Image by StockVault
If you've been anywhere on the social media this week you'll have noticed a proliferation of women posting "me too" in response to a call for action from actress Alyssa Milano about sexual abuse. If you've been anywhere near a woman for the last 2000 years you won't be surprised by how many have suffered abuse. It's ingrained. In almost every society in every part of the world, in every period of history women have been abused and exploited and it's largely been done by men.
While it's not surprising that almost every woman has encountered this, it is surprising how many are prepared to talk about it. The whole process is triggering, dredging up memories that you'd hope you'd kept hidden, of old bosses' lewd comments and propositions from friends at hazily remembered teenage parties.
It's triggering but cathartic too. For some many women to be able to share in public and not so public places about what they've been through is healing and cleansing. It's comforting to know that legions stand with you.
But what about the men?
And this is where it gets problematic. The conversation is about women but by its very nature the content concerns men. And there are many male victims of sexual abuse too. So where do they fit in?
Well, no reasonable person would deny the victims of sexual abuse a voice. If this has given men an opportunity to open up about their experiences, then that is great and should be encouraged. Again, it's part of the healing process.
But the conversation cannot become all about the men. Systematic sexual abuse cannot become a men's issue or a people's issue. It's a woman's issue. Men do get abused, yes, but they are not systemically oppressed in the same way that women are. They don't get accused of sleeping with their boss if they get a promotion or a pay rise. Their bodies don't get discussed and rated in the workplace when they're in the same room. They don't get blamed for the abuse that happens to them because of what they were wearing at the time of the attack. It might happen to some men, sometimes but these things happen to nearly all women, most of the time.
That's right. Nearly all women. No-one can categorically say that every single woman in the world has encountered sexual harrassment but it wouldn't surprise me. Again, I acknowledge that some men have also suffered in this way but the moment it becomes a "people's issue", it loses the power of all women standing together in their communal shared experience.
Because the problem is that men don't join a conversation in the same way as women do. They don't shove over, make space and listen. They talk loudly, they dominate and they steer the conversation continually back to their own experience. We're working with generalisations and simplifications here but studies of discourse analysis have found the same patterns again and again - women capitulate in conversation, men dominate. Here's just one academic example. And that's why I'd ask male victims of abuse to be sensitive when joining in the conversation. Talk, but also listen.
And the other role men have in the Me Too conversation? As perpetrators. The effect of all these women speaking up has been to make men realise that they too are complicit in this culture of harassment. They may never have laid an unwelcome finger on a woman, but they've stayed silent when mates brag about their conquests and how they pursued women until they gave in. They've laughed at rapey jokes, they've not challenged rumours about the sexual exploits of women in the workplace...they've been part of it.
The next step then, is for these men to have their own conversation. To admit #itwasme in either a passive or active way and to find a way of moving forward. Women, you've done your bit by speaking out. Men, time to step up...