Last night my daughter came to me and said, “I want to talk”. I said, “Sure, what’s on your mind?” “Nothing really, whatever you want”, she said.
She’s turning 13 today.
Without much hesitation, I asked her if she was ever groped or touched in any way that she didn’t want – by a schoolmate, an adult, or by a teacher. She said no. I have reasons to believe her – and I have other reasons not to. My intended message was that she could (and should) come to us immediately when anything like this happens. And I just hope I was not too late here.
Then I told her, in no uncertain terms, that she must never, never ever allow anyone to touch her without her permission. “Slap, shove, run, and go to the principal if it happens at school”, I told her. And, of course, to tell us.
Why did I do this? Because of her birthday? Because of the flood of #MeToo messages in my newsfeed? I think both – but I also have a very vivid memory from 7th and 8th grade. I don’t know how it had begun: in the classroom, a group of boys were regularly restraining and violently groping female classmates who were already showing womanly features.
I think that was the only time we approved of our math teacher – who was strict almost to the degree of being violent – slapping and punishing these guys. It was in 1984. I don’t think these boys knew or understood what was wrong with what they’d done. I have reason to believe they were never taught otherwise by their parents – not even by their mothers.
Was I part of this group? No. Does that make me a hero? No. I was always the cowardly kind, always hellbent on following rules. An introvert and a coward, back at the time I could never bring myself to talk to, let alone touch, girls.
Am I one of #NotAllMen? I don’t know. And that’s exactly the point. I work for a small company (which I own part of) that allows more intimacy among co-workers than a large corporation would. And I’m prone to touch people that I like or that I want to reassure.
I’m also the kind of man who ‘didn’t promise blindness in marriage’. That is, I do look at, notice, and appreciate female beauty in women other than my wife. And that gaze isn’t always directed at the face. And I’m tempted to flirt, and sometimes I do flirt, and I have reason to believe that sometimes, at least sometimes, this is not appropriate.
But the point is, I don’t know. Men (as most harassers are men) don’t know. More often than not, they can’t fathom anything wrong with treating women, often children, as property. As resources, for work and pleasure. (Before you hit back – no, this does not make that behavior acceptable.)
Just this morning I read two things I sympathized with but didn’t entirely like: that men must come forward, own up to what they’ve done (what they’re doing), apologize, and change. Another article says that men have just one job at this point: to listen up, and listen tight to what women who come forward with #MeToo have to say.
Before anything else, let me say this: I hear you. I believe you. And I will keep listening as long as you have something to say. And if I’ve ever done anything inappropriate, or anything that amounts to even borderline harassment, I apologize.
But this is not enough. We are just scratching the surface here. Yet we have a lot of work to do.
Work to prevent boys from becoming harassers when they grow up.
To teach them that women are not objects or resources. That a human being cannot be owned or used. That you must, at all times, respect the life and the freedom of all other human beings, women or men. That the body and the personal space of a woman or a child, or another human being for that matter, is strictly off-limits, except when they expressly invite you there. And even then you must tread with care.
Teach your sons that it is possible to be happy and strong and masculine without dominating and ruling and owning others. Teach your sons that they must earn the respect of women – through approaching them with respect. To answer Woody Allen, too – if you don’t want a witch hunt, well, stop being one.
This cannot be taught by telling once. This can only be taught through example and regular discussion. And to be successful, we need the help of society – it must also broadcast the message that it’s not allowed to harass and violate. For example, we need police and courts that actually prosecute alleged harassments, rather than stifling the voice of or even prosecuting the victims.
I live in a society where people, women and children included, are treated as resources for the benefit of the powerful, 90+% of which are men, white men. We don’t have a ministry for health or education or labor: we have a Ministry of Human Resources.
I live in a society that accepts and even expects the long hours of unpaid work women do at home.
I live in a society where it’s acceptable for male 40-somethings, in midlife crises, to leave their families for relationships with younger women. Is it only me, or does this really sound like they’re throwing away a worn shoe and buying a new one? Come on people, when you divorce your family, you do this precisely because you treat both your (ex-)wife and your younger companion as an object, as property.
Stop it: you’re, we’re not entitled to unlimited orgasms for as long as we live. We aren’t entitled to touch and grope youthful female limbs. We’re not entitled to be served youth by women we dominate. It may seem strange to quote C. S. Lewis here, but in his Out of the Silent Planet, he says this through an alien character: “It is said sometimes that here and there a cub at a certain age gets strange twists in him. I have heard of one that wanted to eat earth; there might, perhaps, be somewhere a hross likewise that wanted to have the years of love prolonged.” And: “A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered.” So, come on, we had our time; now it’s time to remember. I get the temptation, too, which is sometimes so strong that I’m fighting it in every waking moment. And yes, I may fail at some point.
All this must end. The society that allows men to leave their families but forces women to remain in abusive or violent relationships. The society where respective churches – that otherwise disapprove of divorce – also endorse this.
Yet I still live in a country where police don’t believe you when you report rape or domestic violence. I live in a country that didn’t even sign the Istanbul treaty.
So much for help from society. Still, a man who remains silent and does not make effort to influence his sons is complicit to all this. In the long run, only through our children can we change a culture that’s built on owning or objectifying others.
I have told my daughter to always resist harassment and any kind of untoward advances. I think mothers too, no matter whether or not you come out with #MeToo, should tell your daughters to resist, even if your instincts would urge you against it.