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by Catie Stewart
Photo courtesy Laurie Shaull.
IF YOU'RE A GUY and you’re not terrified of being outed as some sort of sexual abuser, you’re probably not paying close enough attention to the news. The list of famous and less-famous men exposed as perpetrators of sexual abuse grows seemingly every day. And many men around me are terrified of being named and implicated in this list.
And you know what? They should be scared. The fact that they are scared of being outed for having done something wrong shows that we are getting slightly closer to a world where I feel safe.
The fact is that even if you consider yourself a good guy or a feminist, you’ve probably -- or, hopefully -- been recounting to yourself the times where you might have done or said something sexist, violated someone in small ways, or worse.
Maybe when you were 15, you begged your girlfriend to give you a blow-job, and she relented. Maybe you got drunk and were a little too touchy to a friend. Maybe you said something kind of creepy to your co-worker once and it freaked her out. These are the types of stories I’ve heard in recent weeks -- and the only thing unusual about them is that they were told to me by the perpetrators themselves.
To be clear, I’m really only friends with dudes who explicitly identify as feminists. In the wake of the #metoo and #itwasme conversations, where thousands of women posted about their own experiences of sexual violence and some men responded with confessionals, a lot of my male friends reached out to try to process. Were they in danger of being “outed” as abusers? Should they feel really guilty about these grey-area incidents? Is it worth apologizing for something that happened five years ago?
Now with “good” “feminist” men Senator Al Franken and Louis CK outed as perpetrators of sexual misconduct, “good” men everywhere are feeling more and more scrutinized. The witch hunt, as some have called the sudden slew of outings, is officially on. And I’ve heard men bemoaning the shaming that follows these exposés. I’ve heard mumblings that this outpouring of women coming forward is going to be ultimately harmful, that there will be a backlash and people will stop believing women. I’ve heard men complain that now they will never want to be alone with a woman again for fear of accidentally violating them.
I understand these fears, but they don't belie the fact that accountability for these wrongs is necessary. I’ve been sleeping better at night knowing that all these men out there are terrified of being the next Al Franken or Louis CK, knowing that our witchy fingers might be typing out the next exposé at any given moment.
For the first time in my life, I feel like the power imbalance of the patriarchy is, in the tiniest way, shifting. Being a woman or a non-binary or trans person in this world means being vulnerable. It means you had to give that pleading high school boyfriend a blow-job despite not feeling ready. It means that your male co-worker could make a sexually explicit comment to you and you just had to sit there and take it or risk being seen as uptight or a bitch. It means that walking home at night by yourself you can expect to be harassed or physically attacked. It’s exhausting.
I see, for the first time, so many men are feeling vulnerable, feeling their reputations could be at risk. So, for men who are worried about doing something wrong that will get you in trouble: welcome. This is what it’s like to feel a bit scared all the time. I think it’ll make you a better person. And even if it doesn’t, I think a little trepidation makes everyone on the potential receiving end of that abuse -- women, gender nonbinary people, trans folks, and other men, too -- genuinely safer.
THERE ARE MANY men in my life, people I love and respect, who have messed up. They’ve violated consent in small or large ways, or hurt someone, or said something derogatory or sexist. (I too, have done some of these things, and have frequently not held men in my life accountable). Senator Al Franken, who last week was himself named, has been a consistent advocate for women and for pro-choice policies. If this whole moment of reckoning had happened when he was in high school or college, had he seen giants like Harvey Weinstein fall, maybe Franken would’ve thought twice before forcing his tongue in someone’s mouth. I think this moment, scary as it is for many men, is doing most of them a favor by forcing them to think twice. People don’t often change without a reason -- here is your reason.
Some men and even a small number of women have expressed concern to me about this tactic; is this outing of men really the right way to do this? This argument imagines that we haven’t tried anything else. Men have long been nearly completely unaccountable for this kind of misconduct. Women who come forward by themselves are often not believed. Or maybe they are, but the abuse is dismissed as something like “locker-room talk." Perpetrators like Louis CK lie, and their friends defend them -- until the evidence is beyond disputable.
Men have long held our lives in their hands, and now we hold their reputations and careers in ours.
Thanks to all the work that has brought us to this moment, men (and especially powerful ones) will now feel perhaps a tiny bit more scared of violating people. A tiny bit less untouchable. And your regular Joes out there will hopefully feel their feet in the fire, too. After all, no one wants to be the creepy dude in your social circle who women warn other women to avoid.
Are you thinking to yourself right now, what if that’s me? Good. That’s right where you should be. Men everywhere, for the first time, are thinking twice. So let’s keep up the witch hunt.
Catie Stewart is an organizer and writer living in San Francisco.