Content warning: sexual assault. This article may contain details of a disturbing nature for those who have experienced sexual assault.
Emma Thompson used a phrase in her excellent Newsnight interview that I can’t stop thinking about. She said that there was “a crisis in masculinity”. I don’t know why her words resonated so much – well, not at first. But then I realised why. It’s because it was the sound of a fire alarm going off in your own house.
We men can talk and we can tweet all we like about Harvey Weinstein – and I think that, so long as we are finding ways to keep pressure on those who enabled him for so long, we need to. But we can also do something much more difficult, which is to look closest to home, and to our friends.
I think that men are afraid of calling out misogyny for a couple of reasons. One reason is that they fear they are misogynists themselves. Another reason is that they are worried about holding themselves out as beacons of virtue, and so when they fall anywhere short of these publicly announced standards they will receive a firestorm of criticism. These reasons are connected, in that they both relate to how men view themselves, or want to be viewed. In other words, they have nothing to do with the horrors that women are currently enduring due to misogyny. Those fears are keeping the scaffolding of misogyny firmly in place, and it’s time many more of us overcame them, or at least tried to.
I will pause here to acknowledge that men get far, far too much credit for speaking out against misogyny. It is an absurd state of affairs and only proves how little is expected of us; it proves how grave the situation is. I only wanted to say that before telling a quick story, for whose contents – distressing as they may be to those who have been subjected to sexual assault – I apologise in advance.
A couple of years ago, I was reading an article where the author, Soraya Chemaly, described violence against women as “a global pandemic”. Like the phrase “crisis in masculinity”, it put the problem of misogyny in startling focus. As I read more of the statistics around the issue, I then had an unsettling epiphany: that I must have friends who have sexually assaulted women. The numbers are just too high for me not to; I must have. I mean, there was the statistic, right there:
“It is estimated that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. However, some national studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.”
35 per cent. That’s got to be someone I know, I thought. Maybe even someone I’m friends with, who I hang out with. A few months later, I was sitting down for a drink with a couple of friends, and we were talking about who we were dating. One of my friends was seeing a woman in his apartment block, who was busy with her kids and her career, and so she simply dropped by on him whenever she wanted a quick hook-up – an very convenient arrangement for both parties, and of which we were instantly envious. My other friend was seeing someone he’d met on his travels – there wasn’t much of a future in it, he said, but they were enjoying it for what it was. I talked about my adventures in the world of online dating, and how – perhaps in subconscious preparation for my move to Berlin – I had had a joyful fling with a German woman who had just arrived in London.
The conversation was all pretty innocent; so much so, that we moved on to sharing stories of hookups we’d had in the past. People we’d met abroad were discussed with particular relish – there seemed to be more of a thrill to the short-lived holiday romance. And then my friend, the one seeing a woman in his apartment block – I will call him Mark – started telling a story from a few years ago, about a woman he’d met at university.
Mark and his flatmate had met her in a club, and she had taken a liking to both of them, kissing them at different points of the evening. Over the course of the night, she had decided that she had a preference for Mark, and so the three of them returned to Mark’s flat. She was keen to sleep with Mark, he told us, but he was a bit knackered from hours of drinking and didn’t really feel like it. She went up to Mark’s bedroom, either to wait for him or to crash out – I don’t quite remember now. Mark’s flatmate, in Mark’s words, was “feeling horny”, and wanted sex; so Mark had an idea. We’re both about the same size, he said. Why don’t you put on the shirt I was wearing tonight, and if you go and climb into bed with her, she’ll think it’s me. Mark’s flatmate agreed that this was a great idea, and so he did as Mark suggested. He went upstairs, and into Mark’s bedroom.
A little later, the woman came downstairs in distress, and she was furious at Mark. She couldn’t imagine how someone could have done something so sick. It was 2am, and she was some way from her student accommodation, but she couldn’t stand to be around Mark and his flatmate any longer. She wanted to leave immediately. If you want to go, then go get a taxi, said Mark, shrugging with bravado and smiling as he recounted the story.
Neither I nor my other friend were smiling by then. We were trying to figure out what we had just heard. A friend of ours – someone I had got to know and grown very fond of in the previous few months, who I loved going drinking with, and hanging out with – had helped his flatmate sexually assault a woman. And now he was sitting in front of us, fourteen years later, still grinning as he told the tale.
I would love to tell you that I then delivered a coldly furious speech about sexual assault and how he had enabled it. I would love to to say I fought that fight. But I can’t lie to you. I didn’t. I was too shocked, we both were. We sat there dumbly with our pints. And all I could think was my mate Mark helped someone to sexually assault someone and he still seems fine about it. And Mark’s behaviour didn’t seem to make sense. He had never shown any signs of being entitled to a woman’s attention – or had he? Maybe we were so oblivious to that side of him because we were so used to hearing similar things?
Mark wasn’t stupid. He knew the mood had immediately changed, and the stories stopped. There was nothing innocent about any of this now. Somewhere out there, there was yet another woman who had experienced something horrific at the hands of a man, and our friend, our mate right here, was responsible. God knows what trauma she had been through in the intervening years, how her life had been adversely affected. We finished our drinks soon after and left. I haven’t seen or spoken to Mark since. He doesn’t know anyone else I know – I checked via our mutual friends on Facebook, before removing him – or I’d have warned them away from him in a second.
I don’t think I had the perfect response to Mark. Nowhere near, and I’m not proud of it. And that is what this article is about, in a sense. It’s about not waiting to be perfect, it’s about doing the best work we can right now. It’s about drawing a line, and acting – about trying to make sure that men like Mark feel that little bit less entitled, so women can go about their lives in a little less danger. Since then I have tried to be better. And I am not naturally confrontational, so if I can do it then I am sure a lot of other men can too.
And I want to say this to men too – and I speak from painful experience here. You are going to get stuff wrong. There are times when you will find yourself mansplaining. Look, I have a big mouth. I say a lot of things, I am rarely short of a comment. As a result of having such a mouth, the probability that nonsense will come out of it at some point is extremely fucking high. That has happened twice in the last year alone. On both occasions, in attempting to improve a situation where misogyny was involved, I made mistakes that made the situation worse. Nothing malicious – but that doesn’t matter. What mattered was that I was ignorant, and I have to own it. I acted rashly because there were things I did not know, dynamics of which I was unaware. It is something for which I will in time forgive myself, but I will never forget. Next time, I will ask carefully how to engage with the issue. My God, I have learned.
We are men so there will be times when we think we are tiptoeing delicately through a situation, when in fact we are as elegant and alarming as an hippo lumbering towards a flowerbed. We will get criticism for that and we will have to take it, as painful and as insecure and bereft as it makes us feel. (My solution, if you ever find yourself in that predicament, is to have a pizza, a beer, and maybe a little cry. Works wonders.) The only thing we can resolve to do is not to make the same mistakes again. And that is something which, in my personal and professional life, I pledge daily to do.
Since I’ve been pretty honest to this point, let me be more honest still. I know very well what it’s like to feel that, as a man, you don’t amount to much of anything. I know what it’s like to see men around you refer to women in such disparaging terms that, by the time you start dating women, you are terrified. You are frightened that you have absorbed so many bad lessons that you have become a monster. I have seen men who are so overwhelmed with the pressure of being responsible men that they just sack the whole thing off, and become the worst men they can possibly be, going about their self-destruction with the grimmest resolution. Men who rage and fuck and flee and do anything just so that they don’t have to feel. Men like that seek excuses for their behaviour, but they can only ever offer reasons, not justifications.
But, anyway, none of that – none of that feeling of being a shattered, useless man – none of it matters in the face of what we are seeing now, what we have long seen but have chosen not to acknowledge for a very long time. Because while we sit bewildered in the centre of our wreckage, we fail to see the women we have crushed beneath it.
To address misogyny, it’s not about patting ourselves on the back and calling ourselves good guys. And let me talk about “the good guy” for a moment – because, God knows, enough of us have had low enough self-esteem that any measure of approval from women can subsequently act as a life-giving force. As boys, many of us saw older versions of ourselves treating women with contempt, and we secretly feared we might grow up to be them too. Many of us are still scared that, to use a popular term, we are trash. If you are one of those men, I can relate to you.
If you care about women as actual human beings, and not just as extensions of yourselves – that is to say, if they are not just your daughters, your sisters, your mothers – then it is heartbreaking whenever you let them down. But you must remember at such times, as I have, that this is not about our feelings. It’s not about that fragile inner child in so many of us wanting to be assured that, at some level, he is a good boy. It’s about having the self-reflection and the sensitivity to keep coming back each week and doing the work, even though there will be those we disappoint in the process.
What form does the work take? Well, it differs for all of us. But there are a few men in my life, men who are true feminists, who show me a better way every day. There’s one guy who is so supportive of women’s sport at every opportunity. Sharing their match reports online, providing encouraging tweets, watching their games whenever he can. There’s another guy I know in the field of electronic music who promotes women’s work on his podcasts, his mixes, in his live sets, at the festivals he attends, making sure they always have the best representation they can. Small, beautiful things, for which they never seek credit. Just regular guys who are conscious of women as human beings and stop to think: “wait, are women really being involved and respected in this space as they should be? And if not, what am I as a man doing about it?”
These men are my inspirations as I go about my own work. And what I am saying here, what I have said in the course of this somewhat rambling piece, is nothing new. From one perspective, it’s actually basic as hell, and it’s embarrassing that it took me till the age of thirty-eight to set it out in this fashion. Still, maybe that’s just how long it has taken me fully to process the crisis in masculinity – wait, let me own that phrase, the crisis in my masculinity – and try, from now on, to make significant progress. I hope that some men will find it useful.
This is about more than Harvey Weinstein, or Hollywood. It’s about finding the courage to make sure that fewer men – including ourselves – grow up like Mark, and that we speak up to their faces if and when they do. It’s everything from refusing to laugh at the sexist joke in the canteen to asking why there aren’t more women on your company’s board or why the funding for women’s refuges keeps getting slashed left right and centre. It’s about not reacting in sustained disbelief when women tell us that harassment and assault are way worse problems than we imagine. Yes, we can all feel a little shock when it is pointed out that the world is much more brutal than we thought. But to remain too long in disbelief is a luxury, and after a certain point it becomes not only offensive but dangerous.
This is how men end the crisis in masculinity – this is how I have tried to end the crisis in mine. By having the guts not to go along with the flow for fear that you might not be one of the lads. Because, frankly, who wants to be one of the lads when the lads are cowards? And yes, it’s exhausting trying to work all this stuff out, and confronting those closest to us – including ourselves. But – as a very dear friend reminded me last night – my God, women are exhausted too. So we must try, even though we may fail time and again. We must try.