In light of the horrifying murder of Sarah Everard in London, we are resharing this powerful 2017 piece by author Sophie White on why the conversations we have with our sons about consent and abuse are much more important than those we have with our daughters.
I’ve read a fair few columns from mothers of daughters debating how to discuss #MeToo and I’ve marvelled at how this generation of girls will grow up in a totally different landscape. A landscape where the inherent ‘problem’ of being a woman is openly acknowledged and not only acknowledged but argued and hopefully even addressed.
As the accusations, revelations and apparent shock has rolled on in Hollywood, causing a ripple effect that has eventually reached our shores, over and over I have been disappointed, I must confess, by the response of men. I have found an unwillingness in their camp to truly shut up and listen and beyond that to understand. I’ve detected a lot of knee jerk defensiveness over there in Camp Men. There are a lot of “not all men”ing, but not much acceptance or empathy.
The pattern in revelations of abuse has been disheartening. Woman reveals deeply personal and traumatising events from her past. Other women rally in support using hashtag activism for what it’s worth. And it does have worth to see the powerful groundswell of women supporting other women. Then men — and in this group I am talking about the good men who are not abusers but who have perhaps never had to seriously consider the ways in which the culture is set up to serve them over women and other minorities — seem to react in one of two ways:
1: They jump immediately on the defensive. I can understand this, it’s not fair to shove all men into a stereotype of the lecherous, octopus man. “I’ve never done this,” they quickly protest. “Why are you lumping me in with these predators?” To my mind, this response is still not really caring about the fact that women are experiencing these horrible violations. It’s a bit “What are you saying about me?” When it should be “Wait, what’s being done to women?”
2: The second type of reaction played out on radios shows and late-night talk shows all over seems to be get some women on here. Let’s get the middle-aged male anchor to ask some women what can be done to fix sexism and harassment? The implication being that this is a women’s problem for women to fix.
While, of course, it is good that men are asking questions, debates around equality and gender politics are not taking place in a vacuum. We don’t live in a utopia of people listening to each other and having untapped reserves of empathy ready to pour forth. We live in a society where to be born female automatically means that your worth will often be measured less in terms of ability and more in terms of f*ckability. We live in a society that has a stash of ready-made excuses ready to fire at any woman who dares to complain. “They were different times.” “Don’t name and shame, lives are at stake.” ‘He’s a great artist/director/sportsman/journalist/priest/president.” I could go on. We live in a society that does not listen to women.
Our voices do not carry weight in this society either. Our voices have apparently been found to even irritate an audience (a 2015 study found that women’s voices that had vocal fry were “less attractive, less competent, less educated, less trustworthy”. In comparison, men’s vocal fry is rarely commented on). Men don’t listen to women. Historically women barely listen to women. Very annoyingly, we need men to be ambassadors for this fight, we need a coalition. As a mother of two boys, what I do and say to them is going to be vital in changing the culture.
Why do (some) boys grow up to feel entitled to abuse women and how do we change this? This whole issue feels like the head of Medusa, in that each time a problem is dispatched, lopped off (or fired from his own eponymously-titled company) like the head of one of her hissing, venom-spewing snakes another immediately grows to take its place. And it’s not simply that abusive men are so ubiquitous, they are not born but created. Created by a media that loves breasts unless they are fulfilling their biological function (sigh), a culture of comedians bizarrely desperate to cling on to their beloved rape jokes and a time when criticism of workplace harassment results in cries of “PC gone mad”. They are also created by mothers and fathers making allowances.
Our culture has become a veritable factory for predatory behaviour. We have engineered a whole terminology to couch assault (hello, do we need the term date rape?) and differentiate ‘bad’ assault from ‘banter’ and “boys being boys”. It allows all of this oppression to play out in a shadowy grey area of shirking responsibility.
This grey area was so all-encompassing, so extreme that it wasn’t detectable to those of us trapped in it. We were like the lobsters unaware that the water is boiling. It feels depressingly recent that many women even thought to consider any of the myriad incidents of intimidation, grabbing, fondling, assault and verbal harassment as a form of abuse.
We’ve witnessed the far-reaching impact of talking about our experiences, how bravery begets bravery and silence begets silence. But now it is time to engage -engage with our sons, brothers, husbands, fathers and male friends. Yes, it is uncomfortable but it is vital. Men need to do some soul searching too and perhaps reflect on or even own up to past bad behaviour. The journalist, Dolly Alderton recently described an ex-colleague contacting her to apologise for harassing her in the past and this, while awful, was one of the most promising anecdotes I’ve heard come out of the recent weeks of revelations and accusations.
If the culture doesn’t change, my sons (or yours) could be future perpetrators of abuse. It can feel hopeless when reading that teen girls are pestered for nude pics and teens boys are distributing unsolicited selfie porn willy nilly, so to speak. In 2015, a video campaign in India call Breakthrough sought to highlight the abuse of women through mothers telling their sons about their experiences of harassment. I think this is a good place for mothers to start. Sharing our experiences with our sons will perhaps mean should they witness abusive behaviour or be on the cusp of committing an abusive act, that the perspective of the victim will not be such a remote and abstract concept. She will be their mother or sister or daughter or friend. Or even just a fellow human, deserving of care and respect.