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.
Photo by Michelle Robinson, used under Creative Commons License.