#metoo. Tread Carefully.
I have been on the verge of joining my friends in making non-specific 6-character disclosures. My heart goes out to them and it makes me sad that people I am close to have never told me they have experienced sexual assault. My own experience is something I carry guiltily, like a lot of people, because I let it happen and I didn’t tell anyone.
However, let us be cautious. Boys and young men are constantly teased and nagged about their physical selves: they get the message from adults and from girls that they are smelly and that they are always eating. They get the message from some of the discussion that takes place during campaigns such as #metoo that their thoughts, feelings and behaviours are inherently abusive. This is damaging to self-esteem and it can create a hesitation in entering into relationships. People make mistakes when they relate to other people and a lot of these mistakes are a result of the society in which they grew up. We have to forgive each other and help each other to find ways of making and nurturing relationships. We don’t have to forgive sexual assault. Sexual assault is a separate discussion. But if by association we write people off for other behaviour that we find offensive or embarrassing then we perpetuate the problem. We perpetuate a gender divide with surges of disclosure that somehow implicate all men.
Men have used the hashtag #metoo in the last week or so to make their own disclosures and to make the point that women also harass men or behave in ways that are offensive or embarrassing. Girls and women put boys and men in a difficult position when they flirt or invite sexual contact. Teachers of both sexes suffer from this. It is terrifying to find yourself suddenly alone with a pupil who comes too close or says things that shouldn’t be said between teacher and pupil. It is terrifying to have a pupil make these advances in front of other people. Rumours ruin careers, confidence and relationships. I’ve behaved like that towards a teacher. I’ve been the teacher on the receiving end. Fortunately, in both cases, we found a way through which did not cause damage and enabled us to learn rather than become victims of our own behaviour.
The emergent sexuality of girls can lead to sexual advances to boys who are entirely unprepared to handle them. The boys might think, perhaps this is OK, perhaps it is expected, perhaps it is normal to touch girlfriends in this way. And there is smutty talk around them, about who is physically attractive and who is keen to do the touching. Who do you fancy? How far have you got? This talk happens amongst children despite the work done in schools surrounding appropriate behaviour. It is a result partly of the objectification of women in film; children aren’t generally taught about the Bechdel test. It is a result of hearing adults talk about each other in this way. Of adverts which sexualise everything from underwear to chocolate and soft drinks to cancer charities. We need to educate gently, not attack with a confusing and sudden outburst of fury.
I have a husband, sons, a brother, nephews, brothers-in-law and male friends who would never talk about women in a derogatory way and always treat women with respect. They must not be victims of the force of our relief at finally speaking out about horrible experiences. They are as disgusted as the women around them. Tread carefully, because you tread on their confidence, their self-esteem and their mental health.