in different mediums. By far the worst sexual harassment I have faced has been online, while the physical barriers are removed, but the words, the actions, and sometimes, the stalking… comes into play heavily. I will fully admit that I have had a number of stalkers in my life that I have had to forcefully cut off because they would not relent. Even as a mid-30’s gay man, I often have to deal with overzealous men who will not take No for an answer, online or otherwise. This is by far a more common experience for me and one that has increased over time. I currently have two “stalkers” who keep popping up in my online life and will not take no for an answer. This is my reality, and sadly, I know this is a reality of far more women and men than it should be, and worse, this is almost he expected action many women come to expect, which is sad and depressing.
So, what do we do?
It starts with me. Firstly, regardless of gender, I will treat every person with respect and respect their personal space and their bodies. They may be attractive, but that does not invite engagement from me, and while I am good with this, I am not perfect, so reminding myself of this is important, because I am *never* entitled to engage someone else sexually who isn’t interested.
Second, I will call out the behaviour when I see it applied to me or when I see it in general. This doesn’t mean I go into full-on warrior mode, but pointing out that that behaviour isn’t acceptable, and not shying away from that is important. Too often silence = complicity, and we shouldn’t be silent when we see it happen, to ourselves, or to others. This is why we see so many women post #metoo in social media because our silence allows this toxicity to fester.
Third, I am going to talk about this with my male friends. Right now, the conversation often boils down to women saying “You do this to us” and men going “but not *us*, other men do this.” This argument is used all the time to stop conversations from happening at a larger scale. Sure, individuals will say they are the exception, or that they do not sexually harass, but in reality, we are seeing that there is a significant group of men who *do* sexually harass, and worse, most of us silently let it happen, and we need to talk about this. This is bigger than individual responsibility, this is on everyone. And more importantly, we need to have this conversation with ourselves. We men need to start being more responsible for each other, and having these tough conversations helps that.
And finally, I will be there for those who need it. From women who have been raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, to the gay men who have been pressured into sex, or uncomfortable, we need to make sure that we don’t silence them because it makes things uncomfortable for us. Fear and silence allow this cycle to continue. Similar to abuse, or intolerance, or bigotry, being silent means that the behaviour will continue, we also need to stand with those who make these claims, especially when they are confirmed in happening. As we have seen in the media, when someone comes forward with allegations, there is an immediate push to discredit the person. Depending on the situation, this often works, and the man walks away from the incident. In so many other areas of law and justice, we take the accusers word and we seek the truth. It seems with sexual harassment, we try and destroy the accuser to see if they can withstand the scrutiny before we pay heed to their words. We need to change the culture of destroying the accuser because they spoke up. This is another reason for the silence within our culture.
In other words, I need to be an ally for women who need my support, and I need to be an advocate for gay men who have experienced this toxicity. I need to be a good example of what is appropriate, and be accountable for my actions, and speak up when I see that behaviour in others.
Look. I know this will not change overnight. I know this will not change in a year. However, it is important that we begin changing and teaching our younger generations what we have failed to learn. We need to push so that when my Niece and Nephew are old enough, they look at our rampant sexual assault culture and marvel at how backwards we were or how boorish we come off as, and how they are lucky we have begun to move from that place. It will not be easy, and this will always be a struggle, but it is one we must always strive to make.