Unless you have been living under a social media rock you are almost certainly aware of the #metoo phenomenon that has swept the world. This was originally meant to be a way for women who had suffered sexual harassment, assault, rape and other forms of sexual abuse to find their voice and stand together to expose the scale of the problem. As is often the case with viral phenomena, the hashtag was adjusted and adopted by a number of other groups, with varying degrees of legitimacy.
As is often the case with anything relating to women’s lived experiences, men were quick to assert that they too can be victims of sexual assault. This is true. Some women were similarly quick to come to the defence of the male population, pointing out that not all men were rapists and that many men are ‘good men’. This may also be true.
The undeniable fact however is that men’s bodies are not routinely exposed to the high levels of objectification that women experience. This objectification has a pernicious effect in that it normalises the process by which men feel they have a right to women’s bodies. It is my view that like so many other things, abusive behaviour lies on a spectrum. At the one end is the relatively benign ‘look but don’t touch’ behaviour and at the other end is the full horror of rape and sexual abuse. In between lie many different acts, behaviours and attitudes. Sadly, the relatively benign acts that we consider ‘normal’ and acceptable gradually escalate into ever more serious issues. The problem is that failure to stop the previous action makes it that much harder for the recipient to stop the escalation. Also, the perceived normality of it all makes it harder to draw boundaries even when we feel uncomfortable.
Now, I do realise that we cannot outlaw looking. Indeed, some of us (your writer included) would probably be rather put out if nobody ever noticed us. But what can be done is we can change the attitudes and behaviours that go with that looking.
As many of you already know, I do not live full time as a woman. Far from it. In fact, I spend most of my time en homme. I present as male at work, at family events and with my children. I do a fairly good job presenting both en femme and en homme. I have been told that I make an attractive man when presenting as such and I do a good enough job blending as a woman.
So far so good. Here is the problem. As an adult presenting as a man, I have never been sexually harassed. I have never had a strange woman walk up and say anything sexual at all. Ever. I suspect that some women may have looked at me, possibly in a sexual way, but they never made me aware of it and I certainly never felt threatened by it. Now I know that some of this may have to do with the manner in which women are socialised to repress their sexual needs and indeed their sexuality but in truth I do not think this explains it at all. I have also never been propositioned by a gay man (at least not as far as I know). My perceived masculinity has shielded me from even low-level attention, let alone harassment by all genders.
When I first started going out en femme, it was not long before I became aware of the male gaze. On my second time out a stranger (a man) bought me a drink and placed his hand on my lower back. This was… surprising. Later at another night spot I was made aware of men talking about my friends and I in a sexual way. I did not feel threatened on any of these occasions. I was among friends, I was in a big group, my spouse had my back and I felt safe. The attention was unusual, and I found it confusing, but I did not worry for my safety. On another occasion, I was at a gay club, on my own. It was a slow night and I was sitting at the bar having a drink. A (presumably lesbian) woman was at the bar and we started chatting. I think she may have been trying to pick me up. Or not. But again, I simply pointed out that I was married and not looking for companionship. She left me alone. Quickly. I was alone, but she was not pushy, and I felt safe. At no point did I feel threatened. I will admit that these new and unusual experiences were a little flattering and even validating.
Later when I started dressing more regularly and going out on my own I had at least two occasions where I felt unsafe. On a business trip to Durban I had a young man make inappropriate comments as I walked past him in the evening. This experience unsettled me enough to prompt me to go and get a can of pepper spray for self-defence. This year, in Cape Town, I had a similar situation. Only in Cape Town there was a group of young men and I really felt scared. Having a man follow you and saying that he likes the way you look is a very unpleasant experience. Walking past a whole group of men intent on you as a sexual object is frankly terrifying. Even with pepper spray a group of assailants are a formidable test. Furthermore, whether there is one man or a group of men, you have no idea what the true intentions are. They could be expressing (relatively) harmless appreciation for your appearance. They could be intent on doing you harm. You have no way of knowing and you can easily inflame a situation whether you over or under react. Male to female transgender people are aware of just how curtailed our options are when en femme. Heels prevent you from making your escape on foot. Long nails mean you cannot make an effective fist to fight back and your clothing offers less than ideal protection.
I have often wondered what is different about me when en femme as opposed to when presenting as a man. Why do men feel it is acceptable to objectify, touch and harass the woman, but not the man? I am still the same person. I was watching The Young Turks on YouTube and was shocked to hear that one of the presenters was once groped by a man whilst on a school trip. She reported the event to her teacher who responded by saying that as she was wearing shorts it was to be expected. I was literally speechless. Yes, I too have been harassed when wearing a short skirt, but I have also been harassed when wearing (admittedly skinny) jeans, cowboy boots and a leather jacket when presenting as a woman. I have never been harassed when wearing (sometimes the self-same) skinny jeans, the self-same cowboy boots and a t shirt when presenting as a man, so I really do not think that clothing choices explains the difference (and nor should it).
Rather, it has everything to do with the gender I am presenting as. As noted above it seems that perceived masculinity shields you from unwanted attention, whilst perceived femininity acts as an invitation to this sort of attention. For some reason men feel it is acceptable to harass women. They tend to use clothing and the woman’s behaviour as excuses for their actions and sadly many women seem to have bought into this ‘mansplaining’, but it is simply not an accurate reflection of what is going on. I know that some men do find me attractive when en femme and possibly when presenting as a man too. I know that some women find me attractive in both or either of my iterations. I know that I have never been sexually harassed by men or by women when presenting as a man. I know I have been sexually harassed by men, but never by women when presenting as a woman.
So, what is going on. I suspect there are at least two factors at work. Firstly, whilst women may be less sexually confident and more repressed than men, the more important factor is that women tend not to use sex as a means of exerting physical power over others. Women are therefore less prone to using sex, the threat of sex or the use of sexual language to influence others. Men know that they can scare us. So, they do. They perhaps enjoy seeing us fidgeting for our pepper spray, casting about anxiously, looking for a safe bolt hole. They certainly enjoy seeing how we respond and this explains the catcalling, sexual comments and also at least some actions that accompany so much of what has become normal social interaction. It does not happen because we are wearing a short skirt. It happens because men want to exert power, and this is a very effective way of seeing that power manifest. Of course, sexual assault and rape is perhaps the ultimate expression of that power, but all these acts are on a continuum or a spectrum.
Secondly, it has to do with the way men socialise. The normalcy of the objectification of the feminine body leads men to socialise in a different way to the way women have been socialised. Men are accustomed to making (often crude) sexual remarks about women to each other. It is thus relatively easy for them to make these remarks to women directly. Once this becomes normal and an accepted part of social interaction it is easy to escalate from remarks to acts, such as groping a woman’s breasts, buttocks or worse. On top of this the very narrow definition of masculinity and the pervasiveness of toxic masculinity means that young men are afraid of going against this grain. Being ‘one of the boys’ is very important. Especially when the alternative is to be labelled ‘less than a man’, a ‘sissy’ or any other of a number of terms that at once set you apart and emasculate you. Often being crude, making an obscene remark may just seem easier or safer than standing apart and rejecting this behaviour. This means that even the ‘good guys’, those men who fall into the category of ‘not all men rape’ are prone to being part of the problem. They may not themselves grope, rape or harass, but they also probably will not prevent a friend from doing so. This in turn normalises the friend’s behaviour, for the friend, other men who witness is and perhaps most crucially for those women on the receiving end of this.
I watched another The Young Turks video today and this one raised the notion of a double standard in this debate. Ellen DeGeneres tweeted a happy birthday message to Katy Perry. Unfortunately, the tweet also showed Ellen DeGeneres leering at Katy Perry’s breasts. For those who are unaware, Ellen DeGeneres is lesbian, and the assumption was that as she is lesbian she must have the same sexual motives as men. I dispute this. Yes, it is true that she may have been sexually attracted to Katy Perry. She may even have found Katy Perry’s breasts deeply fascinating and felt the need to leer at them as suggested in the picture. The difference is that (as argued above) women, as a rule, do not use the threat of sex to exert power over people. Whilst the inherent power relations and differences are an obvious aggravating factor in the place of work place sexual assault, the truth is that sexual assault is the use of sex to exert power over another person. I do not believe that Katy Perry honestly felt unsafe when Ellen DeGeneres leered at her. Nor do I believe Katy Perry is worried that Ellen DeGeneres will start stalking her with a view to assaulting her. She probably feels much the way I felt about the lesbian woman who chatted me up in the bar. A little amused, a little flattered and hopes that she won’t be too upset if and when she has to let her down. The idea that because Ellen DeGeneres is a lesbian and that she is therefore the same as heterosexual men misses the distinction between sex as sex and sex as an exertion of power and power dynamics in society. This is essentially the difference between men and women when it comes to sexual interest being displayed. We do not fear women. We do fear men. Men use sex as part of the way they exercise physical power. Women, generally, do not.
So, whilst it is true that ‘not all men rape’, that ‘there are good guys out there’ and that men can be and are victims of sexual assault (the latest news about Kevin Spacey would seem to bear this out), but the big difference is that women experience this differently. I therefore sympathise with men who have been sexually assaulted, and I applaud their efforts to speak out, as I applaud those women who had the courage to say, ‘me too’. Our silence enables the perpetrators of sexual violence. I also support those who are unable to voice their anger, in their decision to remain silent. Hopefully the voices of those who can find their voice will empower others. At the very least it will say ‘this happened, it should never happen, it is never ok’. But men need to change. They need to question whether using the #metoo campaign was the right way to bring their concerns to the fore. I would argue that society must acknowledge that whilst men can be and are victims of this assault it is the underlying power dynamics that drive the behaviours. Men need to stop using sex as a tool in an effort to get what they want. Men need to change so that society can change and that therefore men using the #metoo campaign constituted a hijacking of the campaign.
The proportion of men who are victims of sexual harassment and assault is exponentially smaller than the proportion of women who are subjected to these assaults. The scale of the problem is far greater for women than for men. So, when men proclaim #metoo it is certainly true that they are victims and I am in no way seeking to denigrate this terrible experience, but we must keep the context clear. As a class, men use the reality and the threat of sex, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape to exert power and control over people. The vast majority of people affected by these acts are women and to a lesser extent children. There are certainly men who are affected but let us not let detract from the message that it is mostly men who see feminine bodies as theirs to control and possess. We need to change this attitude. Yes, you can look, but you can look on in admiration not with the intent to objectify and possess. Men, as a class, need to change their behaviours, collectively and individually. #Metoo is and should primarily be about how women are treated in society once this big problem is addressed we can address the equally important but smaller scale problem of how men relate to other men and if necessary how women relate to others. It is however my belief that once we deal with the underlying issues of power dynamics, our society will change so fundamentally that these tangential issues will almost certainly disappear.