Last week, globally renowned trauma psychologist and addiction specialist Gabor Mate, in response to a tweet regarding the #metoo movement, wrote: “If we look within deeply, honestly, and without succumbing to defensive avoidance, most men – myself for sure – will find lurking in ourselves anti-female anger and an urge to control women.” He added: “It’s part of the culture we’ve absorbed; it isn’t always personal. But the reflection must be.” His call for men to look inward, at a time when it is so easy to measure our attitudes and behaviours against the most egregious examples of male entitlement and misogyny was timely, if not unwelcome in some quarters of the male community.
Personally speaking, his words brought a sense of relief as I have been thinking along the same lines for quite some time.
To this day, as I continue to try and mop up the mess of what feels like a former life, I am confronted by aspects of my past behaviour for which I must account in some way, either privately or publicly.
Difficult conversations that simultaneously fill me with optimism and make my skin crawl. Some concern my attitudes and behaviour in the context of relationships with women.
Are there any men out there who, like me, oscillate from feelings of hope, relief and gratitude to feelings of shame, fear and anxiety when male behaviours are dissected, re-contextualised and then remarked upon by thousands of people? Anyone else running a fine-tooth comb through their own sexual history, in a state of panic, using contradictory social media hot-takes as a reference point for what you’re looking for and only ending up even more confused?
Given the levels of obfuscation and hostility whenever the issue is discussed, it is no wonder so many women feel anxious about speaking about their experiences.
And even less surprising that so few men are willing to be more open about aspects of their own behaviour that may fall within the purview of the #metoo moment.
To truly consider this issue as deeply as we are being asked to as men, we must become willing to confront the possibility that we have caused a woman to feel pressured, frightened or even harmed. That while our behaviour may not meet the current criteria in mainstream media – which usually involves a wealthy or powerful man’s serially violent, predatory behaviour towards women – we should not therefore assume we have not been guilty of these things, albeit to lesser degrees, in the past.
We live in a time when things we never thought twice about could potentially be deemed unacceptable or even criminal.
A time when sex education for most young people is violent pornography, in which many of the female performers are, themselves, victims of sexual abuse. How does a man become willing to consider that he may, in some way, have been complicit in this endemic inequality, as bystander or perpetrator?
I do not write this for woke-points. I am trapped in a place many men currently find themselves; between the rock of becoming a better man with a measure of maturity and self-improvement and the hard place of knowing past attitudes and behaviours were unacceptable.
For a man of my type, this is an uncertain time, though not as uncertain or frightening as it clearly is for women. #metoo has likely triggered lengthy periods of reflection for some men, though there seems nowhere to go to get insight into what emerges from it means. Or what to do, if anything.
While I do think it’s wholly appropriate than men feel a twinge of discomfort, even excruciation, at times, as we reckon with ourselves honestly, this cannot be a final destination. Fear and shame, while certainly useful in short sharp doses, do not create conditions for growth and change, in the long run.
It is important to note that the culture of shame and condemnation we are currently experiencing has nothing to do with women speaking openly about their experiences of harassment or abuse.
It’s a direct result of how men are responding, which often creates an accuser/denier dynamic that curdles any attempt to understand the truth or reflect honestly. We must draw a road map for men who are willing to face themselves honestly and even take responsibility, wherever appropriate. We must model to those men what that looks like while remaining keenly attuned to what women are asking of us.
What strikes me about the high profile cases that have come to characterise the #metoo movement, is that a certain type of man is not only unwilling to even consider the possibility that he is even capable of causing harm, but will do everything in his power, aided by a culture weighted in his favour, to reduce the women speaking out to no more than witches in a hunt.
Not all men are like that. Not all men would respond in that manner. Not all men prefer the comfort of self-delusion to facing truth. But there remains great confusion about what a man should do, both to verify whether he has caused harm in the past and what would be an appropriate course of action going forward.
This is not about creating safe spaces or self-help groups for unrepentant, violent, predatory harassers, sex offenders and abusers but about making it safe for men, raised in a culture of entitlement, exploitation, violence and pornification, to learn more about how such a culture has impacted them and whether this had implications for women in their lives.
It is right that men, using their power and privilege to actively evade justice, be shamed and condemned. But going forward, we will require a few more tools in the armoury as more men, unable to bury their heads in the sand, are faced with a choice: reject #metoo for a temporary feeling of relief from scrutiny or embrace it fully and accept that doing so means more than simply speaking in platitudes.
It means staring into the pit of your own soul, fearlessly, willing to confront whatever you find there. How do we create a parallel conversation where men can authentically reflect on what #metoo means to them?
And how do we do this while acknowledging at all times that #metoo absolutely had to happen.
That if not for this outpouring, as messy as these things can be on social media, then we would not have this opportunity to reckon with the truth of ourselves. Safe spaces don’t seem so silly now, do they guys?