Men, we can do so much better

Growing up, I had this elementary school teacher, Mrs. I.

She taught me a few times, different subjects of course, but I had her for Grades 6, 7 and 8.

She was one of those teachers who was tough, but fair, who would go out of her way to make students feel comfortable and safe. Sometimes, she was quite tough, but I later realized it was for the best.

She didn’t take BS from anyone. She was particularly short with bystanders. She would often say, “You’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.” If people said “But I didn’t do anything,” she would point out that yes, exactly. You didn’t do anything. You are part of the problem.

Over the years, I forgot about Mrs. I and her sage advice. A few key events and conversations over the past few days have reminded me of the words of Mrs. I.

In fact, I wasn’t even going to write this column. I didn’t think there was anything I could add to this discussion that hadn’t been said, or was worth saying.

But then I remembered her words. It took me a few days, but I realized that by not saying anything, by not amplifying voices, I was part of the problem.

The problem here is gender-based violence.

Men, we can do so much better.

In light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, where dozens of women have come forward with complaints about sexual harassment and assault at the hands of the prominent film producer, women on social media began their own movement.

Anyone who had experienced sexual harassment or assault posted “me too.”

I knew the statistics – I knew polls had said one in three women was sexually harassed at work, and that one in three in their lifetime would be sexually assaulted. For Indigenous women, or for sexual and gender diverse individuals, the numbers are even higher.

That means huge numbers of people have been victimized.

And yet, somehow, it still seemed like a problem far away, something I didn’t have to worry about because I didn’t sexually harass women.

It seemed like something for someone else to worry about.

You’re either part of the problem or part of the solution

I was – I am, part of the problem.

I like to think I haven’t crossed that line, said things or done things that would definitely be sexual harassment, whether at work or not.

Maybe I have, and wasn’t aware. But that’s not good enough.

Even if I haven’t personally been the perpetrator, I’ve certainly been a bystander – whether it was standing by as a friend got grabby with a random person in a club, or laughing at language describing women as if they’re nothing more than a piece of meat, or sharing a friend’s frustration when someone won’t sleep with him even though he was nice to her, I stood by as others engaged in the active objectification or shaming of women. I know I have been, and am, part of the problem.

By sitting back and not acting, by refusing to speak up when other men degraded, harassed, or assaulted women, I became part of the problem.

Sometime between the beginning of the most recent #metoo movement and the writing of this column, I began thinking about conversations I’ve had with several of my female friends, near and far, about men they’ve had in their life.

The realization of what has been blatantly in front of my eyes but that I’ve failed to see for many years struck me.

I knew I had to write.

I’m lucky to have a very wide circle of women in my friend group. I’ve worked to cultivate those friendships by treating women like I would any other person – with respect. It’s genuine. I have no need or desire to become sexual partners with them. They’re friends, just that, and fantastic ones. They’ve helped me to understand my own shortcomings, and what I can do to be better.

Listening to so many people I care deeply about describe situations where men, even partners, have said disgusting things to them, or manipulated them, or taken advantage of them, or when random people in public do the same, I began to become upset, and deeply disturbed.

How could it be that something that has been so painfully clear to half the population could have gone on for so long with most of us men failing to notice, or worse, ignoring and dismissing the behavior?

I think it’s because we didn’t want to confront what was so clearly in front of us.

Nobody wants to feel uncomfortable. Nobody wants to feel they’re to blame when they haven’t done anything.

But that’s the point. We don’t do anything. We ignore these inconvenient truths because we don’t like the way they make us feel, even though the evidence in front of us is clear as day.

So, men, we have to do better. There is so much we can, and must, do better.

We can talk to our friend who is ‘kind of a creep’ at work. We can avoid talking over other women. We can ensure panels and teams include women and allow them to contribute. We can challenge our own beliefs that women owe us something — they don’t. We can listen when someone says “no.” We can acknowledge that even if we have been through struggles ourselves, we can still cause pain on others. We can listen if we’re called out, accept and apologize for the mistake and learn from it. We can stop thinking women are supposed to look a certain way, or act a certain way. We can stop judging women who have had multiple partners while praising men for the same behaviours. We can believe people when they tell us someone made them uncomfortable through unwanted sexual approaches.

We can, we should, and we must, recognize our words, behaviour and inaction that enable other men to sexually harass and assault women.

We can, should, and must amplify the voices of women. We can share the ways they say society needs to change. Look inside yourself, but don’t just stand there. Do something. Take action. People are saying what needs to be done – but we’re not listening.

Many of those points are taken from wise writers I have read, and friends I’ve spoken to.

I thank them for passing on their knowledge so I could rethink the way I live my life and hopefully, encourage others to do the same.

Treating a woman with true respect as a true equal, without expecting anything in return should be the bare minimum of what we expect from ourselves.

Not in an effort to protect ‘property’, to enter into a sexual relationship or to rescue a ‘delicate flower’ — that’s manipulative, and dangerous.

So stand up, share the message and amplify the voices of those who have been victimized. It’s a sign of strength, and it should be the way forward.

So be strong. And be better. We all have so much work to do. We all have so much work we need to do.

Remember the words of Mrs. I. You’re either part of the problem, or part of the solution.

I want to be a part of the solution.