I hope I’m no different from a lot of men right now. The vital and necessary #metoo declarations have got me examining my own history, my own current behavior, searching for moments where I might be the one creating a #metoo story in a woman’s life. I’ve been cautiously optimistic. Never forced myself on anyone, check. Always respected “No”, check. No full-blown “Cat Person” moments (God I hope not). I was married and sexually off the market fairly early in life (22). As a (then) devout Mormon, I was not in the habit of making any sexual advances to women at all, wanted or otherwise. Not looking for a prize here, folks, just setting the stage. 😊
Prior to that, though, I remember awkward, ham-handed attempts to find out whether intimacy with girlfriends was welcome or not. This was long before I learned how obvious it is when a relationship had got to that point. It was a bit of a revelation for me to find that when someone is into you, it’s generally not a carefully guarded secret. Whilst figuring that out, if I ever put a woman in the position of feeling pressured (which I suspect may have happened once or twice), I am really sorry for it. That was flat-out inexperience and fear, not an attempt to coerce.
On a happier note, this introspection also lead me to other memories that suggested I had perhaps made good choices when it came to standing up for women being harassed. The story of my fall from grace from the Mormon faith is a volume unto itself. But suffice it to say that once upon a time, I was a faithful lad of nineteen (truly a special age, Mr. King), serving a Mormon mission in Sweden.
In the first few weeks of my first assignment, my perpetual work partner and I were looking down on the street from our austere missionary apartment. There was a bar on the first floor that was a regular source of late night weekend drama. This evening was to be no exception. A man and a woman began shouting at each other in the street below, both clearly a sheet or two to the wind. Swedes tend to be fairly reserved in public, so an altercation of any kind draws notice and a small crowd was gathering.
At first it seemed like it would blow over. They were each of them running out of gas and out of things to say. But when the woman tried to walk away, the man started grabbing her and pushing her toward the side of the building. We took off for the stairs and found ourselves standing between the two down on the street, not entirely clear about what to do once we were there. Sure there were two of us and (notwithstanding his being built like a bulldog) the guy was a full head shorter than me. Still, I felt the intimidation many people must feel when confronting a person whose acceptable behavior filters are clearly and publicly broken. It’s easy to imagine how quickly things could get out of control.
But just showing up and standing between them changed his demeanor entirely. We talked with her first, asking if she needed help, police, a ride, whatever. Without anything to confront, and with witnesses willing to intervene, the man immediately changed his tactics. I can’t remember a person so excited to see me and so anxious to become best friends. We took advantage of his convenient change of heart, one of us providing a very sympathetic ear to his entire sad story, while the other walked the woman out of the area and helped hail her a cab.
The point of all this is that the advice to men about how we can help is pretty good. Don’t engage the aggressor. Get between him and the victim. Talk with her and find out how you can help. Do all of this as soon as you realize the harasser is exerting any kind of force in an attempt to limit the woman’s choices. Don’t wait for him to escalate or become frankly aggressive or violent. It’s easier to provide him an exit if it hasn’t got to a certain point, and that’s what you want. Finally, it’s okay to call law enforcement before you’re sure you should. Dispatchers should sort that out, not you. It’s not supposed to be a hero thing. It’s supposed to be a get her as much help as she needs thing.
No one should have to go through an experience like this. But there is no system, or laws, or program out there that will create the change we need and protect victims during that change. We are the system. We are the program. We have to be the change and we, all of us, men and women both, have to stand between when it happens and provide the protection. For as long as that protection is sadly and shamefully necessary.