This article was translated into English by Hilary Phelan
A few weeks ago I gave a lecture in a secondary school about gender equality and media representation. I told 270 sixteen and seventeen year olds about the impact of women being underrepresented in the media. Aware that such discussions can be difficult for men to hear, I highlighted that the skewed gender balance is not the fault of the boys in the room, but the result of an age-old system that favours men.
During the question round I got a wave of criticism. Despite my many disclaimers, the boys felt attacked and targeted for being male. Oh how they shouted. One of the girls dared to suggest that their defensive reaction was proof of the fact they had never had to think about their position of privilege, and she was showered with shouts of “BULLSHIT”. The lecture disintegrated in a wholly unproductive battle of the sexes.
What happened in that auditorium is something I have experienced often. Boys and men (not always, not all, but too often and too many) get hurt and defensive, especially in times of the #MeToo movement. Newspapers publish opinion pieces about how difficult it is to be a man today. “Being a white man is not a gift”, a professor wailed in De Standaard a few weeks ago. “Discourage your children from becoming middle-aged white men. The worst people”, Rik Torfs commented on International Women’s Day.
Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld said this weekend that he was sick of the whole #MeToo movement: “It’s simply too much, from now on, as a designer, you can’t do anything.(…) If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent.”
“In general, men do not have it that bad. That does not mean that all men have a good life.”
According to some conservative voices, there is a War on Men, carried by feminists who seize every opportunity to paint men in bad light. The titles on angry blogs and American, right-wing news sites scream; “The #MeToo movement is ruining men!”
Men have a very tough life, it seems. But let’s look at the numbers. 95% of all CEOs in the world are men. Roughly 90% of all state leaders. All great religious leaders are men. 76% of all people visible in the media and 85% of all the protagonists in films are men. Men make up 50% of the world’s population, but possess more than 80% of all land.
In general, men therefore do not have it that bad. That does not mean that all men have a good life. Men are overrepresented in suicide and depression statistics and often experience the consequences of ‘the glass floor’ as opposed to the glass ceiling. Even so, we live in a society in which men make the rules and are overrepresented in important positions.
Women are forced to put energy and (unpaid) time into discussing such issues with men, while we should be fighting this inequality together. Since #MeToo I have had the necessary conversations about sexual harassment and abuse of power with the men in my life (my husband, sons and friends). I am convinced that only a small percentage of men are actually misogynist. Most men simply need time to see it clearly. I believe in dialogue, so I will answer a few frequently heard comments. Use it to your advantage.
“That is not true”
“Aren’t you over-reacting a bit?” “Are those figures not exaggerated?” “I’ve never experienced / seen / heard that before.”
“Their reaction of disbelief is a kind of coping mechanism, they cling to the world they knew before hearing your stories.”
When a woman finally gets the courage to tell her story, she often comes up against reactions of disbelief and suspicion. That is very frustrating. However, I do not think men do this out of hate or dislike for women. Many men are simply not ready to see the reality you present to them. After all, the thing is: their reality is not your reality. It is often the first time they have heard such stories of rape or sexual harassment so close to home. It is hard to hear. When the #MeToo stories hit the media, many men were shocked, while most women knew it was nothing new.
Their reaction of disbelief is a kind of coping mechanism, they cling to the world they knew before hearing your stories. They still want to believe in a world where rape and assault hardly happens, or at least only by bad men in bushes, not by their colleagues, sports teachers or film heroes. Denial is a human reflex.
They do not realise, that by questioning your experiences they contribute to the idea that the word of a woman is worth less than that of a man. And you can only resolve an issue when you recognise the problem.
Then we have the inevitable second reaction:
“But that is not my fault”
This point is a lot more difficult to tackle. We never said that it is all their fault. We have only talked about our own experiences. The hashtag is #MeToo, not #YouToo. It is confronting to hear that you belong to the group that, according to statistics, has the most privileges, and the most sexual violence against women (and against men). I see the impact it has on the self conscious of my 9 and 11 year old sons when they repeatedly hear that so many men are guilty of such behaviour. But that does not mean that I can not talk about it. It a reason to talk to them even more about consent and macho culture.
“Women do not want all men to feel guilty, because guilt does not help growth.”
Nobody says that all men are hassling women, but almost all women have been harassed by a man. This is an important distinction. Many men feel like they are being disciplined, even though they do a lot of ‘good things’. They treat the women in their lives with respect. They take care of household tasks and try to shape a new masculinity. They do not want to feel guilty for what other men do wrong. They are right. Women do not want all men to feel guilty, because guilt does not help growth. What does help, is understanding, respect and thinking about solutions.
It is important to point out that this is not about individuals, but about dismantling age-old structures and systems we all struggle under. Of course this takes time, but what is holding us back the most is that many men are completely unaware this structure exists.
To shed light on these systems, we need space to talk about it. Unfortunately, disgruntled men often fill this space with messages like:
“The #MeToo balance has tipped too far in the other direction!”
This arguement is used in almost every discussion about gender equality. Last week, the misconduct of Oxfam employees was brought to light and Alain Grootaers got a platform to complain in De Standaard. “Nowadays nothing is allowed.” According to him, censoring women’s nipples on Facebook is also a result of the ‘new prudishness’ of the #MeToo movement. What Grootaers does not realise is that feminists are fighting against nipple censorship, because it is another way men regulate our bodies. #Freethenipple
Let it be clear once and for all: the balance has not been tipped. The #MeToo movement has only highlighted that the scale is still dangerously loaded against women. #MeToo has only shifted the balance a millimeter closer to the middle. Looking at statistics around sexual violence shows just how imbalanced the situation is:
“The #MeToo movement has only highlighted that the scale is still dangerously loaded against women.”
85% of women have been harassed in the street by men. Every week in Belgium reports emerge of sexual abuse cases in the sports world. The testimonies show that the victims are not only girls and women. Every day 8 women report being raped in Belgium. However, ten times that amount are never reported, so the actual number is more than 80 women raped in Belgium each day. Only 4% of the reported perpetrators of rape are effectively convicted. Rapists are given a similar prison sentence to people found guilt of plagiarism, said criminal lawyer Nina Van Eeckhaut this weekend in De Morgen.
These are hard figures based on research. They are a better base for understanding the situation than the opinions of men, who, looking at their position for the first time, have a gut feeling that something is being taken from them.
And no matter how hard the shouty men would like you to believe it, men do not go to jail due to awkward flirting. Innocent men do not lose their jobs. On the contrary, guilty men continue to work unscathed: you do not have to look far to find glaring examples of this.
“All round me I see understanding women, open to conversations about the complicated grey areas we share.”
What #MeToo did, is to hold men responsible for their misconduct. Men must bear the consequences of their actions. Men have to think about their position in our society, is that really so difficult? All round me I see understanding women, open to conversations about the complicated grey areas we share. No one wants to live is a puritanical society, except maybe the religious crazies. And it just so happens that they are not best friends with feminists in general.
So if someone says “the scales are tipped“, answer: “Yes, but not to the side you claim. It is still grossly imbalanced against women. It might take forever before a balance is reached, are you going to help achieve that or add to the weight of inequality?
After a long discussion you will hopefully come to the last comment:
“But there is not much I can do about it”
Wrong. As a man you can do a lot. For example, let women talk, and believe what they tell you. Resist the urge to react defensively. Hearing hundreds of thousands of women testify about sexual violence, if your first reaction concerns your own privileges, be aware that you are not an ally, but part of a system that sees women as inferior.
Men need to learn that it doesn’t always have to be easy for them. How absurd is it that in this discussion we have to be so careful with men’s feelings, above those of the people who are victims of the sexual assault?
“Be aware that your voice as a man carries a lot further than that of women. This both in the positive and negative sense.”
Work on developing your capacity for empathy, involve yourself in the world of women. Raise your sons to become open-minded men, free them from the harmful grip of toxic masculinity. Bring this topic up with colleagues and friends, figure out what their view of our world is.
Intervene when you see small examples of sexism around you. Most importantly, speak up against sexual inappropriate behaviour. Be aware that your voice as a man carries a lot further than that of women. This both in the positive and negative sense, however unfair this truth is. One opinion piece by a man can paint a movement of millions of women as hysterical and exaggerated. On the other hand, your support weighs extra heavily. As a man your words will be more easily believed when you speak out against sexual harassment and abuse of power by men. In other words, we need you.
#MeToo is not a ‘women’s problem’ or a movement of women against men, it is an issue that touches every corner of our society. It is a cry for help and an urgent demand for change. This call must come from both women and men. The question is, do you want to work with us to balance the scales?