Given everything that has happened during the recent past, with the #Me Too movement, the Kavanaugh hearings and the willingness of women to acknowledge their histories of sexual trauma, women’s rage is at an all-time high, with no sign it will diminish anytime soon. Perhaps I am being naïve, but I get the impression that many people had no idea just how many women have been victimized and continue to be victimized by men. I remember people scoffing at the idea that the U.S. has a rape culture that is in part sustained by the reluctance of law enforcement to believe women and prosecute offenders. Some of those people are now wondering how many women they know have been harassed or sexually assaulted. And women are finally and unequivocally condemning the patriarchal system that protects the bad guys and shames or ignores their accusers.
The patriarchy is not a club that all men belong to, although it is a club that all men benefit from. It is a system of male dominance that has been sustained across history by individuals of all genders (some women aligning with men because they see it as being in their best interests or because they have bought into the idea that they are just empty-headed child-bearers). Not all men actively support the patriarchy–or at least believe they don’t.
The majority of men in this country have not committed a felonious sexual assault. But I am confident that most of the men in that majority have engaged in behavior—behavior they defined as benign flirting—that was perceived as threatening by women. And some of them are questioning a lifetime of interactions with women and feeling the pressure to reframe those interactions. For the first time, woke men, or men who want to be woke, are attempting to see the world through a woman’s eyes, and are realizing that, for females, the world is dangerous, with no refuge. That it has taken so long for men to accept this is not surprising, as historically media and art have reflected solely the male gaze. A woman’s perspective, when it was considered, was interpreted through the filter of age-old stereotypes based on the idea that women were responsible, because of their bad choices, for any sexual assaults made against them. This idea both insulated men from the truth and protected them from consequences.
There are still many men unashamedly declaring their patriarchal beliefs; to them, it is a badge of honor and a birthright. “Damn right, I believe men should call the shots, because women just aren’t up to the task (and here is where you insert all the made-up reasons women can’t cope without men telling them what to do, along with lame excuses for how men just behave the way men have always behaved).
So where to now? How do we proceed, and what do we want from the men who seriously want to make the world safer for their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters? Well, what we don’t want is a lukewarm condemnation of offenders. We want and expect you to stand with us, not to just applaud our efforts. Actively support women’s rights. Learn what you can do. Support women’s health and rape counseling centers. Become enraged about violence directed at women, 55 percent of whom are killed by guns, and then inform your representatives you will not vote for anyone who doesn’t tighten gun laws. Donate to these causes. Demand that District Attorneys prosecute more than 4 percent of accused rapists and pedophiles. Accept that as a male, you are not in charge of or qualified to make decisions for women. Don’t just disapprove of what is wrong, aggressively fight it. No points are awarded for smug disapproval.
Some of what must be done to see societal change can be accomplished only by men–updating your definition of what a “real man” is, for instance. Because while women have, for decades, been broadening the definition of what is acceptable feminity, a good number of men still openly aspire to the 1940s and ‘50s Western-movie ideal of manhood. And I suspect many more men silently pursue the same straight-from-Hollywood version of masculinity. That particular male ideal celebrates and prizes male physicality, in all its permutations; however, there is now little need for men to conquer the vast frontier, the frontier having largely gone the way of the dodo. The aggressive pursuit of women is also a part of that ideal, and also no longer socially acceptable. So all you good guys need to start promoting a broader definition of masculinity because you’ve kind of painted yourself into a corner.
Women also want men to first acknowledge the existence of, and then abandon the patriarchy in favor of equal partnerships with the women in their lives. And for any man who is still asking, “What patriarchy?” read a book, join a men’s growth group, watch a documentary. Change is challenging at times, but it is a non-negotiable requirement if you honestly want to help women. And if you can change just a bit, you will be giving other men permission to do so. And you will, I hope, raise sons who are less constrained by a one-size-fits-all definition of acceptable masculinity—sons who have more options, who lead richer, more fulfilling lives. And daughters who are more empowered.
There is a saying, “Women hold up half the sky.” It is an assertion that women deserve equality; that without women, our lives would be more difficult. But the statement doesn’t go far enough, doesn’t reveal the true nature of what happens—and has always happened—in every part of the world. The thought behind the saying should be extended thus: “Women hold up half the sky—AND they’re not the ones continually causing the sky to come crashing down on everybody.”
In addition to holding up our share, women are the ones who must clean up the mess when men destroy our world, be it our little corner, or destruction on a massive scale. It is women who ultimately carry the responsibility to protect our children in the face of the constant wars and senseless violent crime constantly taking place around the world, and who deal with the consequences when it can’t be done; it is women who must rebuild communities while neglecting their own trauma; it is women who take care of the men who have been broken by their involvement in these activities.
It is a relatively small percentage of men who commit or give their blessing to these atrocities, but it is the larger numbers of men who refuse to challenge toxic masculinity’s constant assault on humanity, who will not stand with women and minorities in their fight for parity, who, in their silence enable that behavior to continue. In a thousand small ways, good men permit the mistreatment and marginalization of women, children, and minorities. So while a relatively small percentage of men actively and loudly resist any change, they control an inordinately large percentage of our resources and our government policies. This cannot be allowed to continue.
Women can suggest to men how to be more flexible and less fearful about this subject, but men must want it. It isn’t women who are holding men to an unattainable—and often insufferable—stereotype of masculinity. Many of us would be happy with someone who wanted to explore other aspects of themselves without being constrained by fear of judgment from other males. We don’t need you to learn how to cry; we need you to learn how to stop hurting us.