In this MeToo/Time’s Up era and especially since the Aziz Ansari story broke, there has been a lot of discussion about the distinctions between sexual harassment, assault, rape and impropriety of varying degrees. These are important distinctions and I hope much thoughtful conversation goes into parsing them out. But I want to talk about where we go from here. What are women trying to say? What are men supposed to do now?
I have an answer—at least for where we should start. Women everywhere are beginning to examine publicly what we’ve had to deal with personally for most of our lives. We have existed in a world in which our consent has so often been violated that most of us consider(ed) it normal to say no or move away from a guy in an intimate setting only to have him ignore us and try again (and again and again) shortly thereafter. For many of us we didn’t cry on our way home. We shrugged it off, not because it was okay, but because we didn’t expect better. And, in many cases, we’d already experienced much worse and so those smaller transgressions didn’t even register.
We watched movies like “Say Anything” and heard songs like “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and internalized the misogynistic ideas that stalking and coercing and guilt-tripping women into being with the male hero made these men “romantic” and swoon-worthy. For reference, they’re not. They’re rapey AF.
And I get why men are supremely uncomfortable at the moment. They are now being held accountable and called out for acting in ways they were socialized to believe were normal masculine behaviors. And while that is true (to an extent), the examples we’ve set for men and women are horribly toxic all the way around. There is one thing that we—as women—would like acknowledged before we can move forward.
For every perpetrator there is a victim who was there too and knows exactly what happened. She knows the moment the energy in the room shifted. She knows exactly what line was crossed. And men know we know. And that’s a terrifying thing in an era when there might actually be consequences. But there’s good news. Most women aren’t interested in taking down all the men who have ignored our consent or pushed further than we would’ve liked. Nobody’s got time for that.
However differently we each experienced and internalized these incidents, what we need now is an #ImSorry campaign. We want you to do better. But I don’t want to hear “I’ll do better in the future” until I’ve heard “I’m sorry.” It’s time to be specific and repentant. You don’t have to be malicious to hurt someone. You can intimidate or make someone feel afraid without meaning to. You don’t have to be evil to have triggered a person’s fight, flight or freeze response to trauma. We teach kindergartners to apologize for doing things that hurt someone else’s feelings when we know they didn’t mean to. Let’s start the healing by maintaining that same level of expectation for grown men.
Most of the damage women are experiencing isn’t attributable to a single experience. Most of it is compound damage. It’s on society to raise the bar overall.
As a start, I want to hear men acknowledge what so many of us women already know to be true. You have been part of the problem. It has gotten you what you wanted. You knew you were in a gray area and you went ahead with it anyway. We want you to treat us like people who deserve the respect and dignity of your honesty.
To acknowledge that whether intended or not, you are truly, genuinely sorry to have caused us pain. To ask us to explain what you did wrong and how you can do better in the future.
I got a call recently from a guy who wanted to know if he’d ever crossed a line with me. We had an honest and nuanced conversation about it. And you know what I hung up thinking? I hung up feeling grateful and impressed. I was impressed that he would take on such an uncomfortable subject, not knowing where the conversation would go. He listened. He didn’t argue or try to talk over me. He paid attention to what I had to say and then asked how he could do things differently. How could he better understand the verbal and nonverbal cues and pacifications women use in order to say “no” while still being nice and not upsetting the male ego?
Here is what I learned: Sure, I grew up hearing “no means no” but that was never my reality. I was 35 years old when I realized that it wasn’t okay to violate my consent. That I was allowed to say no at any point for any reason. That my “no” should be honored. That freezing and acquiescing instead of risking violence didn’t make me culpable. That I have habitually withheld the truth of my own desires as a buffer. If a guy will keep trying to take my pants off after I say no and move away from him, what would he be willing to do if I said I wanted to fuck him? What if I changed my mind? I would have given up my only card. I would have ended up powerless and vulnerable. So I mitigated that powerlessness by withholding and dissociating and not expressing my true desires.
But that’s not the sex anyone—male or female—should want. If men want women to be enthusiastic partners, then we have to see you respecting us. We have to hear you communicate and see that you stopped moving in when you saw us moving back. We have to feel safe. We have to be safe.
Apologizing won’t fix everything. It won’t stop a lot of powerful men from losing their careers and/or going to jail. A lot of atrocities have been committed and those men need to be held fully accountable.
But for the gray area guys—the Aziz Ansaris—start with #ImSorry. That is how we start to heal, individually and collectively. And, by addressing the fear and discomfort many men have expressed feeling, I think you’ll feel better too. Apologize. Listen. Do better.
People who feel healthy and safe have better sex. So I guess what I’m saying is … you’re welcome.