It is no secret that we live in a rape culture. As can be seen by the flourishing #MeToo movement, even in modern times our society promotes an inequality between men and women. While some men act in grossly immoral ways and are aware of the implications of their behavior, I believe that other actions of inequality are so ingrained in our societal norms that many men are not aware that they conduct themselves in ways that are harmful to their female counterparts. But how can the same society that adamantly labels harassment of women inhumane be the same society that fosters such a pervasive existence of inequality?
As a female, I have been on the receiving end of sexual harassment in the workplace, the punchline of misogynistic jokes, and have had my boundaries pushed in intimate settings. In particular, two personal experiences challenged me to take a step back and consider the motives of the men in our modern society.
In the first experience, a male friend’s behavior routinely sexualized and demeaned me. When we would spend time together, he’d make comments about wanting to touch my breasts, describe to me his fantasies about being sexually intimate with me, and pinch my backside when he would walk behind me. After he refused numerous requests I made for him to cease his behavior, our friendship came to a conclusion with one final argument. In that dispute, I laid out for him the ways in which he made me feel violated by saying:
I have asked you repeatedly to stop touching my body, to stop making sexual comments and jokes towards me, and to stop propositioning me for sex. I have asked you to stop even if you claim your proposals are made in jest.
His response was one of the starkest and upsetting examples of rape culture that I have ever experienced firsthand. He said:
I’ll give it to you that maybe I crossed a line. MAYBE. But that’s only because you can’t take a joke or a compliment. If you don’t let guys tell you how hot you are, then you’ll never get a date. Men have needs and you can’t forbid them from thinking about being with you. And I didn’t ask you to do anything sexual that I know you haven’t done with another guy before, so there’s no way I crossed any of your boundaries.
I left that friendship in utter disbelief of his convictions. Even though our relationship had never been anything more than platonic, he believed that it was okay to proposition me for sex because I had been sexually intimate with other men. Asking him to stop making sexual comments about my body was, from his perspective, me exhibiting an inability to accept a compliment and suggesting that I have a limited sense of humor. Being unwilling to let him make sexual suggestions towards me caused him to potentially cross a line. That’s right, it wasn’t his own behavior that crossed a line, but rather my inability to accept his comments that put a negative label on his actions.
In the second experience, I found myself in a situation far too familiar for many women. While I was a university student, I traveled with a group of fellow students to an academic conference in Miami. The night before the conference began, a male peer and I stayed up after the others had gone to bed in order to finalize our presentation for the next day. As we were completing the final details of our work, my male counterpart leaned over and placed his lips on mine. Within a few seconds, his hands had made their way under my shirt and into my bra. I asked him to stop a few times with such lines as, “No, please don’t.” and “It’s late. We should get to bed.” But after he didn’t cease his advance, I said,
If you don’t stop, you will be raping me.
He pulled back instantly; however, instead of apologizing for his actions, his face grew angry and he raised his voice as he said,
How dare you! I am NOT a rapist! I can’t believe that you just said that! Take that back right now!
I stood my ground and firmly reiterated that by not stopping his advance after I explicitly said “No”, then he was, in fact, committing an act of sexual assault. He proceeded to yell at me for accusing him of committing the egregious act of sexual assault, of labeling him “one of those guys” when he was a “nice guy”, and of being a “prude and a b*tch.” His anger towards me for pointing out that he was violating my boundaries spoke volumes to his beliefs about himself, that he could never be “one of those guys” who committed sexual assault. Instead of apologizing for pressuring me, he simply couldn’t fathom that his actions deserved the label of “sexual assault.” Needless to say, we presented our work together the following day and engaged in no further contact the remainder of our time as classmates.
What did these two situations have in common? They both contained a man who committed an act of disrespect and unwanted sexual advances towards a woman, yet both men were unable to accept the definition of their actions. When I pointed out the reality of their actions, they became enraged by the label. But were they really angry, or were they scared? Scared that they may be fanning the flame of rape culture? Being told that you are contributing to rape culture can be a hit to a person’s pride, self-esteem, and identity. Because our culture cultivates an attitude of “Us versus Them”, the worst thing that a person can arguably be is part of “Them”. Belonging to the latter group means being one of the “bad guys”, and we all want to belong to the “good guys.”
With these two experiences, I began to wonder, “Do these men recognize their behavior as harassment? Are they aware of how their actions affect the women in their lives? What is preventing them from owning their actions and taking part in the #MeToo conversation?” With these curiosities, I began to really contemplate why it is that the same men who speak out against sexual harassment are also guilty of committing it.
It is also important to consider that when we live in a society that promotes “locker room talk,” that finds it acceptable to gawk at a woman who wears a tight skirt in the workplace and that prioritizes women’s sexual attractiveness as one of their most valuable attributes, then it can understandably be confusing for men to discern the definitions of their behavior. To a man who comments on a woman’s breasts, as my now former friend did about mine, it may be because he has learned that telling a woman that she has desirable breasts is a top compliment. For a man who continues to touch a woman after she has asked him to stop, it may be because he has learned that the woman is exerting a shy coquettishness rather than putting up a firm boundary. This doesn’t make either action acceptable, but it is worthwhile to consider the mixed messages that we, as a society, send to our boys and men.
To be very clear, I am not condoning or excusing any act of sexual harassment. Rather, I am offering an alternative way to consider why some men are not willing to talk about #MeToo or admit to the reality of their actions. I believe that it comes down to fear: the fear of being labeled a “bad guy”, the fear of accepting that they hurt another person, and the fear of contributing to the larger problem. I think that it goes back to the stereotype of sexual assault, the idea that it only occurs in a dark alley late at night and can only be perpetrated by a criminal man who chooses to attack a single female whom he doesn’t know. Our society perpetuates an idea of sexual assault that is violent, gruesome, and akin to something seen on an investigative crime television program.
We don’t commonly speak about the reality of sexual assault, the fact that any person is capable of committing it, and that many of our taught social behaviors contribute to the rape culture that we live in. But we need to. We need to talk about the reality of sexual assault, to teach our young boys (and girls) not to adopt the behaviors that ultimately flame rape culture, and to invite all men (and women) to join the “MeToo conversation so that we can all become educated on how to treat one another with respect. We need to create a dialogue that helps men understand why their learned beliefs may not be correct, to adopt new, healthier behaviors in place of the harmful ones, and to feel comfortable confronting their actions without the fear of being weighed down by a negative, permanent label. Because at the end of the day, every man can be one of the “good guys”.
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