The other day at our UU Fellowship our Sunday program focused on the #MeToo movement, a recent movement addressing the very old evil of sexual assault and harassment that has victimized women and men for years. Our video was of a presentation on PBS in which women who have been catalysts in the movement discussed what they hoped would happen now that awareness had been raised by the visible hashtag publicity and the resulting outings of some well known monsters.
As these women talked the concept of male privilege was raised a couple of times. It was not explicitly named, but the women were clearly talking about how, in our culture, women must deal with a reality that men do not. I sensed that one or two people were uncomfortable with a statement that seemed, at first glance, to paint all men with such a broad brush.
The video ended and we had a very polite but somewhat tense discussion about how things have been in the past and what we all hope would come of it in the future. Several of our members came of age in the heady years of feminism, when there were protests almost weekly against sex discrimination, unequal pay, and the massive cultural disparities that kept women from truly being equal to men in the public square. Some anecdotes from that era were shared, and we acknowledged how far things have come, even as we acknowledged there was still much to do. And we also acknowledged the sacrifices these earlier feminists made to gain the progress so many take for granted today.
It was one of our younger members who shook things up a bit when she pointed out that women still went to the restroom in groups. She said her mom and grandma taught her that women go to public restrooms in pairs or groups, especially in bars, restaurants, and other large social gatherings. As she explained, the reason was never explicitly given, but the implication was clear. Women go to “powder their noses” in small groups because it is safer. They are less likely to be harrassed, assaulted, or raped if they are in a group.
Men have always joked about why women go to the restroom in packs. Are they talking about us? Are they comparing notes about how good we are in the sack? Are they making plans on which one of us they will sleep with? Or are they simply making “girl talk?” I never once considered that this was a safety procedure for women until I was much older, and it was good to have this raised in our discussion.
This is a good example of male privilege.
Men are not burdened by having to worry about safety when they go to the restroom. They can go alone into a facility, do their business, and return without even thinking about being attacked. Oh, sure...men are attacked. The news is full of men who are attacked as they leave their cars, hotel rooms, or homes..and in some cases restrooms. It’s not that men are never attacked. It’s that women are so frequently attacked that they have developed this adaptive feature that is passed on from generation to generation for their own protection. They have to think about it because if they are alone when they are attacked, their attacker’s attorney will invariably ask them, “Why were you in that spot alone?” The men around them will ask them, “Why didn’t you ask me, I would have gone with you,” in spite of the fact that these same men never even noticed the woman was leaving to go by herself. Men just don’t give such an action a second thought.
This is male privilege. We did nothing to earn this, nor have we desired it. Goodness, many of us work tirelessly to try to make the world safer for women, and to hold ourselves and other men accountable for their actions and words. We are not afraid to confront our male friends when they offer vulgar or aggressive comments about women, even if it costs us their friendship. We speak out in favor of laws to protect women and make it easier for them to come forward to report violence, to be believed by law enforcement when they do have the courage to report. We are not rapists, sexists, or predators. We are the good guys.
Yet we benefit from not having to worry about our personal safety as we perform the most basic bodily functions. Our grandfathers and fathers never had to teach us to always go with a friend when you go to the restroom. We typically do not teach our sons or grandsons to do this. (Perhaps this is why the fearmongering about transgendered people using the bathroom of their choice was so effective among men, but that is for another time.) We feel it a bit odd to be going to the bathroom with another guy, and typically do not talk in the restroom while we are about our business. Try starting a conversation in the mens’ restroom the next time you go. More than likely you will get short answers to your questions and strange looks. We men do not feel the need to socialize there save on rare occasions when we are with our best buds and, usually, drunk. So the idea of expecting a male friend from our dinner party to accompany us to the loo is strange, even to the point of inspiring mental discomfort.
To women it is a normal thing, and not going with a friend inspires mental discomfort. Why? Because a man may be waiting to attack them. This is their given, their foundation for all decisions they make regarding travel, whether it be a trip to the bathroom or a trip across the country.
Many of us men get very uncomfortable with the term “male privilege.” We view it as an attack on us individually. When women around us talk about their reality, especially in light of the #MeToo movement, many times we get defensive and begin to say, “Wait a minute, I’m not…” or “But, not all men…” as a rebuttal, as if women don’t already know this. If we would just pause for a moment we would realize that these women talking to us already know we are not predators, and that all men are not rapists. We would know this because, by talking to us about their deep fears and the ways they have to change their behavior in order to be safe, they are being vulnerable in our presence, and trust us not to judge or challenge them while they are vulnerable.
Think about that for a moment. For many men, the response they give to women who open up to them about their fears is to view it as a sign of distrust when it is actually a sign of a very deep trust. The women are not viewing you as a bad guy, and they know that not all men are bad (otherwise they would never talk with you, would they?). They are asking you to stand with them and listen, to hear them as they share this fear, and to simply acknowledge it and, if it is within your power, work with them to resolve it. When you respond defensively you are indicating that you just don’t “get it” and are unwilling to set your own ego aside in order to understand.
In other words, you are showing them that they were wrong to trust you, and they likely won’t make that mistake again.
Men, as you listen to these women share their stories and brainstorm ways to change the culture in which they live, if your find yourself more offended by their wording than at what happened to them, maybe you are part of the problem. Prove that you are not by listening to them, seeking understanding of what they are saying, and respecting that their reality may be radically different than yours. And return their trust in you by trusting them enough to know you are not a bad guy.
We don’t need to be snowflakes.