“We have to keep talking to men about this stuff. The second we give in, the guys who think it’s OK to harass someone have won.”
It’s now been 10 months since the first explosive story about Harvey Weinstein was published in The New Yorker. Since then, several famous men – from Kevin Spacey to Patrick Demarchelier, Louis CK to Mario Batali – have been toppled by allegations about their behaviour. We’ve watched and listened and participated as around the world, millions of women talked about their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault for the first time, and we’ve seen industries from media to theatre to finance grapple with their own issues with sexual misconduct. If we ever doubted the power of speaking out, #MeToo has shown just how transformative it can be.
The movement has also sparked endless conversations about gender and sexual politics, feminism and what actually constitutes sexual misconduct. As a subject, #MeToo is politically potent and emotionally explosive – and so it’s not surprising that these conversations can be fraught. Lots of people, including some women, have questioned the #MeToo campaign’s validity, or suggested that it’s gone too far. Some of these critiques are made in good faith; others much less so.
Talking to men about #MeToo can be particularly complex. Many men want to be supportive of their female friends, relatives and colleagues, but are unsure of how to do so (and/or a little clueless about the reality of life as a woman). Speaking honestly with men like this can be revelatory. But then there are the blokes with less positive intentions: those who belittle, minimise or deny women’s stories of harassment or assault. Talking to these men can feel like banging your head against a brick wall.
But if we really want things to change, we have to keep the conversation going – and that means talking to men about the issues raised by #MeToo. Below, four women discuss conversations they’ve had with men since the movement went viral, and share their advice about how to speak up.
I recently went for dinner with B, an old friend. He referenced something from one of Aziz Ansari’s stand-up shows, which obviously got us talking about the now-infamous ‘Grace’ story, published by Babe.net. Cautiously, I asked him what he thought of Grace’s allegations – and he responded with total venom.
He told me that he thought Grace’s retrospective claim of sexual assault was ridiculous; that she’d smeared the reputation of a totally innocent man. He said it was nothing more than a crappy date, and that women like Grace were making a mockery out of feminism and the #MeToo movement.
I was taken aback by the intensity of his reaction, and disappointed by his lack of empathy. Personally, I wouldn’t class what happened to Grace as sexual assault either. But I thought her account captured a really important and toxic nuance of heterosexual sex that had rarely been discussed much before. I shared this perspective with B, and at first he was pretty dismissive, which was so frustrating I felt like I might cry.
But we ended up having a very honest talk. I tried to get him to see that Grace’s story reflects something rotten in how men and women relate to one another, and told him that I thought most men needed to be more conscious of the anxieties women experience during sex with men. I even ended up sharing things about my own traumatic sexual experiences that we’d never discussed before. When we said goodbye, he mumbled that I’d given him a lot to think about.
I’m glad that I stuck at the conversation and didn’t just storm out of the restaurant, even though I wanted to at times. I think it’s important to stay calm when challenging a loved one’s problematic views. If possible, challenge their perspective while making clear that you’re not vilifying everything about them.
Shortly after the Weinstein story broke, I went public with a #MeToo story on Facebook. It wasn’t the first time I’d spoken about my experience of sexual assault: when I was younger, I was attacked in my home by an intruder, and in the aftermath of the ensuing court case I waived my right to anonymity to talk to the press.
But since the #MeToo movement went mainstream, hostility towards women has sometimes felt more volatile than before. Certain men seem to feel a lot of anger when it’s discussed, and I’ve had a lot of abuse online about how I’m “embarrassing myself” or “playing the victim” by speaking out.
I’ve also had some horrific conversations with men associated with the pickup artist community. They basically believe that women like me actually enjoyed being sexually assaulted, and the #MeToo movement was designed to help us deal with our guilt about that.
On the other hand, I’ve had conversations with my partner and other men that are the exact opposite. The #MeToo movement has actually made them realise the scale of sexual harassment and assault: they’ve been really supportive, and feel more ready to talk about the role that sexual abuse plays in society.
Sexual assault isn’t a hidden subject any more. By vocalising our experiences, I think we can enable constructive discussions with the average reasonable man.
A couple of weeks after the first report about Harvey Weinstein, I got a call from my dad. He’s in his 60s, and I could tell straight away that something was up. It turned out that a much younger women in his workplace had gone to HR accusing him of – not sexual harassment, exactly, but inappropriate behaviour. He’d asked her to “spin around” so he could see her outfit properly, and she felt uncomfortable.
Hearing this story, I cringed. But he was bewildered. My father has always had a genuine interest in fashion, and apparently her dress was “highly unusual”. He just wanted to take a look at it. What was wrong with that?
Dad was astonished when I told him he should probably avoid commenting on female co-workers’ clothes. “So I can never compliment a woman on her outfit ever again?” There’s a big difference between complimenting a friend at a party and asking a junior colleague to spin around in the office, I said. There’s a totally different power dynamic at play. He was silent. It was like he’d never thought of that before.
I also reminded him that he had no idea what the women he worked with might have experienced in the past, or what feelings he could trigger by making a seemingly minor inappropriate remark. “I just don’t remember women ever being bothered by this stuff when I was younger,” he said. Some probably were, I replied; it’s just now, they feel able to tell you.
I didn’t go on the attack or shame him, because I could tell he genuinely wanted to understand how and why the culture was shifting around him. I think it was useful for him, but it was also illuminating for me. It made me realise how many essentially well-meaning men can feel totally out of their depth.
My friend’s uncle – a 50-something white man – told me that the women who are now claiming they were abused by Weinstein probably “went along” with it at the time for the sake of their careers, and are only making these claims now because they regret it. He didn’t understand that being pressured or blackmailed into sex still counts as sexual assault and/or rape. He was adamant they could have just left or said no.
I didn’t argue with him. That makes me mad at myself, but as someone who has been a victim of sexual abuse in the past, I knew I’d get too emotional. It’s so frustrating that victim-blaming still goes on: I really thought there’d been a positive shift in how these things are perceived. But in the moment it felt hopeless to try and get him to see things from my point of view.
Despite my silence in that moment, I think we have to keep talking to men about this stuff. It might make no difference – some people are just too blinkered – but the second we give in, the guys who think it’s OK to harass someone have won. The more we can educate new generations and shame those who behave in such diabolical ways, the more likely we are to create a better future.
If you’re trying to talk to a man about #MeToo and he’s not listening, I’d say: try not to get too wound up by it. Half the time people say provocative things to get a reaction, and they don’t actually care about the topic itself.
Most importantly, look after your own wellbeing when someone’s being ignorant. If that means staying quiet and making a mental note to no longer value their opinion, so be it.
For one day only on Monday 13 August, Laura Whitmore has taken over stylist.co.uk and transformed it into her very own Speak Up platform – a digital initiative which aims to shine a light on the day’s most important headlines, challenge the status quo, spark debate, encourage conversation and, above all else, champion women’s voices..
For similarly inspiring content, check out Laura Whitmore’s show on BBC Radio 5 Live.
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