Don’t Take Offence
Yesterday I read “Dear Men, Feminism Needs You” by Jessica Valenti and thought about men I’ve known since I was a teenager — smart men, angry men, stupid men, selfish men — some mature, some just boys really. Some trying, some not.
Women are asking questions like “How can feminists do a better job of reaching men?” and meaning engagement, dialogue, conversation, and communication. Meanwhile, most men are asking “how can men do a better job of reaching women?” and meaning sex, male needs, dating, relationships, support, personal affirmation, and all the other things on the long male wish list that reads in its shortened version: may I have more attention please?
If you are a man and you don’t like it when women — when people — complain about your invasive flirting, your quest for attention, your desperate cover of yourselves as accidentally ignoring all the basic rules of respectful behaviour, then you need to understand something: you are being selfish, and thoughtless, and unkind, and everyone has noticed.
When I was twenty, I knew a boy who was twenty-one and had been trying to “get a girlfriend” since he was eighteen. He always used the same method: any women he was attracted to, he’d go talk to. No matter what the women was doing, he’d walk right up and say hello, ask her how she was, and then just wait. Stood there, hoping to get some kind of “romance response” — that’s what it called it — he looked like a cross between a bad actor and a sexual predator. He would not leave women alone: when people confronted him about his behaviour he’d say “if they don’t like me, they can say no” and he never meant it sincerely. The word “no” wasn’t a word he was interested in hearing: his use of pressure and bullying attention was predicated on the view that he deserved a “yes”.
And here’s the secret: he thought no-one had noticed, and he therefore didn’t care what we said — “whatever you’re seeing, it’s not what I’m doing”, he used to say, over and over, as though he was a magician and had conjured his bad behaviour into invisibility. Then he’d try to punch people, as though their act of calling him out for bad behaviour was somehow inappropriate.
The key to breaking through to him was this: over and over, we told him “people have noticed”. He got it in the end. He stopped approaching and started at least trying to act respectfully. He was twenty-one.
If this reminds you of yourself, consider: whatever you think of your own behaviour, if someone asks you to stop or tells you “no” then be reasonable. Don’t take offence. There are enough self-obsessive pushy problem people in the world without you adding yourself to the list.
By thirty, or forty, most men have told themselves so many times that they are getting away with it that it takes real brute force — a whole movement, say, like #Me2 — to break through the self-imposed male fantasy of no-downside come-ons. The zero-repercussion zone that most men see surrounding them is often the result of decades of male wishful thinking. Repetition is the only way to break through. Jessica Valenti is right: women should not have to be doing this. It is in no way fair, or reasonable, or moral for our civilisation to put the work of self-defence on women when it should be on courts, on the press, on the media, on governments.
And since we are in a situation in which we see those organisations, the institutions, failing, this work — this responsibility — is now on men. There are two sorts of people nowadays: those that care about respect, about rights and freedoms, and those who care about themselves. Both sides have their opinions. Only one side is right.
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