Since the protective cocoon around Harvey Weinstein started to crumble a few weeks ago I’ve been following the #metoo hashtag on Twitter with mixed emotions. Specifically a blend of horror, shock, disgust, bewilderment, helplessness and dismay. Some people have berated men for our deafening collective silence on the issue, but I’d argue that this is an excellent opportunity to pipe down for a minute and listen. I don’t have anything clever, funny or enlightening to say on the subject of sexual harassment, just a sense of pallid unease as the warning lights become a shimmering red mass. Besides, anyone who supposes that the discussion will be enriched by the inclusion of more male voices clearly hasn’t spent much time on Twitter.
So what can men do about it? Few of us can see a wonky table leg without attempting to prop it up with random bits of wood and card, so we would feel better if there were a quick remedy to hand. There are a few. For starters, we can stop wheeling out the ‘not all men’ argument. If all women have been subjected to this, it’s logical to conclude that all men are culpable to some degree. And not just in the sense of turning a deaf ear to the boss’s sexist jokes or the loudmouth on the bus. We are all somewhere on what David Aaronovitch this week called the Weinstein spectrum. Perhaps it was inadvertent. Perhaps you were young, or drunk, or feeling lonely and unloved. Perhaps you didn’t know where to look on a crowded train until a pair of breasts caught your gaze. (I’m sorry, I’ll rewrite that. Perhaps you didn’t know where to look until somebody’s breasts caught your gaze. The breasts weren’t hovering in the air by themselves: they were part of a person who hadn’t asked to be gawped at by a lascivious stranger). Perhaps you thought someone was turning you down because she was worried about being disappointed, and you just needed to reassure her you could show her a good time, when actually she was worried about being assaulted and your reassurances were nothing of the kind. It doesn’t matter. You were still being a jerk. Acknowledge it and try to do better. And I’d love to deploy the other favourite excuse, that my intentions were honourable, but that’s not true either. Sometimes I was over-attentive towards someone, even in ostensibly nice ways, because I wanted to have sex with them. You can argue that that’s not a bad thing necessarily, just as you can argue that lots of charities benefited from the machinations Jimmy Savile contrived to get the keys to Stoke Mandeville Hospital, but if your motives are dishonest there’s only one person to blame when they lead you into trouble. (No, it’s not the woman. Go back and read it again.)
But in general there’s no DIY fix to the pervasive culture of harassment. Even the best attempts to devise a counter-hashtag have been cosmetic and unconvincing. Proclaiming you will behave better from now on at least shows self-awareness, but it’s a bit like promising to start going to the gym in January. Are you sure about speaking out when the boss starts up the sexist banter in a room full of sycophantic middle managers? Will you still do it when there are no women present, because you recognise that passive participation in what people who’ve never played professional sport call ‘locker-room talk’ is endorsing the unacceptable? How will you really respond when a man who’s got millions to invest in your company tells you after a few drinks that he likes to grab ’em by the pussy?
I’m not comfortable either with the idea of public confession. In the first place, it encourages relativisation, because I can say hand on heart that I’ve never been as appalling as Savile, or Harvey Weinstein, or this guy, so where’s the problem? As any Catholic will tell you, once you’ve confided your sins and said the requisite Hail Marys, it’s easy to lapse into the belief that you’ve discharged your responsibility. There’s also the risk that the victim recognises the scenario and is confronted with something they may have tried very hard to forget. And there’s the danger generic to all amnesties: how do we know that the person who admits to pestering a woman in a bar isn’t trying to deflect attention from something more brutal and unspeakable?
Sex is complicated. It’s playful and devious, it relies on illusion and suggestion, metalanguage, blurred lines and ambiguous gestures. It fits uncomfortably in the constraints of civilised society. But as with all forms of play, it depends on consent and mutual respect. If someone doesn’t want to join in your game, leave them alone. No means no, always, even when it’s phrased as ‘not yet’ or ‘some other time’. Sex isn’t a reward for virtue or wealth or status, or giving someone a pay rise, buying them a nice meal or escorting them home from the pub. And sexual disappointment is no different from any other type of disappointment. Women who don’t fancy you aren’t ‘putting you in the friendzone’: they’re offering to overlook your clumsy sexual presumptiveness and let you show you’re a decent person beneath all that posturing.
Finally, you may have your own #metoo story, of a time when you were on the receiving end of some unwanted attention. (I know I have.) If so, save it for another time, or reflect on the fact that what was an isolated incident for you is part of the everyday fabric of many women’s lives. The things men can do to respond to #metoo are smaller and simpler. We can examine ourselves. We can keep listening. We can keep reading. And we can keep quiet until we’ve got something worthwhile to say. Silence is nothing to be ashamed of.