Originally published in Forbes 12/7/17
I’ve been hearing Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust play over and over in my head. It’s the mental backing track of each new day. Every morning brings fresh allegations, fresh details, and fresh consequences of sexual abuse. Beyond prurient interest and the subconscious desire to see our heroes fall, we are witnessing a social media fueled revolution that is bringing about rapid and necessary social change.
Many of my male friends and I have begun taking stock of the ways we speak to women, re-examining male cultural norms and trying to determine what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to interacting with women. For many men whose role models —whether from the arts, the office, or the home —have exhibited offensive behavior, behavior, which was once tolerated, or even glorified, the change has brought on deep feelings of fear and shame.
Perhaps a good starting place for men in search of answers is this fundamental and essential question: Am I treating every person I come in contact with as a human being, or I have been influenced (to any degree) by immoral and outmoded conceptions of women as chattel, as objects of ownership? No matter how evolved we believe we are as a society and as individuals, it’s highly unlikely that the widespread and age-old male-dominated cultures, which have regarded women as the property of their husbands, fathers, or older brothers have not been imbibed by us in some way and to some degree. First and foremost we must purge ourselves of every last vestige of viewing women as the property of men. Based on this commitment we can reclaim our own humanity, and use it to experience women’s abuse and the injustices they face as our own. This is only a start however, one step on a long road towards figuring out things we desperately need to know.
I’ve begun with the easy stuff. Here comes the hard part. There are, as we’ve long known and are being shown on a daily basis, men who are abusers of women, men who use their power to force women into doing their bidding. We know who these men are. We see them at work, at family functions, and in the locker room. At their worst these men are sociopathic, predatory, and seriously insecure. The complicated part is that they are sometimes our friends. They are the guys we slap on the back, they’re the ones we go out for beers with —and most challenging of all, they might also be the guys we hope will one day give us our promotions. This begs a fundamental question about integrity: How much are we willing to risk when it comes to eliminating sexual injustice?
Driving across town last week I had a chance to listen to a well-known female business executive being interviewed on this subject. I could feel the irritation in her voice as she answered an annoying, but perhaps, for the sake of the radio audience, necessary question: “Have you ever been a target of sexual harassment?” The woman paused for a full three seconds before answering. The dead air was indicative of her incredulity at even being asked. “Yes, I have,” she said. “And every woman I’ve ever known has had to deal with sexual harassment.”
She went on to speak about her time as a young woman in a large corporation, working as part of an otherwise all-male team. Hours before they were set to pitch an important project one of the team leaders asked her if she were “having her period”, and if so, might she consider staying home in bed and not showing up at the meeting. As she told her story her voice become more and more forceful. “As everyone laughed, I walked out of the room and made my way to the parking lot. I stood there for several minutes and literally cried tears of rage. From that day on,” she said, “I knew I would never again let anyone get away with treating me like that.”
While most men are not serial sexual harassers or sexual abusers, many men interact with men who are. The range of sexual injustices is vast —as it is with injustice of every sort —from lewd and inappropriate comments to outright molestation and rape. At this moment in time, in this window of opportunity, the onus is on all men to confront men who commit offenses of sexual injustice, just as it continues to be for racial or ethnic injustice. Sexual injustice against women will become a thing of the past only when men get the courage to have these challenging confrontations.
What does “confront,” mean? Likely, it means different things to different people, and at different times. Again, the range is vast. But there is a common thread here, a starting point that begins with a conversation, first with oneself and then with others. That conversation can be guided by a series of questions:
- Why is sexual injustice against women an important issue?
It’s important because repression and violence toward women in any form deprives society of their genius, their ingenuity, and their creativity. It is important as well, because when we neglect to respect and acknowledge even the most basic humanity of women, we severely diminish our own self-worth.
- What role can I play in helping to eliminate this problem?
At all times we must be courageous. We must open our mouths to speak out against sexual injustice when and where we see it happening. We must be on the lookout for the little things too —or the things we might once have considered little. A friend of mine who works for an international retailer recently mentioned that his former boss once pointed to a female co-worker in the middle of a meeting and loudly suggested that she would, “look so much better naked.” I wonder how many people at that meeting would have stood and applauded if someone of real courage had said: “Your comment is offensive and I demand you apologize for it immediately.”
- Where do I start?
Wherever you find yourself when you finish reading this article.