How to show up for women

Last May, I wrote an open letter to my male friends about the street harassment I was experiencing on a regular basis. Many of them were sympathetic, outraged, kind, interested. But a few admitted to feeling puzzled: why exactly was I involving them in a situation that had little to do directly with them? What could they do about it?

Part of me wanted to respond bullishly: shouldn’t they want to know what’s happening in my life? Wasn’t there inherent value in their knowing what it was like to be a woman? But another part of me also knew there was more to the picture that I didn’t see yet. What had I really wanted to say about the relationship between my experiences and the men around me?

Two women have recently given me a better idea of what I was reaching for last year, by suggesting that action on the part of men would help prevent the harassment of women.

In preparation for her keynote speech at Brisbane’s recent Bigsound, Pitchfork senior editor Jessica Hopper tweeted the following:

The responses to this query ranged from the frustratingly familiar to the utterly horrific. (You can still read many of the responses.) Women – and queer, trans, and genderqueer people – tweeted stories of being hit on by men in professional settings, of being condescended to by older male colleagues, of being ignored in favour of their male peers, of being mistaken for groupies when they were the headlining act. Amongst the responses, too, were stories of sexual assault. ‘Women are marginalised in music,’ Hopper concluded, moved to tears as she described the hostility of the music industry to women, and how, consequently, female musicians, fans, and music industry professionals alike have faced it silently or simply dropped out of the game.

Juliet Kahn’s essay about girls in gaming, ‘No Girl Wins’, told a similar story about the gaming world, with Kahn describing the process of her younger sister learning tacitly how video games aren’t for girls: by being told so, by being intimidated by the physical stores where the games are sold, by being constantly exposed to blatantly sexual advertisements.

Both Hopper and Kahn reminded me that Western women are ostensibly able to do whatever they want professionally and as entertainment, as long as it’s within legal bounds. Our ‘positive freedom’ in this case, or our freedom to do these things, is unassailable. But in terms of ‘negative freedoms’ – the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints, per Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ essay – we are hamstrung, with women being demoralised, constrained and even attacked at many turns.

How to correct this societal failing, which amounts to cumulative discouragement and worse? Heartened by the responses she received to the tweets – from men who asked, ‘What can we do?’ – Hopper exhorted men to ‘show up for women’. This isn’t about men being responsible for feminists or feminism; as a Tumblr quote doing the social media circuit says, ‘Men who want to be feminist allies do not need to be given a space in feminism. They need to take the space that they have in society and make it feminist.’ Women’s hard and unceasing work has changed the status quo considerably, but men’s assistance can help.

Some of Hopper’s suggestions of how to do this were simple: ‘Ask the women you know about their experiences … Listen to their answers.’ Or, perhaps not so simple: it might sound easy to listen to someone while she tells you what has happened to her. But is it, really? How many times have you seen a man speak over a woman – in a professional context, in a social context? How many times have you seen a man ignore what a woman is saying until she has repeated it several times over, or a man says the same thing? And ‘listening’ is just the most basic element; as many women know, even listening is not hearing. ‘Here’s the most important part,’ Hopper continued. ‘When women tell you what their experiences are, believe them. Don’t qualify that belief – just believe them.’

Believing what a woman says: what a curious concept. We only have to look at the response to women who accused Bill Cosby of rape to know that it’s not a given.

Because her novel Baise-Moi and memoir King Kong Theory both deal with rape, Virginie Despentes talks about rape – specifically, her own – a lot. In a recent interview, she said ‘I’ve been trained to speak about my rape in any situation, you know … I’m having dinner and a girl comments and says, “I’ve read King Kong Theory, it saved my life” – and in general that means we are going to speak about our rapes.’ She doesn’t avoid the conversation, difficult though it might be. But now she is exhausted. Despentes, too, suggests that men show up for women. ‘Rape is always a women’s subject,’ she said. ‘I think I’ve been here listening about … rape for more than 30 years now and I’m tired. I want to see men gathering and please… how can you prevent it, because we can’t.’

From some angles, asking men to step up might seem like an abdication of responsibility or a sheer act of capitulation, but that’s not the case. It is a request to share the load. As Hopper put it, ‘Don’t make us carry this burden alone.’ We have done that for a long time. We are tired.

Women’s action and men’s action can coexist, and the latter is a vital part of the solution. It addresses a key difference between the women’s positive freedoms – to participate in cultural and professional life – and their negative freedoms – to participate without fear or discouragement. The former we already have; the latter we can’t ever get without men taking it upon themselves to make it so.

Estelle Tang

Estelle Tang is a writer and literary scout.

More by Estelle Tang ›

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