CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT
Getting Men to Speak Up
In early November 1991, a month after Anita Hill’s testimony about being sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, my mother invited me to dinner. After a long and pleasant meal, she told me that Hill’s stories were all too familiar. When my mother was in graduate school, her mentor groped her. She left school the next day and didn’t complete her PhD for 30 years.Back in the 1990s, Hill wasn’t believed when she bravely came forward. Instead she was vilified by the Senate Judiciary Committee as a woman scorned, as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,” as a now-contrite David Brock put it in his article smearing Hill. That response set the tone: Over the next 25 years, whenever a woman stood up to publicly accuse men like Bill Cosby or Bill Clinton of sexual assault, she usually ended up being the one on trial in the court of public opinion, charged with a lack of credibility.But outside this public narrative, something started to shift: Women like my mother began to speak privately about their painful experiences. Mothers told their children, wives told their husbands, women told their friends, daughters told their parents. And they were believed.
Social scientists who study movements often speak of the three elements of revolution. First come the structural preconditions — long-term institutional changes that slowly build pressure, sometimes without even being noticed. In this case, those 25 years of simmering private conversations paved the way for today’s widespread backlash against harassment. The second element of a revolution is precipitants — pivotal events that cause change to rapidly accelerate. One precipitant here was the 2016 release of the Access Hollywood videotape of Donald Trump bragging about kissing and groping women. After his election to the U.S. presidency despite this evidence, many women were both incredulous and furious.
Finally, there are trigger events that ignite a major explosion. In this case it was the rapid succession of revelations about Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Harvey Weinstein. In what seemed like a first, the women’s tales of abuse were not doubted — they were believed. And so #MeToo began, a reckoning so public that the women who spoke out were named Time magazine’s people of the year in 2017.
We are in a new moment. For many of us, particularly men, it is scary and uncomfortable. Men are feeling vulnerable and afraid of false accusations (or perhaps true ones). They fear that things they did a long time ago will be reevaluated under new rules. They tell me they’re walking on eggshells. Because of this, many men are staying silent rather than taking part in the conversation. And yet inaction isn’t necessarily the right approach; there are important things men can do and say to support the women in their lives.
My experience studying masculinity and working with companies on sexual harassment has led me to focus on how men can take action to address this problem in the workplace. To do so effectively, we must come to terms with four questions: Why do men harass women? Don’t they know it’s wrong? How do they get away with it? And finally, what can we do about it?