When I spoke with author and cultural theorist Jackson Katz last year about his new book on presidential masculinity, he lamented the silence among men about abuse against women and told me we needed more men to break that silence.
Six months later, #MeToo happened.
And yet, if men are to now be “accountable,” which women should we be accountable to and what form should that accountability take? And what of the “good guy”? Is he right to get defensive during conversations about sexual violence?
For answers, I spoke with two experts in male accountability and allyship: Kris Macomber, assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Meredith College and author of “Integrating Men as Allies in Anti-Violence Work: Accountability and Beyond;” and Australian sociologist Michael Flood, one of the fathers of the modern pro-feminist men’s movement. Here are four things I took away from the conversations…
#1. Sexual harassment and sexual abuse are as much male issues as they are female ones.
Macomber: It just makes sense for men to be involved in the conversation. After all, men overwhelmingly commit the most acts of gender violence, and men are actually more often the victim of other men’s violence. Not to mention, the violence that men commit against themselves—that is, their suicide rates are strikingly higher than women’s. It’s not just about changing individual men, though. It’s about creating cultural and social change, which is absolutely something men need to be a part of. Anti-racism work has white allies. The LGBTQ movement has hetero allies. It’s time for men to step up as allies of women.
#2. I should try putting myself in her shoes.
Flood: Look critically at your own behavior and get your own house in order. Think about how you treat the women and girls in your own life, whether that’s in the kitchen, the bedroom or the boardroom. But most importantly, listen to what women around you are actually saying. Learn about their experiences with everyday sexism. For example, when they’re ignored and talked over; when they’re sidelined in social and work networks; when they’re told they “aren’t as good as men at certain things” (e.g., math, sports and leadership) or that they’re easily offended; when they’re chosen for stereotypical assignments such as note-taking, getting coffee or cleaning up the room after meetings; and when they’re on the receiving end of unwelcome remarks about their body or clothing.
#3. I shouldn’t automatically assume I’m one of the “good guys.”
Macomber: “Good guys” often do shitty things, too. Brock Turner was/is considered a “good guy” to his friends and family even though he raped an unconscious woman. People who work in rape crisis centers know that the guy who beat his wife so bad that she can’t get out of bed is often seen as a “good guy” to people who don’t live with him. So, the “good guy” label doesn’t really mean much.
I recommend reading Allan Johnson’s Gender Knot, in which he suggests that gender inequality transcends us as individuals and how it’s more useful to focus on how we all participate in patriarchal culture—from women still taking men’s last names upon marriage; to limiting women’s reproductive rights; to the degradation of women in pornography; to policing boys who don’t act tough; to steering men away from female-dominated professions like nursing; to telling boys and men to “man up”; to the sexual double-standard that says women who are sexually liberated are “whores” but men are “players.”
All of these things exist along a continuum. Men’s violence against women is just another rung on that continuum, but it’s connected to all the others and wouldn’t exist without them. That’s why ending violence is about changing the culture, not just changing individual men.
#4. I’m gonna have to check other men as much as myself.
Katz: If you’re in a group of guys and another guy says something sexist or degrading about women, instead of laughing along or pretending you didn’t hear it, you need to say, “Hey, that’s not funny. Can you talk about—or joke about—something else? I don’t appreciate that kind of talk.”
Flood: There’s actually a range of things you can say. First would be to bluntly express disagreement. Something like, “You know, that’s bullshit.” You can also personalize the issue by saying, “What if that was your sister? What if that was your girlfriend?” You can use humor to defuse or pull apart the content of a “joke” or comment, too.
If you actually encounter a violent incident, be a witness so the violent person sees you and is aware that they’re being watched. Or create a distraction such that the abused person has time to get away or the perpetrator slows down or ceases his violence. For example, I was out in the city about 11 at night heading home and heard some shouting and saw a guy standing by a car with a woman slapping her in the face. I’m not a big guy so I couldn’t physically confront him. But instead, I walked over near them and asked, “Hey, can you tell me where Acuna Street is?” The guy says, “Fuck off, mate.” But I pressed on, “Can you tell me where it is? I just want to find a bar that’s down the way.” I just kept inappropriately intervening and asking questions, which slowed down the dynamic of him being violent to her.
A much more everyday situation was when I was on a plane in the middle row. There was a guy in the aisle next to me. The flight attendant came past and was bending over her trolley to get something for a passenger. He nudged me with his elbow and said, “Check that out.” In other words, “Look at this woman’s ass.” I didn’t know what to say for a few seconds, but eventually, I said something like, “She’s just doing her job, mate.” Again, that’s not gonna change him in some long-standing way, but at least it tells him, “I don’t agree with your objectification of this women.”