Scared? Well, Me Too.



“Men are really scared right now.”

That’s what people kept saying to me as the string of abuse allegations came out in the wake of the MeToo movement.  That sentiment seemed problematic, especially as many times as I heard it, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

“Men are really scared right now,” people would tell me, “With all of these old allegations surfacing, because this kind of thing can really ruin someone’s life.”   And every time I heard it, my inclination was that a focus on men’s fear was not the right reaction, not a helpful or useful response to what is, essentially, a revolution in the way the public understands the prevalence and severity of sexual assault.  But it has taken me a while to understand just why I found that reaction so problematic.

See, if men are scared across the board, the implication is that either these men have committed abuses in the past and are afraid they will be asked to answer for them now, or that they fear they will be painted with a false accusation that they will not be able to disprove.  Now if men are feeling scared right now because they have been the perpetrators of abuse in the past, then I’m not particularly inclined to care about their level of fear at this particular moment.  But when a man you know and trust says that “men are scared,” there is a sense that what they fear is the latter: that women will jump on this #metoo train and start hurling accusations wildly, that women are nursing some bitter grudge against men, and now that sexual abuse is actually being punished in a public way, women will start using these accusations as a weapon.

Which, let’s be honest, both serves to discredit current accusations and also reeks of witch hunt kind of thinking.  These women, they can make anything up right now, and just ruin a man’s life!  It’s a scary world for men right now!

This “men are really scared” idea puts the focus right back where it’s always been: on the men in power.  By focusing on the fear that men are feeling, you are taking the focus away from the victims and putting it back on that all-ecomnpassing, vague but boy-next-door everyman.  You are shining a spotlight not on the problem but how men feel about the problem, and you are positioning men as the potential victims, as the ones in danger.  It’s like you are saying, “Forget the fact that women are finally feeling empowered to speak out about the systematic abuse they have suffered, and that their speaking out is finally resulting in their abusers receiving corrective action, let’s focus on how all of the other men are feeling about this."  It’s misguided and nonsensical at best, and harmful and abusive itself at worst.

And there’s also an undertone in there that downplays the fear that victims, and women in general, feel on a regular basis.  It comes wrapped up in an implication that experiencing abuse or assault doesn’t ruin someone’s life, that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime because a man losing his job or facing public shaming is worse than being sexually harassed or assaulted.  It suggests that men’s fears are more acute than women’s and ignores both the psychological damage abuse causes and the cumulative effect of living in a society where this abuse is so normative that women come to fear for it constantly, quietly, like a program always running in the background.

When I hear people talking about how men are scared right now, I can’t help but think that I’ve been scared for as long as I can remember, since the first time I experienced abuse at the hands of a predatory man.  I’ve been scared to walk alone, scared to wear clothes someone might deem an invitation, scared to be alone with a man I don’t know well.  There have been dark days when I did believe it had ruined my life.

I’ve been scared for my children, scared how I will protect them without locking them away, scared that one day they will come home and tell me that someone crossed the line, touched them, hurt them.  Every time I’ve had the safe/unsafe touch discussion with my children, I’ve felt the white hot fear that their vulnerability will be targeted, their innocence shattered, their lives ruined.

And there’s more than the fear of physical danger.  I have been scared to speak about the abuse I’ve been through because I didn’t want the stigma attached.  I’ve been scared to speak up about issues of women’s rights and the general atmosphere of abuse because I didn’t want to face the backlash.  I’ve been scared to reach out for help because I didn’t want to uncover the festering wound of my abuse, didn’t want to think about it or talk about it even when it felt like it was destroying me.  Heck, I'm scared to post this right now.

So, if you are a man who is scared right now, I will say two things.  First, me too.  I am scared, too, and I have been for quite some time.  Welcome to the club.  The world is a scary place for people who aren’t cushioned up at the top, protected by power and privilege. 

And second, if you are scared right now, why not channel some of that fear into action?  Reach out to the women in your life, and talk to them about their experiences.  Listen to them tell the stories of how they have altered their lives to prevent unpreventable crimes (how many of them will tell you they walk to the car with their key in their fist as a potential weapon?).  Listen to them talk about the attitudes and the roadblocks they navigate every day.  Listen to their frustration, and to their fear.  

If you recognize yourself in any of their stories, change the way you treat the women in your life.  To the extent that you are able, make amends for the damage you’ve done.     If you recognize your friends in any of their stories, resolve to speak up when you see that behavior in action.  Tell your fathers and brothers and sons what you have learned by listening to women.  Stand with women when they fight for equality and fair treatment.  Maybe you’ll find, in all that doing, that you don’t have as much to be afraid of as you first thought. 

And maybe, in time, we will be able to join you in that.


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Photo by Michelle Robinson, used under Creative Commons License.

Comments

  1. You recognize the core problem for most men - that being one of false allegation, but then utterly fail to address it in any meaningful way, preferring instead to dismiss it ben forwarding an argument based in a black-or-white fallacy; namely supposing that false allegation is less bad then sexual harassment (which is also then problematically multiply conflated with the much worse category of sexual assault, another inherent problem leading to fear and mistrust), and therefore unworthy of consideration.

    But we've created an environment where allegation is to a large extent treated as fact, and everyone ought to know that's a weapon too powerful for any person borne of human limitations to weild. Fear is an entirely sensible and reasoned reaction to people with unknown intentions being handed a weapon that can wipe you out, permanently, with one blow. Fear is the only reaction we should expect to such a drastic and unearned imbalance of power.

    The remainder of the essay hinges on this flawed argument, and more or less suggests that men ought not be scared, because what they face is by some measures less bad than what women face. Hypothetically, let us accept that this axiom is true, that women do at present have it worse in terms of wrongs that might befall them which cannot be corrected. Men's fear is still justified, still based in fact, still entirely defensible, because we're talking about absolutely ruining them in a way for which there is no recourse based on zero evidence. We're talking about being made powerless in the face of someone who perhaps just has a petty or unfounded grievance. Other people out there being in an even worse position than you is cold comfort in the face of such an imbalance.

    This argument, and every formulation of it around the internet is "misguided and nonsensical at best, and harmful and abusive itself at worst." It lacks empathy, an begs the question about whether men can actually suffer at all, presupposing that they cannot. It's a tribal take that is dismissive of the fears and anxiety of the outgroup. No one who now lives in fear of being falsely accused will find this relatable or comforting.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. It's helpful to me to hear where the weaknesses are in my argument.

      Here's a good article that tackles the idea of false assault allegations: https://theconversation.com/heres-the-truth-about-false-accusations-of-sexual-violence-88049

      If you get a moment to read it, you'll find that not only are false accusations very rate, they are no more common than false accusations for any other type of crime, and yet men are not walking around afraid of being falsely accused of mugging someone (which is far more likely to cause the accused to serve jail time). On the other hand, somewhere between 25-85% of women have experienced sexual harassment and 20% of women have been raped. (Stats here: https://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21731446-younger-men-are-more-respectful-their-behaviour-towards-women-their-elders-how). So it seems a very strange reaction to focus on being afraid of something that is far less likely to happen to you than being struck by lightning instead of focusing on fixing the grave culture of abuse that is a hallmark of daily life for the majority of the women around you.

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  2. Thank you for writing this!

    I think it's reasonable for people to like their immunity from any bad things, however unlikely, and be upset to some degree that it's gone.

    However, the cost of that previous immunity was, demonstrably, incredibly high to other people, with an incredibly common rate of occurrence.

    It might be considered parallel to previous historical times when nobles had entire immunity from prosecution for crimes committed to those lower in the hierarchy than they were. I'm sure that when that changed, some of the previously-immune were concerned - most because their "privileges" were reduced, and others, who were not in the habit of mistreating people, possibly because of a fear of malicious litigation, or even of the court of law deciding incorrectly and imprisoning them. The latter is indeed a cost, but a very rare and, in many ways, very small cost to partially repair a massive injustice to a huge body of people. (as previously murder, rape, theft, etc. were more or less condoned in those cases)(you could say that false imprisonment is less bad than loss of future career opportunities, a tarnishing of one's legacy, and public shaming. I would tend to say that neither is, in most cases, "completely destroying you" or any of the other hyperbole I've seen used. It is certainly not a minimal cost, but neither is it, in most cases, lethal.)

    It would be ridiculous to primarily *focus* on that cost; not ridiculous, perhaps, to name the cost and to fervently wish there were a way to fix the system without that cost existing (as I do!). But to equate a lightning-strike-chance possibility of career loss and some public shaming with the harm commonly suffered by women (which, I would note, frequently carries career loss and public shaming)? That demonstrates a loss of sense of proportion (or possibly of moral reasoning). And to argue that it is more important to continue to give all abusive men total immunity, so that the few innocent-but-falsely-accused men will not have any possibility of harm, rather than to reduce the level of crime committed and give some options for restitution... eh, if someone argues that they, specifically, are so much more important than all the women affected by this issue (which is most, if not all), and therefore their potential-but-unlikely chance of a harmful vaccine reaction is more important than the wholesale cancer that has been attacking basically all women, well. That's, uh, something.

    The common argument that no human should have that much power over someone else is also an interesting one, given what this is in response to - an incredibly extensive abuse of power which, so far, it seems that consequences attendant upon public exposure are at present the primary method of (partially) checking. I agree that it would be preferable if there were another method of reducing this cancer, without having the costs of surgery or chemo or radiation; but at present, we don't have that miracle cure, and it seems unreasonable to simply wait for it and hope a cure somehow shows up, while letting the cancer continue to grow.

    So, yes. It is out of proportion, statistically, to be *especially* afraid of being falsely accused of sexual misconduct, although often fears are not logically in proportion (see fear of plane crashes vs. fear of car crashes; or fear of shark attacks vs. fear of "regular" drowning). It is certainly reasonable to wish that there were a way out of this collective mess without the possibility of being falsely accused. But if the response is, explicitly or implicitly, "we should stop taking this seriously, and restore the old position of defaulting to not listening to women and not considering harm done to them to be in any way problematic, so that the rare innocent-but-falsely-accused men can continue to have immunity... with the accompanying cost of all abusive men also continuing to have full immunity and hence less incentive to behave less badly" - well, that seems off to me.

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