April 4, 2021

Women’s safety needs to be the priority of men

It’s not always easy reflecting on one’s own behaviour. We like to think we’re good guys, but the #MeToo movement’s rise – and women increasingly sharing their stories of bad experiences following the recent death of Sarah Everard – have put men under the microscope. Many men have taken on board practical advice about not walking too closely behind a woman walking on her own or stepping in if it looks like somebody is bothering her – some claiming this never occurred to them before – but as admirable as these epiphanies are, making women feel safe and respected goes further than not being creepy around strangers. It starts smaller, closer to home.

Do you think about the way you talk to women? You might, you might not. It’s clear from spending around 30 seconds online that we have a major problem with how we interact with women. On first glance, these interactions might seem innocent. But look closely. See the guys who reply lightning fast to a women, who contradict her or make a comment on her appearance unprompted. Consider the men who dismiss her using condescending language or wheel out ancient jokes about “getting back in the kitchen” – a sexist phrase recently repurposed to dazzling failure by a burger company trying to be edgy. 

Watch men refusing to accept she may know more than them, even if she’s an expert in her field and he’s merely an armchair enthusiast. Things escalate quickly, thanks to men emboldened by the physical distance to say things they’d never say face to face: lurid reference to genitals, especially regarding trans women; slut-shaming; casual rape and violence threats dashed off like a quick shopping list. “Not all men hurt women,” say these breezy assassins, assuming their virtual threats are less frightening than a looming stranger in the dark. Posturing and patronising isn’t a quirk of increased connectivity, though. The tech has simply allowed us to see, in its stark ugliness, how many men have always treated women’s opinions, how a woman’s energy must be depleted from deflecting boring sexiest tropes from men who think they’re being funny or don’t want to look stupid or expose their flaws. This isn’t just a straight guy thing either: gay men can be just as misogynistic or use an assumed camaraderie with women to deploy casual sexism in the name of a cheap laugh. Women have heard it a zillion times before, but isn’t that the point – to not be the man who notches it up to a zillion and one?

Women have heard it a zillion times before, but isn’t that the point – to not be the man who notches it up to a zillion and one?

Even gold-star users of the internet should perform a few checks before replying. Is this reply proportionate to the original post and your familiarity with this woman? Question your need to be “first”. There’s no prize for answering quickest – why do we always act like there is? Eager to please, desperate to look impressive. This pressure we put upon ourselves is a huge reason that our behaviour often comes off as inappropriate or entitled. Sometimes we genuinely don’t know we’re doing it, because the “pick me” mentality comes so naturally; we’re convinced if we don’t offer a solution to whatever problem is before us – whether our help is being sought or not – that we’ll miss out.

Do a health check on your interactions with female colleagues too. In 2020, only 29 per cent of senior management roles globally were held by women. Do you offer female bosses or clients the same respect you do the men? Does it even occur to you why there are fewer of them? Remember David Cameron and his infamous “Calm down, dear” when dismissing Labour MP Angela Eagle? Is that something you’d do? When asked a question by a woman, might you tell her not to “worry her pretty head over it” or dismiss her concerns as nagging or gossiping or picking fault or any other common sexist stereotype that many men barely notice. Might something you say make a colleague realise she can’t trust you? Are your jokes laced with sexual intent? Would you flirt with every colleague? Do you get back to male colleagues faster, offer more help? Many of us have pivoted to video meetings during the pandemic – remember Jackie Weaver vs the Handforth Parish Council. Do you give ample floor to women workmates? Do you avoid talking over them? Could your meeting have been an email?

You may respect your mothers, treat your sisters and daughters like princesses and revere your wives and girlfriends, but if that respect doesn’t extend to all women it’s an act

A lot of men only view their treatment of women through the lens of their relationship with women they know. You may respect your mothers, treat your sisters and daughters like princesses and revere your wives and girlfriends, but if that respect doesn’t extend to all women it’s an act. How many times have you seen a man become a father and miraculously realise what a terrible place the world can be for a woman? Where was this energy before, when he was gaslighting his girlfriends or catcalling women or messaging “F*** you, bitch. You’re ugly anyway” to a woman who ignored his messages on Tinder? And if it’s “not all men” why are guys so bossy and possessive in the name of “being protective”? It’s almost like they know exactly what other men are capable of, that you never know a man’s true intentions until it’s too late, isn’t it?

Social media makes it harder to claim ignorance. We’ve seen the screenshots. Jealous, abusive and controlling boyfriends. Insecurities manifesting as angry, childish messages. Unsolicited dick pics. Pressurising women into sending nudes. Guilt-tripping women for nights out with friends, treating them like possessions and questioning their loyalty. One man I saw warned his girlfriend that if another man grabbed her and kissed her against her will, it would be cheating, because she’d gone out without him, so it was her fault. If he sounds like an outlier, talk to friends about their boundaries with women and see what they say; just like an old clickbait headline, their answers might surprise you. 

No, it won’t magic away the world’s inequalities but don’t you just want to… do better?

You may be an easygoing guy, but there’s no harm in reappraising how you talk to your girlfriend. Start with heavy stuff, how you behave in an argument. When angry, what do you say? Do you resort to sexist tropes, such as her previous sexual activity or her appearance? When you want to score a point, what’s your go-to? Are you still shouting long after she’s gone quiet? Do you break stuff? Whose stuff do you break – yours or hers? What message do you think she gets from that? In happier times, when she talks to you, how do you react? Are you kind and patient? Does she feel safe? Does she feel she can tell you anything without fear of reprisals from bruising your male ego? Can she trust you? Most women are injured or killed by someone they know, and each of them know this. When a woman enters into a relationship with a man, she’s trusting him not to hurt her. So you “never lay a finger” on her: great. But what about everything else? You don’t get a medal for not being violent. Men must earn this golden, fragile trust and show that we’re worth it.

Men are encouraged to be curious, but usually only in self-interest. I know what you’re thinking: here we go, any excuse to bash men, more self-flagellating, not all men… Yeah, I know. We all know. But look how many men had never considered that walking closely behind a woman might make her think she was being followed or about to be attacked. And when they were told, they took it personally. The default reaction is to immediately spring to the defence of a bunch of faceless men you’ve never met, rather than take into account a woman’s feelings, because that’s what we do: we put ourselves at the centre of it. Once you really look, you see this problem everywhere. Think how women are spoken about in the media, in terms of their attractiveness or sexual availability to men. Consider how female victims of crimes are blamed for being in the wrong place, wearing the wrong thing or somehow provoking men who kill them. How many times have we heard a man “snapped” in reaction to something a woman has supposedly done, like a man is just a glacial calm, super-chilled bro until a woman comes along and ruins everything for him. This is harmful to all of us.

If I were being generous I’d say men don’t truly understand our power, but often we choose to ignore its complexities because, bluntly, it’s less work. Checking in on how you talk to and about women is an easy way to influence the actions of others. Men, for some reason, care what other men think of them, copy those they admire. Even straight men, lacking ulterior motive, want to be liked by other men. It’s a chance to be a leader. Call out friends, don’t let things blow over, talk to your sons, elevate women, initiate positive, empowering conversations about them. No, it won’t magic away the world’s inequalities but don’t you just want to… do better? Take a couple of extra seconds, not to censor yourself, but take responsibility for what your thoughts sound like in open air. This is the part people forget about free speech: people can speak freely back to you, even if that includes telling you you’re a sexist dinosaur. Evolving means admitting mistakes, changing our behaviour and growing and not expecting any special treatment for doing the decent thing. Language matters. How can we tell women it’s “not all men” with a straight face when we know that until a man shows them otherwise women have to assume – for their own safety – all men are the same or take a leap of faith. Want to change that? Talk the talk.

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