This essay is part of a larger conversation about harassment. We’ve invited different voices to join this and work towards unpacking the problem and finding solutions. You can find the rest of the essays on this index page).
We’ve had a long run, fellow cis straight men. Thousands of years of patriarchy have allowed us to take what we want, when we want it, and live under the delusion that the world owes us everything, up to and including the attention (romantic, sexual, or otherwise) of others, particularly women.
Well, time’s up. We’re seeing people feel empowered to call out bad actors, and we’re starting to see the emergent glimmers of a culture in which people who abuse their power to take advantage of others face real and permanent consequences. Good. More of this. We’re only scratching the surface, and we’re gonna need to dig deep to root this out.
But but but! ‘Not all men!’ you say. ‘What about the good guys?’ you say. Some of us don’t want to be part of the problem, but we find ourselves paralyzed by the possibility that we will somehow, inadvertently mess up. Suddenly we’re being told that our scripts are shit, and that we need new ones. But it feels like nobody is telling us what these new scripts need to look like.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that it can be scary, disorienting, and paralyzing to have all of your scripts chucked in the trash fire along with the rest of the patriarchy. You might get frustrated. Angry. Makes you want to maybe hit things, or–wait, no. That’s not a healthy way to deal with your emotions, my dude. See? This shit is tricky. 1
Okay, moment is over. Look, the thing is, we don’t get to wallow in frustration for too long, because these scripts didn’t just suddenly become bad–they were always bad, it’s just that we hadn’t realized it. But once you see that something is broken, you can’t unsee it, and it’s up to us to fix our own mess.
Besides, just as importantly, it turns out that the version of masculinity that gave us the scripts most of us follow isn’t just bad for women, it’s also terrible for us men. We’re told that in order to be ‘real men,’ we have to shut off our feelings, be stoic and never let on that anything affects us. We consider gentleness, empathy, and kindness to be ‘female’ traits, or ‘soft skills,’ and thus discourage boys from developing those skills. We are encouraged by our peers and the media we consume to view women and other non-male people as objects to either control, consume, or conquer — and our culture bends over backward to look the other way and to excuse our terrible behavior when we throw tantrums2 because other people don’t behave in ways that track with the fantasies we’ve been sold by society.
I’ve seen some hand-wringing from guys about how it’s trendy (whatever the hell that means) to bag on dudes these days, but that nobody is showing us how to be better. That’s just not true. It turns out that there’s plenty of good advice out there, if you’re willing to listen, to self-reflect, and to put in the work to change. Besides, lesson number one for dudes trying to contribute meaningfully to a post-patriarchy world is that it’s not anyone else’s responsibility to figure out how to fix this for us. Part of the problem is that we’ve been relying on others — again, mostly women, but not just women — to do this work for us.
And yes, the theory is all pretty straightforward, but this stuff is work, and it’s ongoing work. Some days we’ll do really well, and some days we’ll falter or make mistakes, especially at first.
But it is not rocket science. The key to successfully navigating a post-#MeToo world and still getting to enjoy romantic relationships is the same as it ever was: you read the room, you listen, you ask for explicit consent, and above all you respect others’ desires when they tell you what they need from you (especially when what they need from you is to stay the hell away from them–no one should have to tell you twice to stay away from them).
So what do new scripts for straight, cis males look like? Everyone has to approach this in a way that works for them, but I can share some of the things I’ve done to mitigate my own conditioning, and some bad behaviors that I’ve identified in myself that I’m trying to overcome.
The first thing we need to do is to stop seeing women as subhuman. If you’re a man, you’ve probably done this; I know I have: you meet a woman — maybe she’s a new co-worker, maybe you’re being introduced at a convention — and as you’re talking to her, your internal fuckmonster pipes up inside your head: “I’d do her.” “She’s hot.” “I wonder if she’s taken.” 3
Suddenly you’ve stopped engaging with the human being in front of you, and you’ve transformed her, in your head, into some sort of non-human object whose only purpose is to somehow satisfy your sexual needs. That’s a bad scene.
Whenever you hear your internal fuckmonster chime in, you need to immediately shut that guy down — shout ‘NO!’ inside your head, and focus extra hard on the person in front of you. Focus on what she’s saying, come up with questions that demonstrate to her (and to you) that you’re engaged and listening.
But before you start chiming in with your questions and comments, make sure you’ve stamped down your urge to talk over women. We dudes do this all damn day, and often we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. But as with most of this stuff, it takes getting a little outside of your comfort zone to become aware of it, so start by taking one day, and focus on noticing all the times that the dudes around you just straight up start talking, or continue talking, while a woman is trying to say something. You’ll be amazed at how often it happens. (You’ll also be amazed at how often we dudes do the thing where we take something that a woman or nonbinary person just said, and pass it off as our own — it’s truly uncanny. And really messed up. But I digress.)
Once you start noticing this stuff, you won’t be able to unhear it, and you might realize that you do it too. And once you realize this, you can start to fix it: listen for when women around you are talking, and when they do, stop talking. Turn your attention to her, focus on what she’s saying.
If the dude next to you keeps yappin’, cut him off and make some space. “Yo, my dude, hold up for a second. I think Natalie was trying to say something. I’m sorry, Natalie, I didn’t catch that the first time, what were you saying?”
These two basic behavioral changes — ceasing to see women as subhuman and not talking over women — will help you to develop your empathy muscles. Building empathy opens the door to you noticing all sorts of other behavior that needs rethinking, in particular when it comes to flirting and dating.
Humans are complicated and infinitely varied, and flirting can be fraught even under the best of circumstances. You’re meeting and learning about a new person4, you’re high on endorphins, you’re probably nervous as hell, and you’ll rely on falling back into your comfortable habits: your confident wink that often reads as creepy leering to others; the light touch that you think reinforces a connection, but can feel like an aggressive invasion of space to someone else. These are some of the behaviors you’ll start seeing in a new light once you start understanding how non-male people view the world. This insight will give you the tools to reassess your own internal scripts for flirting, and either modify them appropriately or stop using them.
But sometimes we just won’t know what to do. This happens to me a lot. People are messy and confusing, and sometimes we’re faced with an interaction in which we’re not entirely sure if the other person is on the same page as we are.
When that happens I try to remember that ‘do nothing’ is a perfectly reasonable course of action, and probably my best bet for a non-shitty outcome. I can’t stress this enough. Satisfying our needs is not the priority here — making sure that we don’t perpetuate bad behavior is. In fact, broadly speaking, a crucial part of what abled cis white men need to learn to do is to step aside and make space for non-male, non-cis, disabled, non-white people’s needs.
But sometimes, the feels are too strong. Sometimes we really, really, really like a lady we’re crushing on, and we think she might feel the same way, and even though we’re not 100% sure, we don’t want to let the opportunity go by. That’s okay! We’re human too, and we crave companionship, affection, and intimacy just like anyone else, even if we’re taught as boys that those are feelings, and feelings are for girls. 🙄
In those cases, it’s a good idea to just straight up ask for explicit consent. This can be nerve wracking — especially if you’re shy — and you may have to work up to it, but it pays off in spades. You find a quiet moment, when you’re both in a place where you can have a nice chat — and when you’re sober, too, since none of this counts if one or both of you are drunk or high — and just bring it up like a goddamn adult. “Hey, Betsy, we’ve been hanging out a lot, and it’s been really fun. I really enjoy your company, and I feel like there’s a fun, flirty thing that’s happening between us. I’d like to take it further, and I wanted to check in to see if you felt the same way. If you don’t, that’s totally okay, I’ll respect whatever you decide, and it won’t color our current relationship, but I’d feel awful if I let it go by without bringing it up, and it turns out that you feel the same way.”
The key here — and I can’t stress this enough — is that you really truly have to mean that last bit: if she says “uh, no thanks, I’m not interested,” you need to drop it entirely. Even if she says “I like you too, but it’s not something I can or want to act on right now,” you need to respect that, back off, act like an adult, and move on. An added bonus to this approach is that it establishes a precedent of talking things out explicitly and directly within the context of your relationship, so if it does turn out that she’s interested, and tells you so, you’re potentially setting yourself up for a healthier interpersonal dynamic.
These are just a few simple things we can use to begin the work of undermining the toxic, misogynistic morass in which we’re wallowing now. But while the theory is simple, it can be difficult to do in practice.
Even more, this is work that a lot of us don’t even realize we need to do, because it’s so internalized. These are the scripts we grew up with, and they’re the ones we still fall back on. They’re reinforced as positive behavior to emulate by most of the male-presenting people closest to us: our fathers and brothers and sons, our best friends and school buds — even the assholes we don’t mess with, like the school bully. This isn’t something that we grow out of, or grow past — it’s something we will struggle with for the rest of our lives. And that’s hard, and it’s messy. But it’s our mess, so we should clean it up.
We need to make sure that this stuff stops with us. We need to ensure that the people coming up behind us — our sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and other little humans around us — can see men modeling cis-gendered masculinity in a positive way, so that our little boys can have positive role models that don’t perpetuate the horrible scripts we’ve been saddled with, and all the other non-male children can have positive examples of what to expect from the men in their lives.
This is made manifest in all aspects of our lives: in the way that we treat the people around us, in the words that we use when we talk to and about children, women and nonbinary folks, in the media that we consume and the way it portrays people of all genders. This is an opportunity to redefine what it means to be a man: to raise up values rooted in empathy, compassion, and solidarity rather than objectification and solipsism.
This is why therapists exist: the best decision I ever made was to sign up to go talk to a professional listener every week. Having someone who will listen, and not judge, and give you real-world tools with which to cope with life — and no, your priest doesn’t count. ↩
‘Throwing a tantrum’ is underselling it. I’m talking about domestic abuse, and unfortunately, in the United States, this often escalates into gun violence — I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the perpetrators of the horrific gun massacres that happen in the US have a history of domestic abuse. ↩
Or worse, you say these things out loud to your buddy, once she’s out of earshot. ↩
Or redefining your relationship with an old acquaintance in new and uncertain ways! ↩