“Why all men must take responsibility for stamping out sexual harassment and abuse”

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Following the slew of allegations made against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, millions of women have been taking to social media to share their own stories of sexual harassment and abuse under the hashtag #MeToo.

But sexual abuse is not just a women’s issue and, in response, men have begun sharing pledges to take responsibility under the hashtag #HowIWillChange. Here, freelance journalist Patrick Clarke explains the lessons men can learn from the movement – and how he plans to change his own behaviour in future.

In the wake of the avalanche of rape and sexual assault accusations brought against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and a number of other, similarly dominant industry figures, over 12 million people – the majority of whom are women – have taken to social media to share their own stories of sexual assault, using the viral hashtag #MeToo.

However, Australian writer Benjamin Law recognised that the onus for change shouldn’t sit with women alone, and that men have an active role to play in stamping out sexual abuse and harassment. So in response, he launched the (now viral) hashtag #HowIWillChange, to encourage himself and other men to take responsibility for the actions and culture that all of us have been guilty of defending, protecting, and in many cases, actively contributing to.

The resurgence of this subject to the forefront of the world’s consciousness, and Law’s #HowIWillChange movement in particular, will force men to confront a difficult truth: that every single one of us is guilty.

Personally, the phrase immediately brought to mind a recent night out I had been on. All of my group were men, and all of us were liberal students of English, music and art. We were all too ready to make a point of our feminism and progressive values, or highlight the strong friendships we shared with the female members of our circle, should the subject arise.

As the night wore on, one of my friends suddenly lunged at a woman we knew from university. He started drunkenly clawing at her skirt, attempting to lift it above her waist while she tried to bat him away. We apologised, but only dismissively.

“He gets like this when he’s pissed,” we offered lamely, as we dragged him off. It says a great deal that not one of us challenged our friend beyond a ‘what are you like?’ chuckle as we called him a cab, knowing full well that this kind of thing had happened before, and would most likely happen again. I felt uncomfortable, sure, and disgusted, yes, but why bring it up? Why risk an argument with one of my favourite drinking companions? 

I told myself that that was just how my friend was. Boys will be boys, right? I expect many of my friends will have felt similarly. But left unchallenged, that behaviour did happen again, and it happened multiple times. Often I was present, but not once did I challenge it.

And this is just one example. As a man, I’m often in rooms that are 100% masculine, and I’m all too aware that even the most progressive amongst my gender can, and will, easily slip into idle sexist ‘banter’ when we think the women are out of earshot. I often feel uncomfortable, but I’ll admit I’ve seldom taken the action of picking up my friends on their behaviour. And I can’t pretend I haven’t made such comments myself – let me be clear, I’m not perpetuating a #NotAllMen passing of blame to some invented minority of bad apples that make the rest of us decent blokes look guilty.

So, I will change. I will change by no longer standing by, and by calling people out, and by being vigilant of the consequences of the culture I’m perpetuating when I join in. This should be obvious.

It can take bravery to call someone out. My attempt to take on a groper at a music festival merely ended in my immediate fleeing once I realised he was much bigger and harder than me, and royally pissed off to boot. But courage is what’s needed if we’re to have any hope of changing this dire, dire situation. The slightest insinuation, regardless of who is and isn’t there to hear it, must be challenged.

"Even the most progressive amongst my gender will easily slip into idle sexist ‘banter’"
"Even the most progressive amongst my gender will easily slip into idle sexist ‘banter’"

The statistics are devastating. Rape Crisis England and Wales responded to 202,000 calls to their helpline in 2016 – that’s 4,000 a week. Approximately 85,000 women are raped every year while half a million adults are sexually assaulted, and only 15% of the victims of sexual violence report it to the police.

While it’s important to note that there are male survivors of sexual abuse, it is women who are disproportionately affected by sexual harassment and violence, particularly in the workplace and public spaces. The bare facts are this: men do not have the right to make women feel unsafe. Men do not have the right to make trans people feel unsafe. Men do not have the right to make other men feel unsafe.

The #MeToo and #HowIWillChange movements have encouraged all of us to look at the domineering masculinity that is inherent in our own industries. While I have only been working in music journalism for a short while, the stories I’ve started to hear from female colleagues and counterparts who were inspired to open up by #MeToo are often just as harrowing as any of the allegations against Weinstein and his Hollywood ilk.

I will change, therefore, by doing everything I can as a man in a male-dominated industry, however low or high that might be, by listening to women and giving them space for their voices to be heard. It’s also vitally important that this doesn’t end up manifesting itself in tokenism, taken seriously for a week then never mentioned again. One colleague, posting under #MeToo, recalled how, as a freelance film journalist, she mysteriously stopped hearing from the commissioning editor when she questioned why she was only ever given romcoms and children’s films to write about. We can’t stand for incidents like this any longer.

How we, as men, can act upon the sentiments of #HowIWillChange depends on our own circumstances, but the fight must be taken to every single industry, and battled in every single one of our personal lives. We must talk to women and listen to women, while educating ourselves about the scale of the problem and our role within it, all without immediately going on the defensive.

As Benjamin Law pointed out when he started this movement, given the number of women that I and other men know to have been sexually assaulted or harassed, especially in the wake of #MeToo, someone I know is a perpetrator, or I am one myself. Now, it’s time for each and every one of us to own up.

Images: iStock