One night when I was riding home to New York City’s Brooklyn borough on the C train, an older man started smiling, making kissy faces and, eventually, miming sexual acts at me. I pointedly tried to ignore him as my discomfort grew; there weren’t that many people on the train, and my stop was coming up. The nearest person was a younger black man—I looked at him, my expression tense, and he just smiled and shook his head. “What terrible behavior,” he seemed to be saying. “But I’m not doing shit about it.”
Eventually the man followed me off the train at my stop. It was late enough that there weren’t enough people in the station, but I luckily saw a couple walking in front of me: a white woman and a black man. I approached them with a big, forced smile and quietly asked if I could pretend I knew them because I was being followed.
The black man looked confused; the white woman immediately understood, gave me a hug and acted like we were old friends. The man stopped following me. It’s not often that I’ll take the side of a white woman in a conversation about black men vs. white women in the oppression Olympics—I often fall on the side of “Both of y’all are acting like trash,” to be honest—but in this case, I couldn’t help thinking, Come the fuck on, black men.
It’s even more exhausting when it’s the men you know watching these things happen. Years ago, when I was home from college, a longtime friend had a kickback in a cramped Comfort Inn room down the street from the Cracker Barrel where he worked. His co-workers were cool for the most part, except for one guy, who set his targets on me and started aggressively flirting. He responded to all my requests that he leave me alone—indirect and direct—with liquor-fueled, combative word salad. I eventually explained what was going on to my friend and asked him for help.
“Nah, that’s just my dude Milton,” he responded, as if this man hadn’t made himself known to me.
“Well, Milton is making me uncomfortable as fuck. That nigga is rapey.”
“He not gon’ do nothing to you. He’s harmless.”
Never mind the fact that he was already doing harm, ignoring my wishes to be left alone and making me feel vaguely unsafe during an otherwise pleasant evening. Never mind that I wasn’t asking for my friend to beat his ass (a show of magnanimity, I thought!), or that I wasn’t going so far as to scream rape or otherwise suggest that I was in danger of him sexually assaulting me right then and there (even though my spidey senses told me he certainly might, if given the chance, since “no” clearly wasn’t in this guy’s vocabulary).
My friend was so ready to excuse the actions of this man as normal—he was a relatively new acquaintance, I might add—that he waved me off and acted as if my extreme discomfort was negligible.
Without fail, men I know naively explain that their friends, their family, their brothers do not treat women poorly; they do not sexually assault; they are not sexists. There is an implication that the person in question is not a perpetrator of sexism himself. That very well may be true—it is probably not, since everyone of every gender has been force-fed cisnormative, patriarchal values to the point where sexism is ingrained in our everyday lives and language.
And since it is probably not true, then we need to acknowledge that the “good guy” trope is bullshit and that men need to take accountability for their part—always bigger than they think—in keeping rape culture alive. Not only is it extremely fucking lazy to only check for sexism when it’s in our own backyards—but it’s devastating and harmful to pretend that it’s not in our own backyards when it clearly is.
Another thing: You’re full of shit if you act like you check your male friends every time they make a sexist comment, say something a little bit out of line. When you aren’t constantly harassed, an errant “ho” or “bitch” every now and then doesn’t seem that serious; when you aren’t faced with a brick ceiling as you try to come up in your career, something like a comment about “females” discussing routes will seem like nothing (Cam Newton and Jordan Rodrigue can both kick rocks, by the way). That’s part of the thing about microaggressions and, in this particular case, about sexist behavior: If you aren’t staring the beast in the face, the footprints don’t seem to mean much.
Black men will quickly tell you how they can sense racism, how cautious they are about it; there are always signs and signals to be found in an endless sea of microaggressions that can tell you who the most dangerous white people are, even if the white people in question don’t realize it themselves.
As a black femme, I agree—so it’s all the more baffling when I say the same for being able to sense when men are dangerous. The “harmless” comments, the locker-room talk, the catcalling, the refusal to respect even the most minute boundaries. People like me must navigate a world of never-ending sexist dog whistles—but we are not the ones being signaled. Every comment allowed to pass, every rapist defended by friends and family and strangers, every man afraid of being falsely accused, creates a culture saying, “We have your back when you harm women.”
Everyone else is trained to hear this frequency as a matter of survival, to be on alert lest we fall prey to forces bigger and scarier than us: How far is the animal? But the real kicker is that the men who harm us aren’t mere animals; they’re often our friends, our co-workers, our family.
Women are never taken for their word at the warning stage; it’s only when sexism bursts out in grand form that men will listen and take action, because then they have to. How many men had to be exposed to Harvey Weinstein’s behavior for years, only for a few of them to come out and sheepishly condemn it after the fact? Men are able to continue to behave this way because of other men. But I’m tired of letting the “nice” guys off the hook, because you’re making it harder, too.
It’s always exhausting when I see men become suddenly terrified of having their lives ruined by an errant accusation of sexual assault. Wow, I think. How terrible to have to be hypervigilant and live in fear that actions not under your control could ruin or end your life. And then I roll my eyes so hard I can see the ghost of my prenatural new growth.
While there are stark differences in the ways racism and sexism operate, I can never ignore the linguistic parallels, the way power operates across communities: “There is nothing worse than being accused of perpetrating this horrible, life-changing act,” it says. “Even actually being a victim of the act” is what always goes unspoken.
It shouldn’t be lost on you that the discussion always turns to one in which women are assumed to be lying. Never mind the fact that the data we do have around this supports the narrative that false accusations are rare—according to an oft-cited study (pdf), somewhere between 2 and 10 percent (based on the range of a series of eight studies, including the one linked).
I have neither the heart nor the energy to list statistics here about the prevalence of real, actual sexual assault, the ones that somehow never factor into the minds of men who continue to find creative ways to throw their agency and accountability to the wind. No matter what women say, something is put forth to explain how they are the problem. And the crazy thing is, no one benefits from this culture, and everyone can be a victim—men and women and those outside the binary alike.
If you decide to be a feminist after a life of being forced to be around and to idolize men, you start to play a fucked-up game of six degrees of separation from imaginary rapists that men you know may or may not be associated with. You have to, to some extent, and you have to do it quietly because, inasmuch as men deny the reality of sexism, they will find you crazy and paranoid for assuming that anyone could rape you.
It’s amazing, really—men constantly place the burden of not being raped on women and then react negatively to measures women take to do just that if they seem extreme. But the thing is, just like a healthy mistrust of any group wielding institutional power, the “extremes” we go to are still not sufficient.
We must be dazzlingly, dangerously close to being raped before it actually becomes something to call out—the shadows dancing in your eyes after a round of drugs slipped into your drink, the chorus line of women kicking and flailing out of silence into a media firestorm, the flash and bang of broken objects on the off chance you are not paralyzed by the relationship you and the rapist have.
And then it still isn’t enough.
That’s why I want to be clear here. To the men who “don’t have friends like that,” who “know how to treat women,” who are real men because “that’s the type of thing boys do,” and to the men who don’t understand why we are so deeply distrustful of you, remember this: I have been raped by far nicer men than you.
I have been sexually assaulted by men who speak up and speak out about the terrible things that happen to women behind closed doors while benefiting from the fact that you go out of your way to keep those doors shut and the women behind them silent.
I have been harassed by men who love their mothers and sisters and who go to church and who know far more about feminist theory than you. If your defense of women only exists in empty words, lofty hypotheticals—if you feel in any way comfortable or complacent in the fight to make the world safe for women—you are feeding the beast.
You are a part of the problem. You are the problem.