This is a story of a young man’s cowardice.
I was that young man, in my early twenties. I was travelling with my girlfriend between two countries that spoke languages which neither of us knew. The train was moving through the night towards the border. We tried to make ourselves comfortable on a long cushioned bench, on one side of the compartment. A solitary man was on the other side.
My girlfriend shook me. The man had been looking at her lecherously, and had his hand down his pants. He was clearly masturbating in her general direction. I should surely have barked at him, defended her from this weird behaviour, shown some sign that I disapproved strongly of his actions.
Instead I hedged and fudged and sat up. I didn’t really dare to make eye contact with him. He did stop whatever he was up to down there, but I did no more. My girlfriend was left feeling vulnerable and unsupported.
Now, the truth is that, initially it took a while for me to come to terms with the shock that something like this should happen – the actions of this man were completely foreign to my life experience till that point, though on further conversation with my girlfriend, it was not totally unexpected to her at all. So one reaction, inside me, was a revulsion and shame yet again about how messed up male sexuality is in the world.
But the second piece was clearly about self-preservation. He was a rough and swarthy looking customer alright. I trusted men about as far as the smallest knuckle on my smallest finger, and had successfully avoided fighting with them throughout my adolescence. I would later get mugged by some, and in my twenties my only tactic was to freeze up and go silent, once flight was clearly not an option any more. I knew I was still on my way through being part of the group most at risk of physical attack (men in their early twenties, also the group most likely to attack, of course) and I wanted to make it through in one piece. Moreover, this close to the border, there was no knowing what might happen with some dodgy officials. Maybe they would even befriend the man. Maybe nobody would believe our protestations, if I made some. So the safe option was to shut the f*ck up and stay vigilant.
In later life, the urge to shout and yell and call for help has at least come more strongly to the fore, alongside a willingness to keep reasonably fit and healthy so that I don’t crumple into nothingness. The awareness that, even without a weapon, I can find inner ferocity and use it if I am faced with danger like this has become an aspect of me gradually finding my centre as a man amongst men, even though in practice I’ve still been caught off guard more times than I’m happy about. But the crude masculinity of violence and sexual aggression, which women are faced with daily, needs more than our willingness to stand up and be individually counted. The idea that a border guard or two might actually take the stranger’s side was, sadly, not unlikely. A friend of mine who recently found himself taking a stand against (white) male intimidation of a (black) woman ended up in hospital – rather than finding onlookers taking his side.
And meanwhile, of course, in the face of the epidemic of sexual violence, we cannot simply leave things up to the police. Not least because the police are generally not the most clued up and sensitive of folks when it comes to crime against women. But the point also is that there is plenty of “low-level” harassment that never gets near troubling the local boys in blue. And as men aspiring to greater awareness of such things, and support of our sisters, it is time we found a way to show our disgust in the moment at sexist, archaic male behaviour without expecting it to lead to intimidation of us in turn.
I don’t have the solutions, but I do have some ideas to throw out. Obviously, as an educator, my hope is to change male attitudes among the boys and young men I work with, and encourage young women to speak up and demand this. Yet we know that many young men are simply not getting healthy role models and mentoring when it comes to learning about women. Obviously we can support any collective marches and protests that women wish to organise as well as organising our own. But there’s a role to be played, perhaps, in the moment and in response to some of the unacceptable behaviour that happens daily. Maybe some kind of crowd pledge is in order to help make sure we don’t always have to stand alone. Twenty men in a suburb agree to turn up rapidly if a woman has been spoken to threateningly and texts us. Or to support a brother trying to speak up for women. Of course this could end up looking like vigilantism and blow up into some minor and undesired warfare, yet it doesn’t have to be vigilantism as we currently know it. We don’t have to necklace the perpetrator (who may well look like a man but is most likely in reality some lost boy whose dad never showed him a better way). It’s just that strength in numbers can certainly help win an argument.
These are the places and moments where we need to win men back to the fold. The horrendous headline-grabbing crimes are the tip of a general iceberg of ancient entitlement and sexism that needs to be countered on a daily basis. If that iceberg melts I’m pretty sure the headline stuff, the stuff the police really do have to get involved with (and we need to keep ramming that point home too of course), will hopefully diminish too. Men need to think more creatively about how to support a cultural shift. Sitting at home and meditating for world peace, as I would much prefer to have done throughout my twenties, is all very well. But we need to recreate the warrior archetype, in a post-patriarchal form. Many women have clearly had enough of all our broken promises on this one. And yes, I know that women are not above a little stirring themselves, but that simply is no justification for condoning rather than confronting terrible behaviour in men. We do have to find creative ways to get our own house in order if we ever want that battle between the sexes to end.