“I need you to listen.”
“I need someone to believe me. I need you to believe me.”
“I believe you,” I said, having no context for the gravity of those words.
I had to repeat myself.
It felt like I had to convince her I believed her.
I had no clue what I was doing, and something told me I was supposed to be a better person than I was. I knew no pain like she knew. I couldn’t say “me, too.”
“I needed to tell someone. I needed someone to believe me.”
The summer I turned eighteen, I got a call from a friend. When I heard the fear in her voice, words clipped with a shortness of breath, my own chest tightened. She had a story she needed to tell me. I listened as she cried and told me. She needed to tell someone that she’d recently been raped. She chose to tell me. I was horrified this had happened to her. Outraged. Absolutely terrified.
I wanted to do something to help her, but I didn’t know what to do.
I wanted to be strong, but I doubt I was.
I wanted to have words to let her know I cared, to let her know I was her friend, to let her know she could call any time, that I would drive up to see her to talk about it in person.
I wanted, truthfully, to have some way to fix it.
“No,” she told me. “I just need you to listen and believe me.”
A few months before she called, we were at my high school senior prom—each of us with different dates. We were having a good time, carefree, celebrating the end of high school. Our futures stretched out ahead of us, brimming with possibility.
Shortly before the prom, however, my high school allowed a tuxedo rental company to hang advertisements in the halls. In the poster, four guys in tuxedos huddled around one girl in a prom dress, but the girl was tipped headfirst toward the floor, her legs in the air, spread open. In my all-boys’ high school, the poster reinforced the old trope of prom = sex, but it also signaled a deeper, subconscious message, as well: wear our tux and get what you want; you are entitled to it.
When the posters hung in our school, a few of us to started a campaign to get the posters taken down. If we let these stand, we endorsed the message they promoted. Our first instinct was renegade–we started tearing the posters down on our own. Later, after a meeting with teachers and other school officials, we got the administration to take down the rest. I remember all too clearly the guys who laughed at us, who told us in myriad ways—why are you making such a big deal of these posters, why are you reading into them more than what is there?
But the reality of the poster’s subtler messaging became all that much clearer to me after my friend called me to tell me she’d been raped.
I thought about that poster.
I thought about the graffiti in my high school locker room and bathroom stalls.
I thought about the way so many guys joked about sex aggressively and competitively.
She asked me to listen to her and I did. But I’m not a great listener if I have one set of rules for when women aren’t in the room and another for when they are. We, all of us men, aren’t great listeners if we don’t pay attention to the violence embedded in the ways we speak, joke, and act about women when they’re not present. We men don’t expect it enough from each other—don’t hold each other accountable in this way often enough. I listened when my friend called. I believed her when she told me she’d been raped. But what about before she called before she was raped, in the rest of my life, when she wasn’t around? Was I listening and paying attention then?
Did I stop the jokes all the time? Did I cover up the graffiti, or stop it from being scratched into the surface in the first place? When I told people I was going to Miami University, some guys patted me on the back, reminding me of its top ranking in Playboy Magazine. Sure we got the posters taken down, but did I really address the culture of misogyny I lived and breathed? No. I didn’t. And I’m lying to myself if I don’t think that’s part of the problem. When moments like these are ubiquitous and go unchallenged, we encourage a culture of misogyny and a culture that shrugs off misogyny and normalizes it fosters rape culture—which in turn enables rape.
In retrospect, I realize my friends and I were not heroic by tearing down those posters. What we did should be the lowest bar of decency. Nothing we did deserves a reward. It should be the bare minimum of what’s expected from men.
I want to do more than tear down posters. I want to shift the language and instinct and the traditional ways in which I was too often taught to think about sex. The graffiti. The jokes. The comments men make to each other that speak about women as if they are consumable or collectible. All that I didn’t try to confront before. Going forward, I must be a better listener, and the work to do so begins long before the call. The stakes are too high for any more excuses. Men, all of us, including myself, must be active and willing listeners and if we believe what women are telling us—and we should—then we must act, too, particularly when it is only us men in the room.
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