In the wake of the harrowing news about kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard this week, the responses on social media have been predictably and undeniably grim. Woman after woman recounting their terrible experiences of abusive behaviour at the hands of men, from inappropriate, sexually aggressive comments, to unwanted physical advances, to the heart-pounding fear of walking anywhere alone, all the way through to violent sexual assault and rape. Literally every woman you know has experienced one or more of these abuses on multiple occasions during their lives.
Our response, as men, to that outpouring of truth, was for #NotAllMen to be trending on Twitter for the best part of a day. How we railed at the implication that we may bear some collective responsibility for the perpetual fear women face just going about their daily lives. How we demanded that those speaking out about their experiences give us, the ‘good guys’, a pat on the head for managing not to rape them. How we persisted, so bravely, to once again make women’s trauma all about us.
I watched in horror as, even after Me Too, and all the subsequent revelations about how this kind of behaviour is allowed to take hold, so many of us failed (refused, perhaps?) to recognise the impact our own behaviour can have, searching desperately for anything that would give us a ‘get out’, to preserve our precious self-image as one of the good ‘uns. I saw posts from at least two gay men who were extremely upset that they were being ‘lumped in’ with the comments about male behaviour, when everyone knows it was the straight guys wot done it.
I tweeted the following this morning, and the responses to it were so revealing:
“It is All Men, actually.
All Men have the ability to cause harm to women.
All Men need to examine whether their own behaviour might be responsible for making women feel afraid or uncomfortable.
All Men could do more to bring about an end to violence against women.
Of course, there were the inevitable replies from men who were righteously aggrieved at this unconscionable attack on their impeccable character, but the thing that really stood out for me was the number of women expressing their gratitude that I’d tweeted it at all. Why? For what?
I did the absolute fucking bare minimum any of us should be doing. I don’t need thanks for that. Shit, I don’t deserve thanks for that, but it does serve to underline how much more we could all be doing to create a situation where the bare minimum is no longer considered cause for gratitude.
It is helpful, and often accurate, to think of any system of violence or oppression as a kind of pyramid. At its base rest the majority who, whilst perhaps not actively involved in the violence or oppression, provide the foundation for those who are. At each level above that, fewer and fewer individuals reside, until we reach the apex, where the most appalling atrocities are committed.
Taking homophobia as a brief example, the base might consist of those who don’t really think much about gay people at all, or how they can help to create a safer environment for us. Next up might be those who turn a blind eye when their friends or colleagues make homophobic jokes or comments. Next might be those who actually make those jokes or comments, or who use the word ‘gay’ as an insult. Above that might be those who say things like, “I don’t mind gay people existing, but I don’t think they should be allowed to have children, be spoken about in schools etc.” You get the picture: the individuals who reside at the top, the ones who beat and murder gay people just for being gay, are but a tiny minority of the overall structure, but they are held in place by those below, supporting them, providing the framework for their existence.
The same analogy can be applied to violence against women. Yes, guys, most of us are not rapists or murderers of women, but how many of us can truly, genuinely, say we’re doing everything in our power to dismantle patriarchal power structures, to call out borderline (or even more obvious) behaviour in our friendship groups and families, to examine our own behaviour and consider whether it might be contributing to the climate of fear in which women permanently abide?
We’re the fucking base, lads. We’re the foundation upon which the ‘nice tits, luv’ layer, the walking behind a woman on a dark street layer, the sexually coercive boss layer, the stalker layer and the rape/murder layer rest. Without us, the rest of the pyramid starts to look decidedly precarious. We can actively strive to take away that support, and bring the whole thing crashing down.
To labour the analogy just a little further, if I may, a pyramid is a huge structure, and of course no man can dismantle it alone. What we can do is to chip away at our own little corner, and encourage others to do likewise. We can create instability around us, even if there are those who refuse to join in. We can resolve, when women justifiably complain that it’s not coming down quick enough, not to respond with anger because we’re chipping as fast as we can, but to look for more efficient and effective ways of toppling those upper layers.
If we’re the ‘good guys’ we claim to be, it shouldn’t be a burden to adopt a position of hyper-vigilance in this matter. Hyper-vigilance is second nature to women. In the stock cupboard at work, in a car park after dark, in a quiet park, walking down the street, and all too often, in their own homes. They are conditioned to it from a very young age, and it’s time for us to join them.
Talk to your friends, your brothers, your sons and nephews. Refuse to join in with the sexist jokes and ‘banter’. Call out inappropriate behaviour when you see it. Think about the effect on a woman if you jog past her shoulder from behind, or walk behind her after dark. Yes, even if you’re gay. Unless you’re wearing glitter and rainbows and singing a Judy Garland medley, it might not be immediately obvious to a woman who has walked this road so many times that you do not present a threat. Recognise that what you see as ‘harmless flirtation’ can, if not reciprocated, be deeply unsettling to the woman concerned. These are only a few examples, but I’m sure those of us who really are ‘good guys’, will take it upon themselves to find more.
The easiest way of doing this, of course, is to listen to women. Read their tweets, their Facebook posts and their articles, and consider – really consider – what changes you can make to help dismantle the pyramid of male violence they have to circumnavigate every day of their lives. Because, however uncomfortable it may be to hear, we all sit somewhere within its structure.