Why do good men have to pay for other men’s bad behavior? Hugo Schwyzer explains the answer he learned in his first Women’s Studies class.
Exactly 25 years ago, I sat both frustrated and excited through my first Women’s Studies class at Berkeley. I was one of perhaps four men in a class of 30, and I was (shock of all shocks) among the most vocal. A few weeks into the semester, I remember one morning blurting out something like the following:
Why is it that men are always guilty until proven innocent? I know there are some “bad guys” out there, but it is incredibly hurtful to me that women won’t smile at me in the hallways or on the street because they have lumped me in with all the others! I get so tired of paying the price—in terms of women’s mistrust—for other men’s failures and betrayals and bad behavior. Why can’t women see what a good guy I am?
I was 19 and lonely, but I was also eager to “get” feminism because I believed it was my duty to do so. More importantly, I believed that there was something there for me within feminism—something I could learn that would make me a happier person. But all I was feeling was guilty and angry.
My fellow students were patient; no one verbally attacked me for my outburst. But the women in the class, led by the professor, helped me to see several things I wasn’t able or willing yet to see.
First of all, the obvious point is that women’s intuition, while not entirely the stuff of myth, is not so powerful that it can automatically separate “good guys” from the bad. As they told me, no woman can walk down the street and as she passes a man, know with certainty that he isn’t a threat. Given the high incidence of rape and assault and harassment and other forms of abuse, a woman would be a fool to leave herself continually vulnerable. The old adage “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” applies. When a simple smile is so frequently misunderstood and construed as a sexual invitation, women generally do have to operate on the assumption that men are guilty until proven innocent.
I’ve never forgotten what I learned that day.
When I hear men complaining about women’s suspicion, I am reminded of my white friends who are bewildered and indignant when people of color point out their white privilege to them. Men who grumble about being “guilty until proven innocent” are demanding to be seen as individuals, separate from their perceived sex and the history that goes with it. That’s a tempting but unreasonable demand to make.
While “innocent until proven guilty” is an excellent guideline for courtroom proceedings, it doesn’t translate nearly as effectively into public life and relations between the sexes. When men gripe that women are suspicious of their intentions merely because they are men, they are forcing women into the role of the district attorney, the one shouldered with the burden of proving guilt. In a society where women, rather than men, are overwhelmingly the victims of harassment and assault, those who have suffered most are the ones being asked to lay aside their prior experience and knowledge and approach each new male in their lives with a blank slate, free from judgment. That’s a hell of a weight to ask women to carry, and a hell of a risk to ask them to take, again and again and again.
In our culture, where rape and harassment and abuse are so common, men have lost the right (if it ever existed) to insist that women should be able to differentiate (in a matter of seconds) between the harmless and the threatening. A man is entitled to a presumption of innocence from a jury in a courtroom, but not from his classmate with whom he tries to strike up what she ought to know is just an innocent conversation.
Is it frustrating to be viewed with suspicion merely because of one’s sex? Heck yes. (Is it frustrating to be viewed as a sexual object merely because one is young and female? Ask around.) Men ought to be angry that they need to “prove their harmlessness.” Indeed, they ought to be enraged! But our anger is rightly directed not at women who have been the victims (individually and collectively) of predatory males, but at those men who have “poisoned the well” for everyone else. Rather than demand that women “smile more” or “trust more” or “just know that I’m a good guy,” men need to channel their frustration at being “pre-judged” into a commitment to end what it is that causes women’s suspicion in the first place.
Holding other men accountable, challenging sexist and objectifying language and behavior in yourself and in other males (whether or not women are around) is the single most effective thing men can do to change the culture of “guilty until proven innocent.” Rape, assault, and harassment are allowed to flourish not merely through the actions of a few “bad apples,” but through the unwillingness of the “nice guys” to challenge other men. Silence is, in practical terms, tacit consent and approval.
There’s more to being a “good guy” than not raping women. Good guys hold themselves and other men accountable, in public and in private. That’s a high standard to meet, particularly for the young. But it’s only by meeting that standard that men can help to change the culture. And until we do that, our feelings of guilt will not be entirely undeserved.