Over the past few weeks, I’ve had discussions I never thought I’d have: guys, former colleagues, and current friends, asking me if something they did a decade ago or last year upset me or made me uncomfortable. “I don’t think I ever crossed a line, but …” they trail off as if waiting for me to finish that sentence with an accusation or an assurance. Or they’re in fact apologizing for some comment I’d blocked out.
Some friends are also describing moments of doubt they’re now having about their behavior with women at work. Should he have put his arm around her waist for a photo? Was that text suggestive? It’s good that men are asking questions. These conversations should be one of few upsides to the disturbing #metoo stories we’ve been hearing from women in almost every profession about sexual harassment and worse. But in these conversations with men, I’ve been doing what I’ve always done—brush it off. “Oh, don’t worry. I didn’t take it that way. It was a long time ago, I don’t even remember.”
But, here’s the thing, if I can’t tell my male friends or men with whom I no longer work that their behavior was out of line, who can? And they need to hear it. I’ve learned in talking to more than a few guy recently that some of them really are unaware of their effect on women. And whether it’s for shame or fear or to avoid trouble, some of us haven’t been telling them. This is not to excuse the serial predators and rapists we’ve been reading about. But there are ordinary men who have been rattled by the barrage—they’re just waking up to how little they knew about how women move through the world.
Recently an Instamotor online survey which found that 2 out of 3 men don’t think repeated unwanted invitations to drinks, dinner or dates is sexual harassment. One man commented on the survey saying if people think that asking a colleague out for dinner is harassment, “No wonder everyone is so lonely and frustrated.” A woman jumped into the comments and pointed out that he’d skimmed right over the words repeated and unwanted. Oh, right.
Even journalists who’ve spent a few decades covering sexual harassment in politics haven’t entirely understood the problem—which is a problem. After hearing from female colleagues, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank recently wrote: “How could I possibly have missed all of this?” Milbank says that men at his workplace weren’t conspiring to be silent, it’s more that they were in a “cone of ignorance.” The kind of ignorance let him think of a workplace predator as a “playboy” and a “harmless scamp” without understanding that the scampery was a clue.
There are other men who have gone on the record as being “that guy,” the one who thought he was being bold when he was really pushing a woman too far. Others are posting on Facebook asking their peers to apologize if they have done things like “cat-called a girl because you thought she was hot.”
And of course, there are still guys who are defensive and confused. “In a career spanning 40 years … I have NEVER personally witnessed A SINGLE act of sexual harassment or discrimination of any kind, full stop, period, amen,” wrote a commenter on a story about the sexual-harassment survey. Some tried to turn the tables: “Women are just as clueless about the effects of tight sweaters, cleavage.” Others are heading backward: “I am going to begin completely ignoring women. I won’t talk to them, look at them, ask them out, date them, do business with them, hire them or have anything to do with them. Lonely – yes. better than being unemployed or in jail – yes. You win, ladies – enjoy your “victory”!” And then there are the guys who believe that not taking no for an answer is part of courtship: “Sorry, but if I gave up every time a woman says no to me, I’d never get anywhere! … Quitters never win!”
So, yes, we’ve still got a way to go here. Even men who’ve never doubted women on this topic are a bit stunned when they hear details from someone they know. When a friend asked me whether anything like the #metoo stories had happened to me, I started listing various incidents and every time I thought I was finished, I’d remember another. It was as if I were rattling off something far less significant, like cities I’ve visited.
When I finished, there was a long silence on the other end of the line. “I had no idea that all that could all happen to one person,” he said. I almost laughed because my litany of subway gropes and creepy jokes would not be remarkable for most women. After all, we don’t know any different. We grew up in this climate. It’s the air we breathe, the water we swim in. We don’t run after dark, we don’t walk to the car without keys in our hand. This is the way it has always been. Will this new wokening among men change that? I don’t think so. But maybe if we’re able to talk about it now, it’ll be different for our sons and daughters.