Sexual harassment and me: Reflections on the toxic lens through which men view women
Is the road to sexual harassment paved with (a lot of) unintended sexism?
I don't think I've ever sexually harassed a woman. I know what you're thinking. You don't think? Surely, you'd know if you've sexually harassed a woman. Well, first, don't call me Shirley. And second, the reason I can't be sure I've never sexually harassed a woman is because, well, reflecting on my interactions with women as a 32-year-old man, some of my actions have left me uncomfortable.
A few memories stick out: Going to a play with a female friend and, at the interval, making a pantomime of putting my arm around her (as if to make a move). We both laughed. Uproariously. She was seeing someone else at the time and I was interested in another woman (something she was well aware of). But looking back, I can't tell if her laughter was genuine because it was genuine or that she was so practiced in laughing these things off that it came across as genuine. I thought nothing of it at the time, but now it gives me pause.
Another incident: Bear with me on this. I don't remember why I did this (except that I'm an idiot), but I do remember what happened. I was sitting across from another female friend (in a crowded canteen) and for some reason, I thought it was a good idea to take her hand and kiss it.
Now, according to Wikipedia, which, as we all know, never lies, a hand kiss is consideed a respectful way for a gentleman to greet a lady. Now while my memory is fuzzy (and this female friend was rumoured to be going out with a very close male friend at the time) what I do remember is the way she jerked back her arm and the look on her face: More than a little surprised and just a tad embarassed. Full disclosure: She's since happily married and we're still close, talking almost every day. I wonder what she thought of it at the time, and, every day, I get the urge to ask her about it.
I know this isn't exactly telling tales out of school, but men talk about women. Especially, when they're not around. All the time. And often, our conversations revolve around their bodies and their sexual proclivities, real and imagined. Friends, acquaintances, coworkers, girlfriends, sisters and significant others: No one and nothing is off limits.
The term toxic masculinity is now in vogue. But it's true. Part of the problem is that early on, the earliest friendships men make with other men is based on a sort of good-natured bullying. Everything is fodder: Your appearance, your flaws, your foibles, your insecurities, even the attractiveness of your siblings (hey, how's your sister?). Which doesn't translate well when you make the transition from teenager to adulthood and are dealing with the opposite sex.
Growing up, the psyche of young men is often a swirling mass of resentments, anxieties and anxiousness, anger and insecurity. And often, much to our own shame and discredit, we project those in our behaviour towards women. As is evident by the actions of the so-called Leader of the Free World, US President Donald Trump. Trump is the quintessential boy who refused to grow up (apologies to boys everywhere). His appalling treatment of women, his disdain for them, his anger towards them and quite honestly, his fright and horror at having to deal with them is well-documented.
However, the sad truth is, a lot of men, whether they admit it or not, share Trump's beliefs and his attitudes. And, as much as it pains me to admit it, a lot of men, including myself, share at least one of Trump's problematic outlooks towards women: The impulse to look at them and reduce them to a number, stripping them of personhood and humanity. To then discuss this and argue about this with our closest male cohorts.
Why do we do this? It makes it easier for us to think of women as objects meant to gratify our basest sexual impulses, rather than fully formed persons with complex inner lives and emotions. It is, in some ways, one of the cruellest things men do.
Which brings me to perhaps the cruellest thing I've ever done (something to my horror, I share with Donald Trump). At a small gathering, for some reason that now once again, eludes me, I brought up this particular male impulse to the women present. Once again, I can't remember if the surprised reaction was genuine or simply feigned for my benefit. The women then, perhaps jokingly, asked me to rate them. I was young, dumb and full of myself, so I did. Grinning, all the while.
Once again, I don't remember if the laughs that I received were genuine or strained. If this seemingly confirmed the worst aspects of men to two young women who probably had to fend off unwanted attention on a daily basis or not. And what's most disturbing, at the time, I don't think I would have cared. Even my closest male friends told me that that was a bridge too far. I simply shrugged it off and consigned that memory to be back of my mind closet, where it has remained since, festering.
I wasn't shocked or surprised at the number of women going #MeToo on social media after stories of sexual harassment poured out of Hollywood. Initially, I reaped a grim — I don't want to say satisfaction,but the feeling was discomfitingly close to it — at the thought that I had, at least from my point of view, never engaged in such behaviour with a woman. But then something inside me asked: But haven't you? And these disquieting memories, among others, came flooding back. Looking back, the truth is, I just don't know.
What I do know is that even if I hadn't, that isn't something to be satisfied with or, heavens forbid, be proud of. What I do know is that my interactions with other men, my friends, colleagues, peers and coworkers, have often contributed to the toxic lens through which men see and interact with women. And for that, I'm sorry. And I can only try to do better.
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