I am sick of hearing men blame women for walking in parks at night or dressing in clothes men consider sexual as if “they’re asking for it”. I am a 60 year old white professional man. I grew up in a family where I was taught to act fairly, to not be violent or aggressive, to be kind to people in need, to be thoughtful of others and to offer women a seat or to go first through a doorway. I read ‘Gentleman Junior’ at school, my perceptions honed on the rock of Catholic values. As a young man I joined the professional church as a seminarian and spent seven years as a priest. I left so I could marry and have a family. Those years shaped me for good and ill, in ways I still discover to this day. I work now as a psychologist and encounter daily the pain and suffering of people struggling with the lifetime effects of poor parenting or unjust, harmful behaviour from others.
I believed I was a fair, just and caring man.
However, I learned in more recent years just how ingrained is my sexism and misogyny, how normalised and therefore invisible to me are my assumptions that guide my judgments and beliefs and thence my attitudes about women’s behaviour, clothing and about them walking in parks at night. I had it pointed out to me how much I corrected pronunciation and grammar; how I interrupted and talked over women, how I assumed what women wanted or needed; how I took it upon myself to explain matters. And the kicker, I was hurt and angry when a woman wasn’t grateful for me doing this.
I noticed when male friends, shop assistants (not all men), real estate agents (mostly men) and tradesmen (all men) spoke to me rather than to my wife when we were part of joint-decision making conversations.
I realised that I had long assumed that women dressed the way they did to be attractive to men. But discussing the issue with women, I discovered they choose to dress for themselves or for their female friends and less so for men. But males assume it is focussed at them. As much as this may shock some men, women are not walking around wanting sex! Mostly, from what I have learned from the women in my life, women want to live with equal freedom to men, to move around, to live their lives the way they choose. To go about their business without harassment or fear; or the expectation they will be interrupted and talked over. They want to sit on a tram or train without being ogled or touched up. Women would like to know they can walk in a park, or a street, or a laneway without being attacked, murdered and raped.
Yet, women live in a world that men seem to claim as theirs, physically, socially and sexually. It’s a man’s world. But it shouldn’t be. Men have no right to dominate the world or even a seat on a train.
I was part of a conversation recently with five males and one female, all professionals gathered for a meal at the end of a conference day. I listened with interest as the woman talked about the country she came from. It was a compelling story of her own family’s experience. One of the men at the table came from the same country and had a very different life experience there and proceeded to interrupt and talk over her. To her credit she stuck to her guns for a few minutes, obviously used to this and able to hold her own. But he was louder and more insistent she listen to him and he dominated the conversation in volume and time. But it wasn’t a conversation anymore. And we were his audience. She fell silent. I said nothing. I saw it happening and I said nothing. Next morning I apologised to her for remaining silent. She was gracious and told me it was nothing, even made excuses for him. But what he did was unacceptable and it happens all the time. And I had been complicit in his disrespect to our female colleague.
I have always regarded myself as a caring, empathic person who was respectful toward women. But as you can see it is not the case. It was not easy to accept the way I saw women was not in a caring nor empathic manner. I was unthinking, wrong and often misogynistic. Even sexually, with embarrassment, I can remember times in my late teens when I had behaved in thoughtless and self-centred ways that must have put the woman I was with under pressure.
When Jill Maher was killed I wanted to march with the citizens of Melbourne who were grieved and enraged by her rape and death. I didn’t. I watched it on the news. And now that Euridice Dixon has so tragically met the same fate I am despairing about the behaviour of that man, and those men who want to blame her for walking home along the streets and across a sport’s field of Parkville at night.
After Euridice Dixon’s rape and murder I came across a Facebook post urging women to not walk in unsafe parks or streets at night, to call an Uber or taxi. The male writer wrote that he will teach his daughters to avoid these areas at night, to learn martial arts so they will know how to protect themselves against men who want to rape and kill them. He wrote Euridice should have taken a taxi or Uber, she was foolish and that’s why she is dead. ‘It’s her own fault,’ he said.
Men like this man accept that the world is the way it is and you (read women) have to adjust to it, learn to be afraid and restrict your life in order to survive. Men like this do not believe in the possibility of changing their behaviour in order to change the world where men and women can walk about in freedom and safety. These men believe girls and women should live by different rules to themselves. They accept the idea women should limit their lives, be silent and listen to men when they speak, feel afraid or not dress as they please because they are physically smaller and less able to defend themselves. They assume that it is only women who should make fearful adjustments to their lives while men do not. Men can dress as they please, walk where they want, sit any way they want, talk over women, take over spaces for themselves, make sexual jokes and passes at women. These men do not believe they should adjust their lives in order to be considerate of what women want, need and deserve.
So what can I do?
The spectrum of situations in which women experience sexist or misogynistic behaviour from males ranges from being talked over in conversation to criminal physical and sexual assault. Several writers have talked about the need for men to take positive action, to speak up, and I support all of that. I have been silent for too long. My wife says I am a good man. I am deeply grateful for her seeing good in me. But I have been silent in my lounge room and in life for too long on this. Too many men are mute.. Men must speak out to other men and risk an aggressive push-back or ridicule, not just when misogynistic talk happens in a pub, but at dinner with friends, on trains, trams, at work when female colleagues are talked over at meetings, or during any conversations.
Speak out when you see women closing down because a man has taken over the conversation or actively shut her down, or made a sexist remark or joke. Listen with respect. Take equal turns when conversing. Avoid speaking more loudly than women to make your voice heard. Wait to hear, give the person time to speak. This is not difficult.
Don’t correct a woman just because she pronounces a word different from you. What does it matter? Get over the need to be right, to be the person who knows more stuff. There are many ways to see situations, not just yours. A woman’s view is just as valid as yours. Maybe she is not interested in getting the name of the thing correct but in the smell or colour or taste of it and values it for its beauty. Maybe she wants to be with you and connect with you emotionally. Be open to another way of experiencing life?
Look at women in a new way, as people with a perspective as valid as yours, not as sexual beings who are restraining their lust for you! Notice how you use your eyes to stare or gaze at women as they approach, as they walk in front of you. Are you treating them as a person or a sexual object? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so don’t go imposing your perception onto a woman. She is just going about the business of her life.
Speak up in the small stuff, the daily invisible misogyny we all share and have responsibility for maintaining. Silence maintains misogyny. Many men are afraid of being criticised by stronger louder more aggressive males. So we stay silent to preserve our own social skins. Imagine if every good man spoke out and took a social risk. Let’s face it, do you really want to remain part of a group that stays silent and won’t support respectful relationships?
It’s time all men stood up and set a new standard for how it is to be a man, and that includes me.