Friday, May 30, 2014

#YesAllWomen And Not All Men

Over the past several days, in response to the toxic masculinity that manifested in Elliot Rodgers and led to the tragedy in California on Friday, there's been a macro-conversation going on via Twitter linked by the hashtag #YesAllWomen. This conversation has been exposing the billions of ways that women are forced to deal with sexual aggression from men in their day-to-day life. As men, how should we be responding to these conversations?

Some Background

The #YesAllWomen conversation is not new. There's long been the hashtag #EverydaySexism that talks about the exact same issues, and feminist spaces have been discussing it since feminism started. The problem that these conversations often run into is the "Not All Men" objection. Put simply, when someone says "Men do X behavior and it's oppressive to women and wrong" there's almost immediately at least one individual who pipes up with "But not ALL men are like that! I'M not a sexist jerk!" Which then leads into a long conversation where women detail a hundred thousand disclaimers about the things they're saying because it's true that not EVERY man exhibits problematic behavior X. The end result is that most of the time, the original conversation gets completely derailed by this objection and turns from women talking about common phenomena that's frustrating and problematic into a discussion about some men and how they're being unfairly lumped in with all the douchebags out there. Basically, men are shutting down conversations about problematic male behavior before they can go anywhere productive by changing the focus from women's experiences to their own feelings.

It's true, for any given behavior X, not every single man on the planet is going to exhibit that behavior. The problem is that if the phrasing gets changed from "Men do X" to "Some men do X," then it's implying that it's only a problem with a small subset of men when in reality it's common enough that it's more the rule than the exception. Similarly, if the phrasing is "Most men do X" then it gets challenged to prove that it's a majority of men that do whatever X is, which also derails the subject.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter what percentage of men do the behavior. The point is that enough men do it that it's a common problem for women. Imagine that you have a bowl of M&M's.

Bowl of M&Ms
Delicious analogy is delicious.
photo credit: Mark Seton via photopin cc

Some of the M&M's are normal M&M's, but a lot of them have been poisoned. Most of the poisoned ones are not enough to kill, but some of them are and the others have been given just enough to cause serious sickness. In this case, doesn't it make more sense to treat every M&M as suspicious until you can know for a fact that it's not going to cause you harm? No matter how delicious and perfectly safe any of those individual M&M's are, they don't cancel out the fact that so many others in that bowl are going to cause pain if eaten. Whether it's just a few of the candies or most of them doesn't really matter, because the fact remains that every single one of them has an inherent risk of being poisonous. So even though you may be the greatest, most respectful guy in the world, to a woman who doesn't know you you're Schrödinger’s Rapist.

That's where #YesAllWomen comes from. It's a play on the terminology of "Not All Men," stemming from the concept that "Not all men have caused the suffering of women, but all women have suffered at the hands of a man."

What's Being Said With #YesAllWomen?

Basically, #YesAllWomen is a chronicling of all of the tiny ways women suffer every day from sexual harassment and assault from men. It's a detailing of the thousands upon thousands of microaggressions every single woman endures on a daily basis. Go ahead and click on the hashtags and take a gander at some of the things women are talking about, and you'll quickly realize just how big of a problem ingrained sexism is.

So if it's been such a problem, why hasn't it been talked about like this until now? Well, it HAS actually, just not in the view of the public. Women will often complain about these issues with other women, who sympathize with them, or in feminist "safe" spaces where they know they won't be ridiculed or attacked for the things they say. So just because women may seem silent on these issues most of the time doesn't mean the issues don't exist. The problem is that a lot of women aren't comfortable speaking up about their experiences for various reasons. For one, it's PAINFUL for them to face these experiences on their own, much less to articulate it and put it out where it can be challenged. This is especially true when you consider that women are socially conditioned to avoid confrontation and be inoffensive to begin with.

Demure Dog
Hey... Uh... I don't want to be a burden but, uh...
photo credit: bark via photopin cc

It's also important to note that just as with Not All Men behaving badly, not every woman is going to have the same experiences. Some women are going to have different tolerances and preferences that lead them to process their experiences in ways that aren't as toxic. Some women aren't going to have the awareness or language to recognize or articulate the issues they encounter. Still other women are simply going to be fortunate to not experience much sexual harassment at all. Regardless, it's important to note that any individual women not agreeing that the problems being laid out by #YesAllWomen are all that common, or really problems at all, doesn't invalidate or delegitimize the conversation as a whole. The plural of "Anecdote" is not "Data," as it were.

A Note About Male Victims Of Sexual Assault

I just want to address male sexual assault victims briefly. The #YesAllWomen conversation is dedicated to women's experiences of sexual assault and harassment at the hands of men. There is no intention to group male sexual assault victims in with men who exhibit sexually aggressive behavior. The #YesAllWomen conversation is not about erasing male rape victims because it's about so much more than just rape. It's also about harassment, abuse, and other sexually-themed microaggressions directed at women on a daily basis.

Yes, men are sometimes the victims of sexual abuse. In fact, according to the CDC, 1-in-71 men are the victims of rape, and of those most male rape victims were abused by other men. But really, it's worse than that because the CDC doesn't define "being forced to penetrate another" as being rape, which is an experience 1-in-21 men have had. Male-targeted sexual assault and rape is a serious issue that deserves to be discussed and to have a conversation about, but #YesAllWomen is not the place for that. Partly because sexualization of men is significantly less ingrained in our culture compared to sexualization of women, but also because any conversation about the experiences of men tends to drown out conversations about the experiences of women.

Woman With Tape Over Mouth
Yeah, kinda like that.
photo credit: Awen Photography via photopin cc

It's also extremely difficult to approach the subject of male-targeted sexual assault because so few male victims are willing to admit that it WAS sexual assault. If a woman forces a man to penetrate her, then that's rape. But in our culture, men are fed the message that they should WANT sex with women at all times, and so feel ashamed to admit when they're not actually into it. As a result, they're reluctant to enforce their boundaries with regards to having sex they don't actually want, and even more reluctant to admit that what happened to them was a sexual assault. Men don't want to be labeled as victims because it implies that they are powerless, and thus less of a man.

Responding As Decent Men

In a lot of cases, men don't have the awareness or language to discuss these issues because, well, we don't have the kind of spaces women do to tackle them. Women have feminist "safe" forums and other women they can confide in and discuss with. Women are socialized to establish emotional support networks with their friends and families. Men don't have that luxury. The closest we have is feminist-leaning forums, and even then, a lot of times men are discouraged from asking questions or sorting through these issues because bringing them up from a guy's point of view is really difficult to do without triggering emotional landmines for women who have been victimized by them. That's part of why I started this blog; to open a constructive dialogue about the man's approach to these issues and to give men an avenue to explore these issues without having their masculinity challenged for it by other men.1

Man Looking At Woman
"Am I less of a man for not asking her out...?"
photo credit: tychay via photopin cc

A lot of men make the mistake of making the "Not All Men" response because they feel it's a personal attack on them. For those of us who are decent men, it's important to recognize that the things being talked about with #YesAllWomen are not being directed at us personally. There are enough men out there that are not decent and who do behave inappropriately in the ways these women are telling us, that it's a bigger problem than any of our individual experiences could ever cancel out. When faced with something bigger than ourselves, it's important to step back and appreciate it for what it is and not take personal offense to it.

Beyond letting go of those defensive emotional responses, it now falls on us to respond constructively to the issues being exposed by the conversation. We need to not only stop catcalling, but call people out who do it. We need to stop making jokes about rape and challenge others when they do. We need to gracefully accept rejections when we approach women romantically, and we need to call it out when another man attempts to badger or otherwise responds negatively to a rejection. We need to acknowledge that yes, these common behaviors are problematic and they cause harm, and we need to do something about it.

We need to stop accepting Rape Culture and promote a better standard.

1 Though I get my fair share of challenges to my masculinity with every article I write.

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