By Nechama Sammet Moring
I’ll start with saying me too, without details, because, if my social media feed is any kind of indicator, sexual violence is as common as brunch, Buzzfeed quizzes and adorable doggos. The #MeToo campaign, first envisioned by activist Tarana Burke, demonstrates the vast prevalence of sexual assault as its survivors say, simply, “me too.” The 1.7 million tweets and 12 million Facebook posts of #MeToo put faces to estimates that at least one in three women have experienced sexual violence, with higher rates among people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender-queer, disabled and/or of color.
#MeToo is simultaneous lauded as empowering and critiqued as creating emotional demands and re-opening wounds for survivors. The viral hashtag also begs questions for men, often posed on social media: If women and gender nonconforming people are all posting that they too have been assaulted, who is perpetrating all this assault? And what will you do to decrease the sky-high rates of sexual violence? In my feeds, the first question was rarely answered; much like racism, sexual assault is seen as an external phenomenon, something other people do, but never something that any of us (however we define our in-group) might contribute to in any way. To be clear, men and boys are also victimized by sexual violence (about one in six boys and one in 72 adult men) but perpetrators are largely male, pointing to a culture of violent masculinity.
The second question gained traction, though, as men used the hashtag #IWill to describe the actions they would personally take to end sexual assault—with disappointing results. Many responses I saw on my own feeds, in searches, and in response to questions from groups like The Belle Jar and Guerilla Feminism were overwhelmingly vague (“support the women my life,” “stand up against sexism”). Quite a few explicitly asked for recognition (“I promise I’m better than my brothers,” “I will tell my students that rape is wrong, because I care”). Some even got weirdly sexual—worse than that guy in every women’s studies 101 class who thinks nobody realizes that he’s only there in hopes of getting laid (“while every man appreciates a good boobie, I will remember that there’s a time and a place,” “I will get enthusiastic consent from all my lovers. Any lesbians interested? I’m 5’9”).
With the exception of some of my male friends, I did not see many pledges of concrete action. Also missing was commitment to taking risks that could incur personal costs, such as denouncing the senior manager at work who has a history of brushed aside sexual harassment, interrupting the man talking over female colleagues, even if he is your boss, or telling your brother that misogynistic comments at the dinner table will get him kicked out before the meal is cold. These are real costs, but I did not see many men willing to spend social capital for me and other survivors.
Many of the promises were, as a friend said, the bare minimum of human decency, the equivalent of claiming, in a job interview, that, if hired, you will wear pants to work and reserve tardiness for Tuesday through Friday, when you are hungover. Yes, men will listen to women when they speak; it is a generally accepted social convention that one listens to one’s conversation partner. Yes, men who teach or coach teenagers are generally expected to respond to negative adolescent behavior, including shutting down “locker room talk” among their charges. Are we also applauding me for not kicking my dog, and flossing semi-regularly?
I have higher expectations than this for everybody, but especially people privileged enough to not be consumed with the strategic planning required just to make it home safe at night, to survive the relationships that wait for us there, or to hold it together when everyday situations like footsteps in the hall at work remind us of the sounds of our rapist’s sneakers as he moved towards us. I imagine there’s a lot one can do with the time that we survivors must devote to strategy and staying present despite approaching footfalls.
Other statements from men included misguided bragging about relationships of mutuality with women and marginalized genders, which I also enjoy with the men I love. Male friends have driven me to the airport; taken me home from surgery when I was hopped up on painkillers, fed me and walked my dog while I babbled incoherently; encouraged me to start my small business; read my writing; believed me when I left my abuser and supported me during intense flashbacks; hosted me when my apartment was fumigated; and made me laugh until beer came out of my nose. But this is friendship, not heroic acts against sexual violence. It’s time to ask for more—to demand more.
So, men: what concrete action will you take to end sexual violence? How exactly will you stand up for us? What fundraiser will you organize? Which rapist will you fire? Which marginalized person’s lead will you follow, on their terms? How will you create a world where we can make it home at night, without threats from those closest to us? What risks will you take? What costs will you incur? Because whatever the risk or the cost is for you, I guarantee it is higher for me, and so your bravery is needed.