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Men's participation in social media wave #MeToo highlights need for men to own up to their privilege

By Shruti Sunderraman

Every time there's a case of sexual assault, news channels have their Arnab Goswami moments and family dinners turn into courtroom dramas with lots of finger wagging and the-government-should-haves. It's the favourite dinner table topic - how women could have avoided rape/harassment. Women seethe while men mansplain and continue to chomp down their dinner with noisy punctuations about how they're right. Battle won. Sexism over. Women safe.

Any suggestion to simply listen to what women have to say (that the danger is not always out there in the dark streets) is met with either or all of four emotions from men - confusion ('eh, what is a listen?'), anger ('no, YOU listen!'), amusement ('look at these women trying to be articulate and all') or defence ('but I am not like that'). But a willingness to cultivate empathy is not a dish served at the discussion table.

Surprisingly, that's not what happened yesterday on social media. In the wake of Harvey Weinstein's cases of harassment, actor Alyssa Milano (former co-star of Rose McGowan who has alleged that Weinstein has raped her) urged women on Twitter to tweet saying #MeToo if they've also been sexually harassed or assaulted at some point in their lives. Women poured in with their stories of being harassed in heartbreaking numbers. So much so, that #MeToo started trending worldwide in no time.

If you were on social media yesterday I'd be surprised if your Twitter and Facebook timelines were not flooded with #MeToo and brutal stories from women of all ages about what they've faced. Also accompanying it was the bitter threads of conversation asking, do we really need to say this, haven't we all been assaulted and so on. That's right, the exhausting litany of violence against women was sadly predictable. Also sadly predictable were some men who tried to dismiss the crushing weight of the stories by saying 'stop villianising men', 'why are women making this about themselves' and 'you're so judgemental about men'. All of this is usually enough for me to buy a one way ticket to a remote hut in Iceland.

But two things surprised me yesterday.

The first thing was that a surprising number of women owned up to having participated in a culture of harassment. They expressed remorse at their attitude and vowed to do better, as a response to women posting with #MeToo.

The first emotion I felt here was shock. Shock that all the weapons I had gathered to fight the usual onslaught of excuses and accusations were unnecessary. It was unnerving to not give explanations for why I was tweeting about my harassment. It was numbing to not be attacked for taking a stand. It's like when you go to a strange, new city and expect to be robbed, but are instead welcomed home with kindness.

The thing that really surprised me was what felt like an outpouring of men actually listening. No sympathy, no defence, no #NotAllMen, no tell me again what harassment really is aka let's make it all about me. Several men tweeted to #MeToo with the hashtag #IHearYou to signify that they're here to listen to women's grievances with harassment. Several men tweeted #IHearYou with messages of apologies for the collective male attitude towards women and with a simple assurance that they weren't there to offer women advice (about time!), but are here to simply listen.

Dickens has a line somewhere in Oliver Twist about Oliver jumping out of his skin because someone touched him gently, because kindness was so unfamiliar to him, o grim Victorian reality. Likewise, I too was unnerved enough by just this much good behaviour from men online. Then, to my total shock, some men took to social media to express how they've wrongfully behaved with women in the past. If women used #MeToo to come out with stories of being harassed, a few men used the hashtag to recount of stories of when they've been the harassers. They offered no excuse - simply owned up to their behaviour and apologised for it.

One Twitter user, Shariq Rafeek, owned up to having harassed women in the past. From popping women's bra straps in college to not taking a girl's 'No' for an answer, Rafeek detailed how he'd participated in harassing women, even though he had not believed that it was harassment.

A Facebook user named Gavin Noel Methalaka posted a status saying that he had consciously molested a woman in the past and that he did so without knowing or caring about the consequences of his actions. Many women commented on his post saying they're grateful that he owned up to his actions and did not provide excuses for it. They ended up thanking him for raising the bar of how men should respond to being a part of a culture of harassment. Another Twitter user, Shibesh Mehrotra said that he'd been fired for misconduct with a woman in his past. He owned up to his actions to relay that men also participate in a culture of harassment because they know they'll get away with the consequences.

The barrage of posts by men didn't stop at this. From owning up to gaslighting women for speaking up against harassment and having inappropriately made advances on the domestic worker in their homes, men came out in large numbers to describe how they participated in harassing women and contributed to a culture of silence surrounding harassment.

All too often the conversations about sexual harassment online continues to maintain the brocode. Men either talk about women's safety in terms of logistics or pretend it doesn't happen with People Like Us. You know, the "this does not happen in our homes" and the "only uneducated people rape women" excuses we hear rampantly flying out of the mouths of men in our living rooms and on our online sofas? I can't remember the last time I heard so many men accept that they have knowingly or unknowingly participated in rape culture or have contributed with their words or silence to a culture of harassment. I can't remember when I last heard a man acknowledge that even something as offhand (which it shouldn't be) as 'rating' a woman - 'she's a 10' or 'I'd give her a 6 at max' in a parking lot or a pub contributes to a circle of harassment, as pointed by a Facebook user, Dhruv Deshpande.

Men's participation in #MeToo highlighted the need for men to own up to their privilege and their willingness to accept the consequences of using it to establish power over women. And I was glad to see that several men who did it were making themselves vulnerable and not doing it for brownie points - like Weinstein (grossly) participating in the Women's March earlier this year.

Yesterday's online deluge took the onus of safety away from women for once and put it in the hands of those responsible for screwing with it. For a few hours it was great to see men not just accepting their participation in sexual harassment but also owning up to the consequences of their actions and expressing their remorse.

Men's acknowledgement about their harassing actions in the past cannot change the status quo overnight. But it brings in a much-needed breath of fresh air in a suffocating environment. More importantly, it makes room for action that's not stemmed in blame or in Hallmark greeting cards of empathy. It does not empower women - it simply acknowledges that men have held on to their own power for too long and that some of them are sorry for it.

Along with a few hearts, I felt like I heard a crack in the great wall of rape culture yesterday. Did you?

The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women's magazine delivering fresh and witty perspectives on politics, culture, health, sex, work and everything in between.

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Updated Date: Oct 18, 2017 20:33:41 IST