Where’s that confounded line!?

I’ve been around long enough to have anticipated the backlash which resulted from the #METOO movement. Its been particularly draconian in the States, what with the gutting of Planned Parenthood and ever shrinking access to safe abortions. These things were to be expected and follow a pattern which has prevailed since modern feminism began in the 1960’s – women push for equality which makes men feel threatened so they push back with even greater force.

There’s a more subtle repercussion to #METOO that’s reared it’s ugly head and which I find especially annoying. As accusations of atrocious behaviour by men in power began to pile up, particularly those in the entertainment industry, I started to hear increasing numbers of male pundits on news programs lamenting that they no longer knew where the “line” of acceptable behaviour towards women was. ( A shockingly puerile and self-serving complaint to lodge at a time when the staggering number of revelations clearly showed that they’d never known where it was.) Could they even hire attractive women, and how should they behave if, heaven forfend, they found themselves alone with one at the office? My favourite response to this query came from Anita Hill who said, and I’m paraphrasing here,

” You treat women in that situation the same way you would treat any human – with consideration and respect. That has always been true and will never change.”

Exactly – just treat us as you would like to be treated, and everything will work out okay.

I really resent the subtle implication by these men that women in one-on-one situations are not to be trusted as they could make up any outrageous story about harassment or abuse, and then what is the hapless man to do?! As though that is what the women who came forward were doing – throwing out accusations for their own amusement, like balls in a game of beer pong. The very question of, “Where is the line?” twists the entire situation around and recasts the men as victims, with the added benefit of making women seem unreliable witnesses to their own lives. How convenient.

There is a silver lining in all of this however. I have noticed this time around that almost all of the ridiculous hand-wringing has come from older men. I sense in young men a real horror at the extent of the problem, and a true understanding that their gender is responsible and therefore must spearhead the solution. Unfortunately their difficulty in moving past the patriarchy to a more equal society is very complicated and not without pitfalls. And while women are hip to most of the obstacles that will be placed in their way, (after all we having been fighting this battle for a long time), men are just now coming to see how thorny their road forward is as well.

For example, I saw a young man on a documentary talking about fraternity life. His perspective is that frats are horribly elitist and misogynistic anachronisms that should be banned as they have only ever served to keep white men on top and everyone else far below. They are at heart breeding grounds for the old-boys’ clubs which abound in the highest and most powerful echelons of society.

The problem with taking action for this young man is twofold: firstly, if he leaves the fraternity now and (worse yet) exposes it for the cancerous institution that it is, he can look forward to four years of ostracism on campus. Secondly, when he graduates he will never garner a place in any institution run by powerful men as they, frat brothers all, will see him as a traitor. He feels terrible for perpetuating the system and wants to do the right thing, but doesn’t know if he’s prepared to pay such a heavy price for doing so.

There are also many men who do not like the way others talk about women – objectifying them and suggesting that every women is there for the taking. I understand from male friends that this sort of demeaning banter is particularly prevalent in organized sports. “Locker room talk” got a lot of attention after Donald Trump’s comments on the bus came to light during his campaign, but not in the way I would have wished. It was framed as a “boys will be boys” kind of thing (an expression I truly hate!). You know, the idea that it’s just a silly game of one- upsmanship that males play with one another and that it really has no import or impact beyond that. These men wouldn’t actually do the things they are saying (although I seriously suspect that Trump did and still does). It’s just a harmless form of showing off – the rooster crowing and displaying his plumage, as it were.

The problem is of course that this sort of talk does have an impact. Repeatedly dehumanizing women, or anyone else for that matter, forms neural pathways that normalize and validate this sort of thinking. Repeatedly doing anything effects the brain in this way – it’s the beauty and the curse of neural plasticity. It’s how habits are formed, skills are mastered, and stupid-ass, self-serving perspectives become the truth.

But I digress.

I have been told by these same men that the difficulty in calling out sexist locker-room talk is that they will be ridiculed and bullied if they do. They may lose friends because of it, and lose standing with those who remain. In other words they will be cast out by their social circle in the same way that the young man in college would be were he to expose and leave his fraternity. And to that I say,

“Oh no! There may be a personal cost to you for standing up for what is patently right?! You poor dear!”

All sarcasm aside however, men, particularly white cis gender men, have to understand that being an agent of change on the path to social justice and equality will involve some personal discomfort. People who speak truth to power always pay a price; suffragettes were incarcerated, assaulted, force-fed and lost custody of their children, Nelson Mandela was jailed for 27 years, and Freedom Riders were beaten after fleeing a burning bus ignited by the KKK. I understand that putting your own privilege on the line for the sake of another is a concept which is very new to these men, but my advice is to take that leap and call out the unfair institutions and individuals around you. You may lose a job opportunity or a couple friends in the process, but aren’t those small potatoes compared to the price others have had to pay? And who knows, speaking out may lead to meeting more like-minded and better friends than you’ve ever had. You’ll never know how many men out there secretly agree with you if you aren’t brave enough to voice your truth.

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