Responding to #metoo

Over the past week or more I have watched with a great depression but no great surprise as many of my friends have been posting abut their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

I have been unsure how to best engage with this – I am an ally, I recognise that there is a real problem here, and want to treat the discussion seriously. I also don’t want any contribution to make it look like I am making it about people like me – straight white men have plenty of opportunity to have conversations without needing to jump in on the conversations of other groups. I’m also not a knight in shining armour able to ride to the rescue, and I don’t want a cookie for being super-woke.

But I realised when I saw a friend asking why men weren’t engaging that we have to say something, even if just to offer another voice to the support for women and other vulnerable minorities. Silent support is not the most noticeable. I don’t have anything groundbreaking to say, but a message of support and a hopefully clear and patient explanation of why there is a problem and why people like me might not notice it, from someone like me, might be a Good Thing.

So, to all the people who I have seen posting their experiences, I want to say thanks for sharing and helping shed light on the situation, well done for being in a position where you can share, and I’m sorry that you have had the experiences you have. I understand that many of these stories have been difficult and painful to share, and I have disappointed by some of the reaction I have seen.

To all the people that have a story that they *haven’t* shared, that is fine too. People shouldn’t feel pressured to join in, but hopefully seeing the outpouring has been helpful, whether in finding mutual support or realising that you are not to blame.

From my position, I think I can most usefully talk to men to help them understand that there is an issue, and a couple of thoughts about what we should be doing about it. I see a number of my female friends not being listened to or taken seriously, and I don’t think we should accept that.

 

Good Men – this is a real problem. I understand that you are probably like me, and never really been exposed to harassment, but *look around you* and *listen to people*. It is clearly happening to at least the majority of our female friends, family and partners. I understand that using anecdotes can be problematic in terms of demonstrating robust evidence, but trying to say there is no problem based on this reasoning is self-protecting nonsense. I think some of the problem in accepting this is to do with our not being able or inclined to see it.

I’m sure you don’t see much that you would consider dangerous, but it’s worth bearing in mind that you likely *wouldn’t* if you are not involved. Most instances aren’t like Harvey Weinstein, with a network of people enabling predation, and a lot of the worst instances happen in private. There is also a strong observation bias called the Bystander Effect, where as outside observers we tend to assume situations are fine, if to the people involved they aren’t – we are likely missing things that are happening right in front of us. I think back to nights out with groups of women, the constant invasion of their physical space and the way men just hover around them.

There is an issue of perspective. I am a middle-class white man, about 6 feet, and physically capable. I’ve not often had to ‘fight or flight’, but I am pretty happy that there is a relatively minor proportion of people I couldn’t at least escape from. Most women have a different experience – the groups overlap for sure, but men are in general bigger, stronger and more physically aggressive than women, and as an overall group have a distinct tendency to rape them. So in terms of feeling endangered and reacting based on that, the equivalent for me would not be receiving unwanted advances from a medium build woman. It would be more like getting attention from a muscular 6’6″ suspected violent criminal. Sure – they may be happy with a clear rejection, but I would certainly feel very threatened in case they didn’t. What they think of as harassment might be very different from me.

We say anecdotes about cancer cures are not that reliable – this is in part because ‘having cancer’ is an objective outcome not accessible subjectively, with a really good evidence base built on RCTs, and the cancer cures proposed have low or no prior plausibility. ‘Being harassed’ is a subjective experience, with a really good evidence base built on collected and consistent accounts from victims, with a really high prior plausibility based on any understanding of how humans tend to behave to each other.

The fact that all we can base our judgement on is a huge number if anecdotes doesn’t mean that the evidence base is easily dismissed. And actually, in spite of the popular skeptics phrase, the plural of anecdote is data – you just have to evaluate the extent to which you think that data provides compelling evidence. For example, the Australian Human Rights Commission recently published a report on sexual harassment and assault in Universities.

The takeaway elements of those reports were that 51% of students were sexually harassed in 2016, and 7% were sexually assaulted in 2015 or 2016. Women were more than twice as likely to be harassed, and more than three times as likely to be assaulted. that’s in one year. I understand student days may be the highest risk, but extrapolating that result out to a lifetime risk suggests we’re looking at a figure approaching 100%. Frustratingly, but understandably,  I’m no expert, but that seems a) in keeping with the reports of friends b) a large enough effect size that quibbles about methodology will make it go away, and c) absolutely horrifying.

You are likely not a serial harasser, and don’t see much of it, and don’t believe your male friends are capable of it. But even if we say the problem is limited to a small number of active people, it doesn’t take many men harassing people before pretty much everyone will have had been on the receiving end.

 

Good Men – we are part of the problem, but we can be part of the solution. I am a good man – I am in a monogamous marriage where I see my partner as an equal, and support her in whatever she wants to do. I am trying to raise a good son, aware of gender politics and the structural inequalities in society. I am in a position of relative privilege, and should use that where I can to support others with less privilege. My feminism has tended to express itself in treating women with the appropriate respect, supporting those close to me, and tutting along at social inequality. This is a great start, but we all need to do a bit more.

I have been thinking a bit recently about whether I always have been such as good man. I am pretty confident that I have always respected women in principle – I was *incredibly* pleased when a high school friend I hadn’t seen for years said I had always been a good feminist. But I wonder if in my younger days a combination of enthusiasm, social and physical clumsiness, and sometimes a drink or two, I always was. I have likely been inappropriate, but hopefully nothing more. Further, I apologise for the many more instances where I have been inactive. I am sure I have stood by when I should have intervened. Either way, I apologise sincerely for both my actions and any consequences of them.

For a start, we should treat reports of harassment, assault and rape seriously. This doesn’t mean just believing reports, as there is a small phenomenon of false reporting, but it means not dismissing reports and trying to build a narrative to shift blame from men to women. If someone reports something to you, listen, sympathise and work with them to understand what they need to do to safeguard themselves and others.

Second, recognise that the rate at which this happens is a *massive* problem, and focus on that. Sure, there are some interesting discussions to be had about how we enumerate the issue, or how we draw definitions between different kinds of offence morally and in law. But we have easily sufficient evidence to think it’s a problem worth acting on, and when people are asking for recognition of that, someone coming from outside the conversation to drag it on to minor technical points looks like an attempt to avoid the issue. It isn’t necessarily misogyny or intentional obfuscation, but the two can be very difficult to differentiate. This is basically the problem with #notallmen.

As people in a position of strength and privilege we should challenge things we think people are not comfortable with. This means both structural pervasive problems, such as expected gender roles and imbalance in the home and workplace, and individual instances, where someone appears to be in distress. Men normally risk much less by challenging other men than women do, and are likely to have better outcomes. Of course, we need to be careful not to assume we know what others want and act on their behalf without confirming – assuming that as a man you can rescue the damsel in distress comes across badly, even with the best of intentions. But that doesn’t mean standing by inactively while female colleagues get talked over and ignored in the bar or office, or when they get catcalled and followed in public.

Proactively, we should intentionally design places, organisations and systems to improve the situation. There are some great programmes around social education, and I liked the old advert aimed at teens which shows a youngster getting carried away because I can imagine that being a really common problem that would happen much less with a little more understanding and perspective, and properly describing consent is vital. However, that’s just the obvious surface stuff – abuse comes in many more forms than just rape, and we need to be developing a culture in which none of it is acceptable. Setting up spaces and actively engaging can get to be complex, including in terms of concrete actions that benefit people without inadvertently causing other problems for groups elsewhere, such as people of colour, people of various sexualities or trans folx. But we have to embrace that complexity by actively engaging with these groups to ensure that what we are doing works for everyone – it is pretty clear that when straight white men built the world alone we made it work only for us.

 

I’m painfully aware that I don’t really have solutions beyond trying to support women and make men recognise the scale of the problem, which is why it took me so long to respond to #metoo. But hopefully that’s enough to be starting with.

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