I was talking to my dad the other day about gender. My dad holds “traditional” views about men and women. He tends to think of women as lesser and thus, for example, that the wage gap is justified by ability (in the U.S., full-time working women make about 80 cents on the dollar compared to men).
He thinks that gender equality has been reached as well as it’s going to be. While he supports the idea that not all women should be confined to the kitchen (his own mother as a counter-example), his thought is that women, with exception, have less developed minds. That said, he does believe that women should be treated with dignity, if not genuine respect. Rape should be prosecuted, obviously, but we shouldn’t let histrionics interfere with daily life, according to Dad.
Personally, I think we have a long way to go.
The other day, a close friend of mine, let’s call her Jill, was talking to a neighbor. This fellow, Ed, used to own several properties in Knox County, but now he only owns one triplex. He has been working on the units in preparation to sell them because of his advancing age and some recent health problems. Jill had known him for two years as a neighbor who came by about weekly to handle the yard and any other property issues. Ed invited Jill to view the upstairs apartment he had been working on for the past few months. Jill agreed, knowing that, while her husband was out of town, the tenants of the downstairs apartment were around, and after all, this man was her neighbor, and she was curious about the work he’d been doing.
Once there, he showed her around, and then pulled off his pants and underwear to reveal an erection. He asked her if she would like to see the downstairs unit, and she said, “No, thanks,” and left quickly, unharmed physically but obviously shaken. Jill survived this encounter “unscathed” but has had to process this trauma; did she make a mistake in engaging with a kindly old neighbor? Does she really “need a man around” to be safe? Without much legal recourse, she filed a police report but did not press charges. They probably would not have gone anywhere, anyway, and she was moving away shortly.
Personally, I would like to live in a world where men are not emboldened by their commander-in-chief to assault women, to take for granted that females would like to see their salty old junk and simply impose in such a way. Jill, by chance, like about one in four American women who has reported or will report sexual assault in her lifetime (according to the CDC), was already a rape survivor and suffered from PTSD. She now carries around new baggage because of Ed, a man whom I know to be of sound mind and awareness, despite his age. He thought that he could “grab [her] by the pussy” and get away with it, to quote the POTUS, and, in effect, he did. Our culture of poisonous masculinity was not yet done with Jill, nor is it necessarily finished at this point – as a thirty-something, she’s still young.
Similarly, another friend of mine from Knox County was recently passed over for a promotion because of her gender. This sentence might sound like some oversensitive sentiment, but in context it certainly isn’t. While I won’t report her employer as she is still working in her old position, her boss told her explicitly that she would not be good at a newly open, higher paying sales position because she was a woman. She protested, saying that that was discrimination and therefore illegal. His response: “Prove I said it. It’s you’re word against mine.” I have referred her to an area attorney who specializes in labor discrimination suits, but I doubt that she will pursue fighting this social justice battle because she has young children that depend on her existing salary, and the way forward is not promising. I should add that she also faces daily sexual harassment at this sales-focused workplace full of men. She often receives such repulsive advances as “Why don’t you climb under my desk and just blow me, sweetheart?”
I appeal now to my dad, and to all men and women in Knox County. Do not follow the Donald’s example, and do not allow his “locker room talk” to be accepted. If you hear or see something, say something. Do not assume that locker room talk is just talk. It rarely is. It speaks to a worldview in which women are lesser, worthy of lower wages and sexual aggression. They are objects, according to such a view, and should be treated as possessions owned or coveted or disdained.
Our gender culture is troubling, but it is not hopeless. The next time you hear a woman evaluated, discussed, or treated as an object or lesser being, step up and say something as much as you safely can, regardless of your gender or the speaker’s gender. This is not a women’s rights issue. This is a human rights issue in our own community, and indeed in our own capitol.
An early reader of this essay suggested that I include resources for men seeking to confront these biases, both internally and externally. Perhaps the best resource I have encountered is the National Organization for Men Against Sexism. For local resources, I would recommend New Directions, which facilitates several excellent programs including Coaching Boys into Men, which helps athletics coaches engage in these conversations with local boys’ teams. Additionally, consider watching this YouTube video, a Norwegian PSA targeting men and asking them to speak up against casual misogyny to avoid dire consequences: #DearDaddy. Be warned: this video is hard-hitting and honest, and it does not pull any punches.
“No one is free until we are all free,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said. Women are not free from gendered repression now, and so men are not free either. As a male ally, I stand up to support my sisters, and I encourage all of you to do the same, regardless of your gender. The forces of sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and general bigotry are ascendant, both in our country and worldwide, and it is incumbent upon us all now to resist. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it does not do so on its own. It is up to people, like you and me, to bend it.