Dear Men of America,
I imagine that being a man in this country is challenging right now. I imagine being a man is challenging, period.
As you know, women in America are talking more than usual these days about what it’s like to be a woman, particularly in regards to being sexually harassed and assaulted on a more wide-spread level than many of us knew (yes, including women).
And I’ve been thinking about our impulse to define what exactly we mean by terms like “inappropriate behavior,” sexual harassment, and sexual assault. I imagine you as men feel this impulse partly because you are thinking about the time you flirted with that woman at the bar and she brushed you off. “Is that now considered harassment,” you may wonder, incredulously? And you’re thinking about your colleague who is everyone knows is a “womanizer,” and now you’re wondering if you’re supposed to say something the next time he flirts with the female intern, who you thought always giggled because she was flattered by the attention.
As women, we are also interested in definitions. This is partly because we may finally be exploring how to talk about…things…that have happened to us that we’ve perhaps downplayed in the past. And now, someone makes us feel safe enough to look at it for what it is — or another woman names it as a serious problem with serious words used to describe it — and we burst into tears of anger and grief at the pattern of violation we’ve experienced over our lives.
I had a moment like this the other day. A mutual friend (of the harasser) named what had happened to me at age 19 as “sexual assault.” Sexual what?! I thought to myself as my heart broke and another friend gently explained that harassment turns into assault when physical contact of a sexual nature occurs.
That’s when I realized I had been sexually assaulted. Even though I’d always told myself that “things didn’t go very far” and similar sentiments, what I’d always called “being treated inappropriately” could also be called sexual assault.
That realization sucked, just to be clear! Sure, it meant that I can call it for what it was and stop minimizing it in my mind, and that’s worth something. But that’s about as far as such a label helps me.
So what about this increased focus on words and what they mean and how to define sexually damaging behavior and comments? What do we — men and women — make of these strange and raw circumstances?
It seems like a great time to focus on the “we” of humanity. “We” — not the “we” that questions and minimizes women when they talk about their hurts, but the “we” that stands side by side with women as they explain what is hurtful (and what is not). This latter “we” needs to include women and men.
This attempt to stand together — rather than on opposite sides of the infamous “war of the sexes” — is complicated, I think, by our mutual need to define the issue. Define it once and for all — and bam! — the battle will be won!
Except we know that’s not true. Definitions aren’t enough, as helpful and important as they often are. More importantly, “we” were trying to get away from battle analogies and animosity entirely, right? No wars and battles between the sexes, but instead, war against all sexual disrespect, which is most commonly experienced by women from men.
You see, our efforts to define the terms places the action in our cerebral cortexes, where we problem-solve and reason. In other words, we “intellectualize” the problem.
And this is important! I can only imagine the amount of hours and weeks and months and years that have been spent trying to intellectually understand and solve what’s been a deep-seated human issue since before history began. I’m thinking especially of lawyers, mental health professionals, school and university administrators, victimologists, sociologists, clergymen, and politicians. To these individuals, please keep up the hard, hard work!
But for the rest of us — what these professionals and researchers may call “the lay person” — I’d like to make a suggestion.
Let’s spend at least as much time listening and thinking with our heart than with our (admittedly fantastic) cerebral cortex! Perhaps if none of us were thinking intellectually about “the problem,” I’d be suggesting the opposite — that we not only need to feel our way through this, but also to think carefully about the issue.
But I think most of us need to learn to hit a pause button on our analytical bent and hit the play button on our heart. How do we “listen with our heart,” since our heart has no ears?
As a starting point, we can take the “little things” seriously.
When our 6-year-old daughter tells us about the other first graders who relentlessly pick on her for her kinky-curly hair, we spend less time thinking about a label like “bully” for these kids and more time focused on a way to help our daughter and the adults at school put an end to this behavior. We do not say, “boys will be boys,” but we also don’t necessarily look for the research-based, up-and-coming, anti-bullying curriculum to solve the issue perfectly for us.
When our teenaged friend laughs as she tells us about the sexual advances she’s receiving from a 16-year-old boy, we stop and listen carefully. Not just for the facts of the matter regarding the boy’s age, the words he’s saying, or whether our friend is at risk for being “taking advantage of” or even assaulted. Those things are important, but just as important are the assumptions and beliefs behind our friend’s words and her nervous laugh. What does she need to be safe? What is she looking for that this boy is (or is not) meeting? What are her unspoken, gut-level beliefs about herself, her worth, and her purpose for existing in the first place?
And of particular importance in this letter, when our friend-wife-girlfriend-daughter-cousin tells us about about an incident of sexual harassment, listening with our heart means two things. First, we’ve got to hit the pause button on our impulse to evaluate the specifics of the incident to see if it actually fits the current webster or legally-defined meaning of sexual harassment. Why? Because secondly, we can then hit the play button on our human capacity for empathy and compassion.
Empathy and compassion are fancy words for allowing ourselves to feel sad at our girlfriend’s anger at the guy whose suggestive comments will now make it hard for her to see him again next week.
It might look like tears in our eyes or a clenched jaw or fist as our sister cries. It means we involve ourselves in finding an immediate solution, even as we work within the often-frustrating limits we as a society have placed on ourselves.
And guess what? It means that our girlfriend or sister won’t have to explain and justify the words she chose to use to describe the inappropriate behavior! This is where the beauty comes in.
Because it’s not your job, men of America, to work out exact definitions of what is what and what should be done for what offenses. Your job is much simpler and much more complicated.
It’s to listen and to imagine. To empathize when you can. And when you can’t understand why something is a “big deal,” or you mistake something for being “mildly inappropriate” or even “a compliment,” please pause and decide to listen again. There’s more for you to understand.
Listen. And trust us — your sisters — just a little. We don’t want to see you go down, either, men.
We kind of need you, in fact.