Stop Helping: A Gentleman’s Guide to Missing the Point

I’ve consumed quite a bit of the post-Elliot Rodger online literature: #NotAllMen and #YesAllWomen and women’s reactions to #NotAllMen and men’s reactions to #YesAllWomen and women’s reactions to men’s reactions to #YesAllWomen and rape culture and slut culture and mental illness and gun rights and casual misogyny and gendered violence and media portrayals and objectification and on and on down the wormhole of a pingpong game that is the internet after a tragedy. Until the next celebrity says something racist, at least.

I’ve been clicking on articles more than I usually do whenever a grand national outrage is playing out, and by and large, I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen that’s gone viral all the way from bigger, more mainstream outlets like Slate, to smaller blogs about dating in nerd culture. (I ignore MRA and PUA in the same spirit I do birthers and Holocaust deniers.) Basically, the popular sentiment seems to be: “Misogyny and rape culture are real and insidious problems. We can’t derail this conversation by saying what happened is only about mental health and gun access. We, as a society, need to do better.”

I have read many a beautiful rallying cry for just that, penned by men and women alike. Good job, America. The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one…still.

Over the past week, I have also read some things that just…landed slightly askew. Left a very subtle aftertaste that I couldn’t identify but didn’t like. And on the surface, it was hard to say why something was off and it was difficult to distinguish from the rest of the pack that seemed to be saying exactly the same thing. But then I came across this blog, entitled “A Gentleman’s Guide to Rape Culture” which was shared over and over on my Facebook news feed, and it crystalized for me. This is by far the most overt and extreme example I’ve found, but what it made me realize was this:

Dude. You’re trying too hard. And it’s not helping.

To the author of this post (whose main points I will summarize below): Hey man, you’re ok by me. In fact, I think you’re more enlightened than most. But I also think you’re being less helpful than you think you are. And because you seem to be a respectful, introspective guy who is willing to listen and expand his views, I’ll tell you why.

The hastag #NotAllMen seemed to arise from the hysterical (lulz) defensive reaction of all the “good guys” out there who don’t post novella-length screeds against women and then go out and murder people. “Not all men rape!” “Not all men are misogynists!” “Not all men hate women!” And to that, most of the media and women everywhere said, “Yeah, great. Everybody knows. We’re not fucking talking about you. Calm down.”

The author of the “Gentleman’s Guide”– who identifies himself as Zaron– says that all men, even the “good” ones crying no rape, participate in and perpetuate rape culture. Which is undoubtedly true. But he’s missing the other piece of the puzzle, which is that just about all women also participate in and perpetuate rape culture, actively or passively. You do it. I do it. I make a snarky comment about a girl whose dress is really revealing. I ignore misogynistic comments in the workplace. I consume media that objectifies women…which is basically all of it. I’m not perfect and I never will be. I can only be more aware. Rape culture isn’t a bunch of individual assholes fucking things up for the rest of us; it’s a structure that we all have to live inside and navigate through.

So after Zaron makes that point, things start to go off the rails a bit. He continually says things like:

But just imagine moving through the world, always afraid you could be raped.

and

I’ve come to learn that women spend most of their social lives with ever-present, unavoidable feelings of vulnerability. Stop and think about that. Imagine always feeling like you could be at risk, like you were living with glass skin.

and

A woman must consider where she is going, what time of day it is, what time she will arrive at her destination and what time she will leave her destination, what day of the week is it, if she will be left alone at any point … the considerations go on and on because they are far more numerous than you or I can imagine.

and

73% of the time a woman knows her rapist. Now, if she can’t trust and accurately assess the intentions of men she knows, how can you expect her to ever feel that she can accurately assess you, a complete stranger?

and especially

When I cross a parking lot at night and see a woman ahead of me, I do whatever I feel is appropriate to make her aware of me so that a) I don’t startle her b) she has time to make herself feel safe/comfortable and c) if it’s possible, I can approach in a way that’s clearly friendly, in order to let her know I’m not a threat. I do this because I’m a man.

Basically, I acknowledge every woman I meet on the street, or in an elevator, or in a stairway, or wherever, in a way that indicates she’s safe. I want her to feel just as comfortable as if I weren’t there. I accept that any woman I encounter in public doesn’t know me, and thus, all she sees is a man — one who is suddenly near her. I have to keep in mind her sense of space and that my presence might make her feel vulnerable.

At this point, I became unclear as to whether Zaron was talking about actual, real, live women or just very, very skittish horses who drive cars and live inside.

I cannot speak for all women, but I do not live my life around the fear of getting raped or assaulted or hassled. (I mostly live it around the fear of not being able to pay rent and/or making my parents regret paying for my education.) I do not conduct myself in social situations with an “ever-present, unavoidable” feeling of vulnerability. I don’t cringe and wither away from men I “meet on the street, or in an elevator, or in a stairway, or wherever” because I’m an adult who has to move though the world and get shit done. My skin is not glass. I am not fragile. I am not afraid of you. I don’t need you to make me aware of you in a parking lot. I don’t need you to acknowledge me benignly as I pass. I don’t want you to approach me in a way that is “clearly friendly”– whatever that means– in order to avoid “startling” me. What I need you to do, all you well-intentioned nice guys out there, is not treat me differently from other human beings simply because I’m a woman.

And here’s the real problem I have with this:

While this view is sensitive and empathetic, it rather unhelpfully casts women as weak, scared others in a perpetual state of potential victimhood. Delicate creatures not to be startled. “Shh! Look at the woman. Looklooklook. So mysterious and beautiful. No sudden rapey movements! You’ll scare her!”

This “vulnerable” state is one that necessitates that the good, enlightened men do something to protect us from the other “bad” men who want to catcall and hassle and assault us. (More on what Zaron thinks about that in a moment.) It also allows all the #NotAllMen men to still feel powerful, still feel in charge, and still be dominant over the brittle, frightened creatures they have sworn to protect. “I could rape you, but look how much I’m making an effort to show you I won’t!”

Dude. Just…be a person. Like yeah, I could stab you in face but I’m not gonna be all, “Hey, I’m NOT gonna to stab you in the face!” because then you’d be all, “…why are you thinking about stabbing me in the face at all??!”

Zaron goes on to lay out his philosophy for taking action when he sees men giving women a hard time.

When I’m out in public and I see a man hassling a woman, I stop for a moment. I make sure the woman sees me. I want her to know I’m fully aware of what’s happening. I wait for a moment for a clear indication from her of whether she needs help. Sometimes, the couple will continue right on fighting like I’m just a hickory tree. Other times, the woman will make it clear she’d like backup and I approach the situation. I’ve never had to get violent. Usually, my presence alone makes the guy leave if he’s a stranger, or explain himself if they’re familiar. It changes the dynamic. That’s why I always stop when I see a woman getting hassled in public. For any reason. I make sure any woman, in what could become a violent situation, one I may or may not be correctly assessing, feels that she has the opportunity to signal to me if she needs assistance.

Ok. A lot going on here. First of all, kudos to you for being willing to break up an abusive situation in public. A lot of people go all jelly-legged when a fellow human being needs help. Though…I’m not sure that a couple yelling at one another in public qualifies. It’s pretty gauche, sure, but it’s also…not your business? Again, when you assume that any female you see alone is in need of reassurance that she’s safe, and now that any female you see interacting with a male in an antagonistic (but not physically threatening) way needs some back up… How are you not perpetuating gender stereotypes and undercutting women’s agency again?

And yes, a lot of the time when you see a woman getting hit on or pestered, she’s not super happy it’s happening. And if you intervene, she might be grateful. She also might be embarrassed at the probable scene you, a stranger, are going to cause on her behalf, for what seems like no reason, since this shit happens to her all the time. If some guy were trying to get my number at a bar, or if I was fighting with my boyfriend in public, and some random guy started in with the whole, “Do we have a problem here?” schtick, I would be pretty pissed. It’s like if a stranger came over and ordered for you at a restaurant.

Good for you if you break up something scary and real. Thank you for stepping up. But 99% of the time, you’re going to be white-knighting and participating in the same male-dictated power dynamic that led to the guy hassling her in the first place.

The reason why is akin to the motivation behind not using “I have a boyfriend” as an excuse to get a guy to stop hitting on you. This article explains it better than I could, so give it a read. Here’s the gist:

Male privilege is “I have a boyfriend” being the only thing that can actually stop someone from hitting on you because they respect another male-bodied person more than they respect your rejection/lack of interest.

(Caveat: If you feel physically unsafe, you say whatever the fuck you need to get yourself out of the situation.)

So you see where I’m going with this. By intervening on a woman’s behalf, by, as Zaron says, “changing the dynamic” of the situation, you are inserting yourself as the authority and speaking for what the woman “really” wants and needs but can’t get on her own because she’s a woman. “Hey buddy, let’s leave the lady alone.” Subtext: “You respect me, a man, so you’ll listen to me.”

It’s a way for men to not check their privilege, to continue to speak for and over women, while still feeling like the good guy. Everybody wins! (Everyone that matters, anyway!)

And it’s not purposeful. It’s coming from the right place. And it’s a start– using your privilege to help a woman rather than bully and demean her. But it’s not solving the underlying problem because male power and privilege don’t actually shift; they just get redirected. It doesn’t fix anything except for men not having to face all the ugly, hard-hitting, inward-facing truths that were unearthed by Elliot Rodger this week. 

I’m not saying, “Don’t help women in uncomfortable situations.” I’m saying, “Help everyone in uncomfortable situations.” And I’m certainly not saying that these are not problems that we all need to be addressing in everyday situations because we live in a culture where it’s basically socially acceptable to badger a woman for conversation, for her number, for sex, and then to despise her when she doesn’t give it to you. Or despise her because she does give it to you or because she gives it to someone else– that slut.

These are real problems. If I’m wearing not-pants, I get catcalled almost every day in New York City. I’ve been told to smile, baby more times than I care to give the finger to. I’ve had to tell men no, no, really, no, thank you, I’m not interested, I don’t want a drink– yes, I drink, but I don’t want you to buy me one. I’ve had to ask, “You assume that if I didn’t have a boyfriend, I would go for you?” I’ve been called a bitch, an ice princess, a heart breaker, a dick– because men didn’t get what they wanted from me. I’ve been slut shamed. I’ve been sexually assaulted. And almost none of these affronts were from strangers, and not all of them were from men.

Look, Zaron. You’ve got the right idea. But when you start talking about how women are and how they feel and how they feel about men…I get sorta like…you know that scene in Mean Girls?

image

 

It’s not your conversation. But please continue to listen. We want you on our side, but we don’t need you out in front. We don’t need saviors. We don’t need Misogyny Police who can “take it from here.” We all, men and womenhave to do better and hold one another more accountableWe don’t need men to “fix it” for us. You can put the white horse away.

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