Content note: Sexual violence.
Clementine Ford’s recent opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, “Harassment of women by men at Summernats cannot be excused or ignored”, highlights an ugly truth about Australian society. Women are not safe. Not in their homes, not at festivals, not in a night club or even just walking down the street. And it’s not some shadow-lurking, villainous stranger who poses the greatest risk. It’s normal, every day men, like you and me. It’s other, regular, three-dimensional actual humans. It’s our friends, and workmates and fathers and sons and most of all it’s the collective and willing denial by our society of the very real and normalised harassment, abuse, disrespect and devaluation that a large number of women in our community experience on a regular basis.
Rather than accept the status quo some women stand up to this unjust situation, stand up to the men who are causing it. They talk about their experiences. They fight to have their voices heard. Some, like Ford, use their skills to build a platform where they can reflect on, discuss and challenge these dangerous cultural realities. A lot of men don’t react well to this. They react violently. They react with vitriol. They attempt to demean women like Ford, shame them, threaten them, abuse them, they blame women for their predicament – especially the outspoken ones.
If you want proof of this sort of behaviour, look no further than the comments left under the Facebook post where Ford shared a link to her piece:
This was in response to an article whose core message was one of concern that we are normalising a culture of “male-bonding” at an event where said bonding is often expressed through sexual harassment. This includes the fact that:
“at the McDonald’s closest to the Summernats site… female staff members aren’t assigned to the drive-through window throughout the festival’s duration because of the high incidence of sexual harassment”
and many stories being shared by attendees such as this one:
“Another [attendee] told me about working a stall at Summernats and having a male friend needing to pin her to the ground and cover her body with his own after a group of men surrounded her and started trying to pull her clothes off.”
Considering the, frankly, criminal nature of the behaviour being discussed, Ford’s response was actually very diplomatic. She didn’t call for the event to be cancelled, she even made a number of qualifying statements, such as “this kind of pack bleating only forms a part of Summernats (and certainly isn’t characteristic of all its attendees)”.
And yet hundreds of angry, defensive, abusive comments, like the one above, were left under the post by men. And they didn’t just come from evil, criminal “bad guys”, they were sent by everyday men, who clearly felt no concern with publicly, verbally abusing a woman, because they are in the majority, and they live in a culture which enables their attitudes. Sadly, a number of them, including the guy above, appear to be fathers.
The problem isn’t just a few evil men, it’s the societally normalised, large scale oppression and objectification of women as an everyday occurrence. It’s not just individual men (and women) who react this way. As a society, we still tend to minimise. rather than directly address, these issues. Rather than focussing on ways to change the patterns of abusive, ignorant, unskillfull male behaviour, rather than training boys and men to treat women differently, we put the blame and the onus on women.
They shouldn’t dress like that, act like that, go to that place, take that picture, flirt with that guy, what did they think would happen? They should learn self defence.
There is a whole industry of self defence gadgets marketed at women. Putting the onus back on women means that the current cultural norms can remain unruffled and men, as a whole, don’t have to face up to potentially psychologically uncomfortable self reflection and difficult personal growth. Women are rightfully angry and more and more are pushing back, and starting to say no, it’s not my responsibility to not be raped, it’s your responsibility to not rape me.
There is a growing movement of people calling for better education of boys and men about what constitutes appropriate behaviour, language and relationship dynamics. I wholeheartedly support this call for men to be pulled up and called out by other men and for high standards of respectful behaviour to become a culturally encouraged (even demanded) norm. But I feel that we won’t see significant cultural change unless there’s a shift from policing external male behaviour to encouraging the birth of a richer, more loving, self-aware inner world for men. I believe to really address toxic masculinity we, meaning men, need to talk to other men about our sexuality, our relationships and how we deal with thoughts and emotions. Self-understanding, emotional education and inner-reflection aren’t optional extras, they’re key.
I know it’s easy for me to say that the fight with the violent man inside ourselves is just as important as the collective fight against violent men. I’m a white, cis-gendered, straight man. It’s easy for me to focus so much on my inner world when the outside world isn’t trying to rape or kill me. I can be angry about racism, feel upset about sexism or disgusted by people’s homophobic attitudes, but at the end of the day, when I’m sick of thinking about it or feeling the discomfort of those issues I can switch off those thoughts, I can do something else, think about something else. A person of colour can’t just switch off their otherness in a euro-centric culture. So I have the privilege of talking about this issue from the safety of my whiteness, my maleness and my cis-genderedness. I understand that I’m talking from an experiential ignorance when it comes to oppression. I know I don’t have all the answers (possibly, any of the answers). I’m very willing to learn more.
What I do feel, from my experience of being male, is that I’ve struggled a great deal with sex. I don’t mean necessarily the act of sexual intercourse, although that’s been true sometimes. I mean the experience of sitting with my own sexual desire, my cravings, my hang-ups, the dynamics of my sexual experiences and the thoughts and feelings that arise within and around my sexual life. Sex, for a lot of people is a very potent, sometimes very confusing and complex and for some men (myself included) an often overwhelming part of who we are. There’s so much caught up in it. Our self worth, our identities, our aspirations, our security, our cultural expectations. Sex runs deeply through our psyche as people, through our concepts of family and self, through our religions (if we have them), through our dreams and nightmares.
For many people, our sexual selves, our desires and aversions and fantasies are all part of what it means to be human. Desire, especially heterosexual desire of women by men, is a commodity that is sold to us on every television station, on every billboard, in songs, in magazines, in a sea of sexualised imagery that most of us are immersed in on a daily basis. We are surrounded by sex. And while we make jokes about it, encourage lust for it, embrace it as empowering, use it to in advertising, deny it, shame ourselves for it, become addicted to it or avoid it – we don’t often look squarely and compassionately at the great expanse of it within ourselves and within our relationships and within our culture. Men, especially, are not encouraged to face the reality of their own sexual experience, their own sexual thoughts, feelings, fears and desires and learn how that sexual self forms part of their own experience of being human. We rarely look at what sex really means to us and how it connects with who we are in the world, what we believe, what we value and how we relate to other people, especially for our purposes here – how we relate to women.
I don’t see myself as a bad person. I suppose most people don’t. It’s part of how we stay sane. And when I talk about men who disrespect women I don’t like to include myself in that cohort. But the truth is, I’ve made women uncomfortable in the past. I’ve hit on women in inappropriate ways, I’ve been unaware of the way that I’m impacting the people around me.
I could have easily been one of the men in Ford’s article, screaming at women to get their tits out, losing myself in an animalistic mob attack on a frightened women. Maybe if I grew up in a different family, maybe if I was exposed to more violence, maybe if my father was more misogynistic, maybe if instead of getting therapy I was left to fend for myself and only found escape in drugs or alcohol or toxic masculinity, maybe I’d be in that crowd too.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t hold other people accountable for their actions, or that men’s abusive behaviour should be excused because of their upbringing. On the contrary, I think the fact we should hold everyone accountable, especially ourselves. It’s in seeing the potential for harm in ourselves that we can let go of the comforting us-and-them mentality that puts all the blame for sexual violence on some imagined, evil “other” man. Then we can see that this behaviour grows from a seed that lies in all of us, just as their are seeds of kindness and patience and empathy within us. And we can see that we have the power to choose what seeds we water, and therefore change what qualities we encourage to grow and blossom in our selves, and collectively, what values we promote in our culture.