I was shocked to find out what my friend had done. But chances are, we all know someone who has hurt a womanby Musa Okwonga / October 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
There was a phrase Emma Thompson used her excellent Newsnight interview that I can’t stop thinking about. Speaking about the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Thompson said that there was “a crisis in masculinity.” At first, I didn’t understand why those words resonated so much. But then I realised. It’s because it was the sound of a fire alarm going off in your own house.
We men can talk and we can tweet all we like about Harvey Weinstein—and I think that, so long as we are finding ways to keep pressure on those who enabled him for so long, we need to. But we can also do something much more difficult, which is to look closest to home, and to our friends.
I think that men are afraid of calling out misogyny for a couple of reasons. One reason is that they fear they are misogynists themselves. Another reason is that they are worried about holding themselves out as beacons of virtue, so that when they fall short of these publicly announced standards they will receive a firestorm of criticism.
These reasons are connected, in that they both relate to how men view themselves, or want to be viewed. In other words, they have nothing to do with the horrors that women are currently enduring due to misogyny. Those fears are keeping the scaffolding of misogyny firmly in place, and it’s time many more of us overcame them, or at least tried to.
I will pause here to acknowledge that men get far, far too much credit for speaking out against misogyny. It is an absurd state of affairs and only proves how little is expected of usand how grave the situation is. Nevertheless, I wish to share a quick story, for whose contents—distressing as they may be to those who have been subjected to sexual assault—I apologise in advance.
“I must have friends who have sexually assaulted women”
A couple of years ago, I was reading an article where the author, Soraya Chemaly, described violence against women as “a global pandemic.” Like the phrase “crisis in masculinity,” it put the problem of misogyny in startling focus.
As I read more of the statistics around the issue, I had an unsettling epiphany: I must have friends who have sexually assaulted women. The numbers are just too high for me not to. I mean, there was the statistic, right there:
“It is estimated that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. However, some national studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.”
35 per cent. That’s got to be someone I know, I thought. Maybe even someone I’m friends with, who I hang out with.
A few months later, I was sitting down for a drink with a couple of friends, and we were talking about who we were dating. One of my friends was seeing a woman in his apartment block, who was busy with her kids and her career, and so she simply dropped by on him whenever she wanted a quick hook-up—a very convenient arrangement for both parties of which we were instantly envious. My other friend was seeing someone he’d met on his travels there wasn’t much of a future in it, he said, but they were enjoying it for what it was. I talked about my adventures in the world of online dating, and how—perhaps in subconscious preparation for my move to Berlin—I had had a joyful fling with a German woman who had just arrived in London.
The conversation was all pretty innocent; so much so, that we moved on to sharing stories from the past. People we’d met abroad were discussed with relish—there seemed to be more of a thrill to the short-lived holiday romance. And then my friend, the one seeing a woman in his apartment block—I will call him Mark—started telling a story from a few years ago, about a woman he’d met at university.
Mark and his flatmate had met her in a club, and she had taken a liking to both of them, kissing them at different points of the evening. Over the course of the night, she had decided that she preferred Mark, and so the three of them returned to Mark’s flat. She was keen to sleep with Mark, he told us, but he was a bit knackered from hours of drinking and didn’t really feel like it. She went up to Mark’s bedroom, either to wait for him or to crash out—I don’t quite remember now.
Mark’s flatmate, in Mark’s words, was “feeling horny,” and wanted sex. So, Mark had an idea. We’re both about the same size, he said to his flatmate. Why don’t you put on the shirt I was wearing tonight, and if you go and climb into bed with her, she’ll think it’s me.
Mark’s flatmate agreed that this was a great idea, and so he did as Mark suggested. He went upstairs, and into Mark’s bedroom.
A little later, the woman came downstairs in distress. She was furious at Mark. She couldn’t imagine how someone could have done something so sick. It was 2am, and she was some way from her student accommodation, but she couldn’t stand to be around Mark and his flatmate any longer. She wanted to leave immediately. If you want to go, then go get a taxi, said Mark, shrugging with bravado and smiling as he recounted the story.
Neither I nor my other friend were smiling by then. We were trying to figure out what we had just heard. A friend of ours—someone I had got to know and grown very fond of in the previous few months, who I loved going drinking with, and hanging out with—had helped his flatmate sexually assault a woman And now he was sitting in front of us, fourteen years later, grinning as he told the tale.
“We sat there dumbly with our pints”
I would love to tell you that I then delivered a coldly furious speech about sexual assault and how he had enabled it. I would love to say I fought that fight. But I can’t lie to you. I didn’t. I was too shocked. We sat there dumbly with our pints. And all I could think was my mate Mark helped someone to assault someone and he still seems fine about it. And Mark’s behaviour didn’t seem to make sense. He had never shown any signs of being entitled to a woman’s attention—or had he? Maybe we were so oblivious to that side of him because we were so used to hearing similar things?
Mark wasn’t stupid. He knew the mood had immediately changed, and the stories stopped. There was nothing innocent about any of this now. Somewhere out there, there was yet another woman who had experienced something horrific at the hands of a man, and our friend, our mate right here, was responsible. God knows what trauma she had been through in the intervening years, how her life had been adversely affected. We finished our drinks soon after and left. I haven’t seen or spoken to Mark since. He doesn’t know anyone else I know—I checked via our mutual friends on Facebook, before removing him—or I’d have warned them away from him, too.
I don’t think I had the perfect response to Mark. Nowhere near, and I’m not proud of it. And that is what this article is about, in a sense. It’s about not waiting to be perfect, but doing the best work we can right now. It’s about drawing a line, and acting—about trying to make sure that men like Mark feel that little bit less entitled, so women can go about their lives in a little less danger. Since then I have tried to be better. I am not naturally confrontational, so if I can do it then I am sure a lot of other men can too.
I speak from painful experience here: you are going to get stuff wrong. There are times when you will find yourself mansplaining. Look, I have a big mouth. I say a lot of things, I am rarely short of a comment. As a result of having such a mouth, the probability that nonsense will come out of it at some point is extremely high. Twice in the last year alone, in attempting to improve a situation where misogyny was involved, I made mistakes that made the situation worse. Nothing malicious – but that doesn’t matter. What mattered was that I was ignorant, and I must own it.
We are men so there will be times when we think we are tiptoeing delicately through a situation, when in fact we are as elegant and alarming as a hippo lumbering towards a flowerbed. We will get criticism for that and we will have to take it, as painful and as insecure and bereft as it makes us feel. (My solution, if you ever find yourself in that predicament, is to have a pizza, a beer, and maybe a little cry. Works wonders.)
Since I’ve been pretty honest to this point, let me be more honest still. I know very well what it’s like to feel that, as a man, you don’t amount to much of anything. As boys, many of us saw older versions of ourselves treating women with contempt, and we secretly feared we might grow up to be them too. Many of us are still scared that, to use a popular term, we are trash. If you are one of those men, I can relate to you.
I know what it’s like to see men around you refer to women in such disparaging terms that, by the time you start dating women, you are terrified. You are frightened that you have absorbed so many bad lessons that you have become a monster. I have seen men who are so overwhelmed with the pressure of being responsible men that they just sack the whole thing off, and become the worst men they can possibly be, going about their self-destruction with the grimmest resolution. Men who rage and fuck and flee and do anything just so that they don’t have to feel. Men like that seek excuses for their behaviour, but they can only ever offer reasons, not justifications.
“This is about more than Harvey Weinstein, or Hollywood”
But, anyway, none of that—none of that feeling of being a shattered, useless man—matters in the face of what we are seeing now, what we have long seen but have chosen not to acknowledge for a very long time. Because while we sit bewildered in the centre of our wreckage, we fail to see the women we have crushed beneath it.
From one perspective, it’s actually basic as hell, and it’s embarrassing that it took me till the age of thirty-eight to set it out in this fashion. Still, maybe that’s just how long it has taken me fully to process the crisis in masculinity—wait, let me own that phrase: the crisis in my masculinity —and try, from now on, to make significant progress. I hope that some men will find my words useful.
This is about more than Harvey Weinstein, or Hollywood. It’s about finding the courage to make sure that fewer men—including ourselves—grow up like Mark, and that we speak up to their faces when we meet those men. It’s everything from refusing to laugh at the sexist joke in the canteen to asking why there aren’t more women on your company’s board or why the funding for women’s refuges keeps getting slashed, left right and centre.
“Who wants to be one of the lads when the lads are cowards?”
It’s about not reacting in sustained disbelief when women tell us that harassment and assault are way worse problems than we imagine. Yes, we can all feel a little shock when it is pointed out that the world is much more brutal than we thought. But to remain too long in disbelief is a luxury, and after a certain point it becomes not only offensive but dangerous.
This is how men end the crisis in masculinity; this is how I have tried to end the crisis in mine. By having the guts not to go along with the flow for fear that you might not be one of the lads.
Because, frankly, who wants to be one of the lads when the lads are cowards? And yes, it’s exhausting trying to work all this stuff out, and confronting those closest to us, including ourselves. But—as a very dear friend reminded me last night—my God, women are exhausted too. So we must try, even though we may fail time and again. We must try.