It’s time for men to give back the night.
As if we could, as if the night is ours at all, much less ours to give. The night belongs to us all, equally, and should be shared and enjoyed by us all, equally, as we choose, safely.
And along with the night so too parks, downtown streets, subways, front yards, the paths from front doors to the street to take out garbage or retrieve mail, restaurants, bars and theaters, any space, all public space.
Like the night, men don’t own the public sphere. It is not ours to give or give back. But it is ours to share.
No longer should men nonchalantly stroll or pace or prowl the parks and streets at night, while women carry fear with every step, with every noise behind them, with whatever potential threat might loom around the corner.
No longer should women, in self-defense, carry their keys in their hands as both a weapon and time-saver to re-enter a cocoon of safety in their car. No longer should women dredge up in their minds images of assault or worse simply by being outside, near or far from their homes. And no longer should we question the accounts of women who describe or report incidents of assault, verbal or physical, nor should we ask what they were wearing or whether they had anything to drink before, after or during said incident. (Looking at you, Minnesota.)
A pipe dream? Only if we don’t believe in it and press for it.
Indeed, this should be a necessary and reasonable standard for the treatment of women in an equitable, respectful world.
Why Is a World Fair to Women So Hard to Imagine?
When, as boys, do we stop valuing the act of sharing?
When, as boys, do we stop respecting the limits and boundaries of the bodies of those around us?
When, as boys, are we taught that we are owed anything, including and especially sex and attention and power, status and wealth?
When, as boys, do we learn to engage in and to accept or look the other way at the mistreatment of women?
The onset of puberty and the sexual awakening in our minds and bodies that it entails is a pale, weak, vacuous excuse for boorish male behavior — and it carries disastrous implications to boot. It says men cannot control our bodies nor our actions because of biological urges and desires.
Yet our parents, from the time we are old enough to reach for a hot stove or put a plastic toy in our mouths, have coached us, taught us, how to keep our bodies safe — and how to do so for others.
When we become old enough to drive, parents share the same concern as when we started walking. Are we mature enough to handle the responsibility of driving, to pay attention, to recognize how dangerous driving can be, to be mindful of other cars and pedestrians around us?
Driving is a good metaphor for how men should learn to operate in the world. Most people drive defensively, both for their own safety and the safety of others.
That’s the way we should walk the streets and sit at bars and take up space in parks, too. Defensively, with a default recognition and understanding that other people have every bit as much of a right to be there and move along and pass by, undisturbed, as we do.
The Lowest Bar for Masculinity
For men engaged in the effort to better ourselves, whether though reading and writing or participating in men’s groups or in therapy, there is a lot of work put into defining, and re-imagining, what it means to be a man today.
That very question, coming after the eruption of #MeToo, is what prompted my own writing on the subject.
Only in that moment, I’m embarrassed to admit, did I began to fully consider, appreciate and comprehend what kind of world women experience daily, usually because of bad behavior and the threats of bad behavior by men.
During college I watched several “Take Back the Night” marches. I questioned to myself how much an issue sexual assault was, especially on campus.
Could I have been any more naive?
Only in the last few years have I realized how much I take for granted.
My male privilege is embodied in not having to worry about my body, no matter where I go, no matter where I am
Taking the trash out at night. Walking around my neighborhood alone, day or night, but especially night. Traveling, eating, and drinking out alone, without interruption, disturbance or fear to my physical safety. I do these daily, even during a pandemic. Women rarely get to experience this at all.
All this in addition to the gender pay gap, the inability of men to cover their share of emotional and domestic labor, and our country’s paltry, anemic support system for new parents and for child-care, up through and including early childhood education.
So in that reckoning, I suppose I am trying to do two things: first, figure out for myself (and perhaps others) what makes being a good man. And second, trying to similarly understand what I can do to make this world a fairer, safer, more equitable one for women.
These are life-long challenges and pursuits. The answers will never be final, the quest never complete. But one thing is certain.
No matter what kind of qualities make for a good man, no matter how we perceive and attempt to evolve perceptions of masculinity, no matter which behaviors or manners of being we choose to value and expect of men — and to teach to boys — the safety of women and the expectation that men should not do harm to women is not up for debate.
That should come standard, packed into every model. There is no option to remove the default setting that at the bare minimum, men will respect women’s physical autonomy and at the very least, treat women — half the people on the planet — with the respect and philosophy we give to natural trails and parks: leave no trace, do no harm.
Not being a rapist or sexual assaulter does not make you a good man.
It is, quite literally, the least you can do, because you don’t have to do anything besides not be violent.
The Luxury of Being a Better Man
Despite all the work I’ve done to try to become a better person, the writing, the thinking, the therapy, the reaching out, the women I encounter who don’t know me must treat me as a threat. To keep open the possibility, in the back, or maybe the front, of their minds that I could pose danger to them.
Not all men? True. But maybe any one particular man and it’s impossible to tell which one? Sad but also true.
Ben Harper sings, “Excuse me, mister, but I’m a mister too / And you’re giving mister a bad name, mister like you.”
The cop who killed Sarah Everard in London symbolizes this. An average, typical perpetrator of male violence against women is bad enough. But when someone charged with and paid to protect the public commits such a crime, he perpetuates the nightmare exponentially.
But don’t cry for me. All I have to worry about is how other people perceive me. I have the luxury of being out in the world, and the luxury of trying to better myself.
Women, however, must contend with the fear and the reality, even just the possibility, of being attacked by a man.
What Kind of Man?
Part of the work of becoming a better man is coming to terms with long-established gender roles — and evolving them.
Alpha man who is confident, decisive, a leader and protector and provider? Great.
Another type of man, one who is vulnerable, empathetic, communicative and cooperative? Also great.
Some sort of hybrid, since people can be many things and serve different roles as we experience different things in life and our relationships and life challenges evolve? Most likely the ideal.
However men choose to be, not violating women’s bodies is an essential part of that ethos. It must be.
And it must be articulated and expected as such.
What kind of man are you, after all, if you can’t treat half of humanity with respect and decency? What kind of man are you, after all, if you breed and distill fear in half of humanity?
The Path Forward
I hope other men agree with what I’ve written. I hope men can see and appreciate and value these ideas and goals to make the world a more equitable and safe place for women.
And I also hope men can become more vocal and engaged in working towards this. The problem of sexual assault and harassment is not one for women to solve or fix.
It falls on all of us, and it can’t happen without the voices and active participation of men.
I’m not a sociologist, nor do I have a background in social policy. I’m not an expert. I’m just a man who cares.
That said, here are things I think men can do if they are inclined to take on this on, beyond the individual work of therapy and similar self-improvement methods.
Support, through donating or volunteering, a local agency that serves victims of abuse. I’ve become a monthly donor to SAFE Austin, which has a wide range of services to women (and men) and their families. Even better, they have outreach programs, including one specifically for men, to learn more about the agencies services and these kinds of issues. Connecting with like-minded men can help you feel more comfortable in becoming active and vocal on issues such as these. It’s worth mentioning that men can be victims of assault and abuse as well. Men can play an active role in stopping all forms of abuse, especially as we get used to talking about our identities with others.
Advocate for more evolved sex education. From consent to becoming a better partner looking to share and consider their partner’s pleasure, children and teenagers (and let’s be honest, sometimes adults) need to be taught how to manage their urges, desires and curiosities — and to respect other people’s bodies and safety at all times. Sex is about more than pregnancy and the risk of a sexually transmitted disease. We can do better in what we teach our children (and ourselves) about sex and bodily autonomy.
Help end harassment in the workplace. Making the world a more equitable one for women must absolutely take place where we spend so much of our time and where we interact with people so frequently. By helping to eliminate the pay gap, ending abuse and slights in the workplace and promoting women when they deserve it — and by making lives easier for caretakers — we go a long way in espousing values that can make women’s lives better. And once you start advocating for women in the workplace, it’s a short distance to doing so everywhere else.
There must be so many other ways I’m not aware of. But this is a start.
It’s early in the morning as I hit publish on this piece, the sun just rising. I’m going to take a walk around the neighborhood, and I’m not going to worry about being assaulted at all.
I wish everyone could feel as safe as I do. I hope men in particular will join me in trying to make that happen.
This post was previously published on P.S. I Love You.
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