In the wake of the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, concern about false allegations of sexual assault is suddenly all around us. Commenting on Dr. Ford’s claims, President Trump said, “It is a very scary time for young men in America.” The #HimToo hashtag has become an online rallying cry for those worried that their father, brother or husband will be falsely accused. One poll even showed an increase in the past year of people who agreed that false allegations of sexual assault are a bigger problem than unreported assaults.
But it’s not a very scary time for young men. Instead, it’s a call to action.
Men must strive for complete honesty in our conversations about sexual norms and behavior, and come out of the shadows to grapple with our past actions.
False allegations do happen, but they are rare: just 2 to 10 percent of allegations are false, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Meanwhile, 63 percent of sexual assaults are never even reported to police.
Further, the sheer size and scope of the #MeToo movement discredits the notion that this is a massive conspiracy of false claims. The thousands of stories we have heard over the past year would not have resonated with such a wide swath of society were these experiences not all too common in workplaces, campuses, bars and bedrooms all over the country. Rather than crying false allegation, this should serve as a time for all of us, especially men, to look inward and evaluate our past actions based on these standards.
If we truly want #MeToo to lead to lasting change, men must take responsibility for their actions—past, present and future. Looking back on my own history, it’s impossible for me to say with absolute certainty that I never acted in ways that may have made prospective partners feel uncomfortable. And equally importantly, there were also times where I could have been a more engaged bystander, speaking up against an inappropriate joke or comment or stopping a situation that may have verged on dangerous. I, and all men who wish to be counted as allies in the fight to end sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse, need to accept and reckon with that, and work to change it.
For me, changing the culture of sexual violence starts with men acknowledging that our words and actions have been part of the problem. While we can’t reverse the damage that’s been done, we can—and must—choose to be part of the solution. This is a time for me—and so many others—to recognize and stand up to behavior that disrespects and bullies others.
It is also crucial that this conversation happen collectively, candidly, and openly. There can’t be statements that start with “between you and me” or “I would only tell you this.” That’s not enough and it’s not progress. An essential part of this process involves men talking with other men, from old friends to ones I haven’t even met, about the ways in which our past behavior didn’t live up to expectations and the standards we will hold each other to going forward.
W. Kamau Bell said something important this summer around the #MeToo movement being described as a witch hunt in his industry, comedy, and the way men have behaved around this issue:
But it’s also going to take down some people who we should’ve said more, we should’ve done something differently and we’re not bad people but we were in bad situations and we didn’t do the right things. So I think that there’s going to be a generation of men who is properly taken down by this and … hopefully it will mean we will raise the next generation of [boys in to men] in a different way.
I don’t necessarily agree with Bell’s concern about men being “taken down.” I view it as long-overdue accountability for those who commit bad behavior and a reevaluation of the standards by which bystanders evaluate when to intervene. But his emphasis that changing standards today will lead to healthier relationships tomorrow rings true: As this national reckoning rolls forward, I’m choosing to hold myself and the men around me accountable to breaking the silence when it comes to sexual misconduct, harassment and assault.
We can, and we must, offer a better way to actively participate in our relationships and society, because young men are watching and learning from us. And we must set an example that respect, equality and safety are important. In those everyday situations where someone says or does something that challenges these values, men must join the movement to step up and speak out to say that it’s not okay.
Now, we all have a responsibility to shape higher expectations of those around us, and provide the opportunity for those who follow us to avoid the same mistakes we made.