How can we really encourage men to be allies to women in a world where everyday sexism is still rife?
There is a lot of discussion around being allies at the moment. Some of this has emerged due to #Blacklivesmatter and the realization that being anti-racist is critical, rather than just ‘not being racist’. Following the dreadful Sarah Everard case, the call to action for men to be a male allies became an important topic in organizations. Women who had previously accepted that they live in fear for their safety now want positive action and are seeking immediate help for permanent change. It also provoked a massive outpouring from women on the restrictions that they have learned to live with throughout their lives to keep themselves safe and the type of everyday sexism they experience.
I have been delivering empowerment workshops for women for many years, and it never ceases to shock me the verbal or physical abuse that women not only suffer but have accepted as the status quo. Why, because they felt it could never be changed.
But How Bad Is The Problem?
A recent YouGov poll for UN Women found that seven out of ten women had experienced some form of sexual harassment in public.
The number was nearly nine out of 10 for younger women
The survey also found:
Over half of women experienced catcalling
Four out of ten had been groped or faced unwelcome touching
A third of women had been followed
1 in 5 had faced indecent exposure
I concur – I had certainly experienced all of those on many occasions throughout my life, and not just when I was younger.
Before we go any further, if you are a man reading this, then please understand I do believe that the majority of men are respectful, kind, and thoughtful and would not demean, sexually harass, or attack women. I am married to one, I work with men like this, I have many friends in this category, and my son and his friends are totally respectful and supportive of women. My guess is that the men reading this article are also likely to fit this profile.
Therefore, this is not an attack or an attempt to demonize men, and it is a true call to action as women cannot solve this issue alone. We need men to step up and to step in – to pull their friends, colleagues, and even strangers up when they are behaving inappropriately and to start to help to tackle the issue of toxic masculinity.
But how easy is it? We all think we would like to be able to stand up to someone who is being inappropriate, but would you be able to handle any backlash?
As I am a massive supporter of women – not a raging feminist, but a believer that women have the right to live without receiving daily harassment, I recently had an experience of taking up the gauntlet when I saw some online harassment of a woman. Ironically, it led to my first experience of being ‘trolled’ online. It really made me think, if it is that hard for women to stand up for women, then how are we going to help men to intervene?
It started one Sunday morning as I was scrolling through Twitter. I paused on a photo of a young woman standing at the front door of a house holding a bottle of champagne, waving her keys in the air with the caption about moving into her first house. She was stunning, with long blond hair, and was dressed in skinny jeans, heels, and a tight t-shirt. Looking at her Twitter profile, I could see she was some form of sports presenter with quite an extensive following, and, as I scrolled through, a few comments caught my eye – nothing to do with house buying, but some gratuitous and deeply personal comments about her body.
As I scrolled further, I couldn’t believe what I was reading, the occasional ‘congratulations’ but generally a bombardment of sexually harassing comments and innuendos. I couldn’t just scroll past and say nothing, and so I wrote a post congratulating her on the new house but adding that the type of comments below was what made women feel harassed and unsafe. I mentioned that after the Sarah Everard case, there had been a big outcry about “not all men,” but how were we supposed to believe this when we read comments such as those below?”
The barrage of responses that I received for writing my comment was quite astonishing. Here is just a selection (others were less suitable for publication!).
‘Get back in the kitchen and mind your own business’
‘Show us your xxxx’
‘If women want to stop being objectified maybe they should stop posing in skimpy outfits and showing off everything’
‘Why are you harping on here? Looking at your picture I’m going to guess you’ve never suffered men making pervy comments towards you’
‘Are you wearing a mask because of COVID or to avoid scaring people? While you’re at it maybe get someone to mask up to your hands so you can stop yourself from typing this drivel’
And, in my opinion, the worst…
‘Shut up you miserable XXXX. What a ridiculous time we live you cannot say anything about a woman’s appearance without it being labeled sexist. Feminism is an absolute cancer on society and needs to go in the bin.’
There were many ‘likes’ by men on the above comments and just two comments supporting me – these contributors were soon put in their place by the other men, and I heard no more from the allies.
I have run many workshops on sexual harassment, particularly during #MeToo and more recently for Male Allies since the death of Sarah Everard. When I run workshops for Male allies, the men are shocked when I reveal to them what it feels like for women on a daily basis, to walk down the street and receive unelicited comments on their bodies, to be scared to walk alone at night, to be stalked either physically or online, particularly when I share my personal experiences.
I show the delegates a pyramid and explain to them that the bottom layer comprises of men like them, the respectful type, above them on the pyramid are the men who turn a blind eye, above that are the men who collude, and the next level is the men who make sexually harassing comments or circulate inappropriate material, above that are those who abuse or physically attack women and then at the top of the pyramid are the minority of men who rape.
The key is that if women are going to dismantle the pyramid, we need to start at the bottom. We need every man there to start educating their friends, colleagues, or other people that they encounter to be ready to intervene appropriately. Often, the men in the workshops will start owning up that they feel they are on level two or three. They do turn a blind eye or collude in a large group. They don’t feel confident intervening or fear they will be made fun of. Many of them disclose some of the situations that their wives, partners, or daughters have experienced too.
Are we breeding a whole new generation who don’t understand how to behave appropriately with women?
In researching this subject, one of the worst things for me has been learning the extent to which 12–18-year-olds are viewing pornography and how it has become normalized for them. In 2020 there was a rare study conducted by the BBFC which discovered that parents are oblivious of the extent to which their children are watching pornography, many of these children stating that they were turning to it as an ‘educational tool’ because teachers do not tell them ‘What to do’ in their early sexual encounters. It’s shocking, particularly when most children had viewed pornography, which they found disturbing or overly aggressive, and a large number stating that it influenced how they behaved in sexual encounters. Clearly, we need fathers, brothers, uncles, and teachers to do whatever they can to offer other avenues of education before we breed a whole new generation who behave inappropriately.
Would You Intervene?
For me, this experience of being an ally was really exposing, watching the keyboard warriors say what they really felt, the unfiltered vitriol at being called out, the indignation of being accused of harassing and the lack of understanding on what a compliment sounded like, once again gave me such a strong realization of what women are up against. This will only change when men regularly start to challenge others on the pyramid and help to educate them – which only the brave will do. I sincerely hope that you are one of them.