No more chickening out

The March4Justice events took place yesterday all over Australia. Thousands of people, women mainly, joined together to protest the mistreatment of women by men and the historic injustice which is epitomised right now by the actions – inactions? – of the government in response to various rape allegations. It really is inexcusable.

I hope that yesterday will mark a turning point. In many ways, it was inspirational. I watched the events in Canberra and the great speech given by Brittany Higgins, the woman who started all this by reporting her rape in Parliament House. I thought her speech was right on the money and very moving. Right now, she’s a figurehead at the front of a great movement, but in years to come, I think she may be seen as a cultural icon.

The same might be said of Grace Tame, who was named Australian of the year in January. She’s an imposing, quite fierce woman who was subjected to grooming by a teacher when at school and since has become a mighty voice in standing up for women’s rights. Indirectly, she was responsible for Brittany reporting her rape. It was the occasion of the Australian of the Year awards that Brittany heard her speak and saw her with the hypocrite PM, which inspired her to speak up.

I think we’ll see a lot more of Grace Tame – I think, and hope, she has a great future ahead of her. There are so many impressive women these days.

What’s happening in Australia is being echoed around the world. In New York, the governor, Mario Cuomo, has been hit by repeated allegations of sexual harassment. In London, the murder of a woman has caught the imagination, as sometimes these cases do. It turns out the alleged murderer was a police officer. Outrage is widespread, and vigils held – ironically, disturbed and dispersed by the police. There is a groundswell of anger around the world, the common theme being enough is enough.

I had half intended to join the Melbourne March yesterday. I was wary of how I would be received as a solo male. Most would accept me, I believed, and I thought it was important for men to stand up for the cause, even though we’re the object of the anger.

Come yesterday, I still wasn’t sure if I would attend. Should I go? Would I be intruding? In the end, work was my excuse to stay away.

I regret that now. I wasn’t sure for many hours, and then I realised that I chickened out. I’m disappointed in myself. It’s not about me, but each of us has the responsibility to share our support when we can.

Underlying this is fear, I think. The last few years have been cause for much angst and reflection. That’s been hammered home over the last month, and I feel myself strongly reconsidering my own behaviour over many years. That’s a good thing, but not easy.

As men, we have to accept some brutal truths: we scare women. The arguments thrown up about ‘not all men’ are ridiculous and miss the point altogether. Maybe it isn’t all men – but all the perpetrators of this are men. It’s perfectly understandable if women feel nervous and afraid. It’s a bitter pill for a man to swallow, but when you consider that so many women have been victims of sexual crime or harassment, that so many have felt uncomfortable or intimidated over many years, and that most resort to a range of tactics to avoid this discomfort, then the conclusion is inescapable. We’re the problem.

I don’t think any sensible man would disagree that we’ve got it easy – though how easy never really registered to me before. Basically, I go through life without feeling a moment of fear. The prospect of violence or harassment is not even on my radar. I blithely go about my things, oblivious of how different it is for women, and how my unthinking swagger may look to the women about me.

Cheeseboy and I discussed this on our walk on Saturday morning. Both of us are in middle age and lived through a lot. Both of us were pretty social when we were younger. Both of us recognised how oblivious we were of others might feel.

I can sit here and state I’ve never knowingly harassed or sexually intimidated a woman, but that’s just my perspective. I cast my mind back. I’ve known a lot of women and I don’t recall any circumstance when I thought the woman was unwilling – but certainly, asking consent was never even a consideration back then. And how do I know if a woman just went along with me because it was easier to give in than resist?

These are very uncomfortable considerations. I can hardly contemplate that I wouldn’t know – but maybe I didn’t know, and that’s very real when you have a head of steam. I’m very sure I would not have gone on had I known my attentions were unwanted. All of this makes me uneasy. Generally, I feel ashamed at how pathetic we are as men.

I think I’m a decent human being. For as long as I can remember, it’s been important to me to treat people as individuals and grant them the respect they deserve. I can’t conceive of some of the behaviours I hear of now, and it’s distressing to me also. But.

I’m part of the problem, regardless of whether I’ve transgressed. Ignorance, silence, are not an excuse. I’m sure that I’ve used language I shouldn’t have. And I only have to think back to how I was as a young man when I thought that getting a lot of sex was a sign of my virility. It’s an immature attitude, but not uncommon, and it objectifies the experience and, by extension, objectifies women. And it’s embarrassingly juvenile.

I’m more mature now and much more aware than I was. It’s the passage of years and lessons learnt that have brought me to this place, but it shouldn’t take middle-age to get here.

It’s great and necessary that women are now standing up for their rights as a human being. I hope we have a culture now where men will be called out for their inappropriate behaviour. In the short term, I think that’s the most effective way to change behaviour. Longer-term, it comes to education and common decency and good role models. This is where we fall done. None of this in school and role models are flukey – and sadly, if our government can’t get it right, what hope is there otherwise?

This is a humbling experience for any man with a conscience and any level of self-awareness. It doesn’t count for much, but I’m sorry if I’ve caused hurt or harm. From here on in, it’s our responsibility as men to treat women with the respect they deserve and to call out anyone who doesn’t. That’s all I can say now.

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