Like many men, I initially saw the shootings at UCSB last week as just another in a long string of incidents of gun violence perpetrated by another in a long string of lonely, mentally unstable men who were as far removed from me as it’s possible for two people to be. I braced myself for the usual cycle of mourning mixed with outrage, scattered calls for gun control legislation, inaction on the part of legislators and politicians in the face of one of the best-organized grassroots organizations in the country (the NRA), followed by a fading from the public consciousness after a set number of media cycles. What happened instead, though—the evolving conversation best encapsulated under the #YesAllWomen hashtag—blew a hole in the way that I, as a man, see the world and the other half of its inhabitants. It also made me realize that I have a lot more in common with this particular shooter than I would ever have been comfortable admitting at first glance.
Like most men probably do, I consider myself to be “one of the good guys,” so what’s been most eye-opening about this whole unfolding discussion is not only realizing that there’s a huge gap between the way that I see the world when I walk down the street and the way that a woman sees it, but also that it was possible for me to have and to have had so many close relationships with women over the course of my life and yet still be so ignorant of some of some of the most fundamental realities that half of the world’s population encounters on a daily basis. It felt like peeking through a doorway into a hidden world that was much more twisted and sinister than the one I’m used to seeing every day; I found that I couldn’t just ignore what I’d seen and go back to living my life without in some way reassessing my relationships to all of the women in my life, including the vast majority that I’ll only ever interact with tangentially.
If you’re a man reading this and you’re not already familiar with the hashtag, go spend a few minutes browsing around. The reason the thread is so powerful is that it reads like a support group for women to bare their souls about a small handful of the physical and psychological transgressions, large and small, that they suffer on a daily basis at the hands of men. Reading the stories and articles that started pouring out from every corner of the Internet made me begin to realize just how big a deal this is for all women—how essential harassment by men is to the basic experience of being a woman. It was a realization that, as a man, I’d been able to go 34 years of my life without ever being smacked in the face by. “I had no idea it was this bad” sounds like a weak excuse, but it’s the truth.
Like all of us do, I grew up in a world where women are highly sexualized in virtually all aspects of society, from advertising to movie plots to actual pornography. I became aware of the detrimental effect of all of that on myself and my relationships to women at some point early on, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that I started really thinking about its impact on the women in my life. The biggest turning point for me was starting to work with the Youth Commission during my time in the Mayor’s Office.
The Youth Commission is a group of teenagers who advise the Mayor and the City Council on policy issues. I became their staff liaison/program manager in June of 2010, and over the course of the years that followed I got to know a lot of extraordinary young people who served as commissioners. One of my main goals with the Youth Commission was to get the students to realize their own ability to influence the political systems in which they live, and in order to do that I had to open my eyes to what the world looks like from the perspective of a teenager. As part of that process, for the first time in my life I started to think about what the world looks like to a teenage girl, what messages society has for her that are different than the ones they had for me when I was a teenage boy. I started paying more attention to reasons why girls decide not to run for political office thanks to organizations like the Washington Bus and the Women’s Funding Alliance, processing negative portrayals of women in the media thanks to organizations like Reel Grrls and Powerful Voices, and thinking about the world in which my friends’ infant daughters would be growing up whenever I would spend time with them. As my awareness grew I thought I was doing my part by fighting against the anonymized “other men” who were conspiring to keep women and girls down; I knew that I still objectified women more than I wanted to, but I saw that as something that really only affected me.
While I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, I like to think that I’m a much better male ally to the women and girls in my life now than I was four years ago…but until last week I’d still always thought of misogyny and violence against women as problems for other men but not for me. I would previously never have thought of checking out an attractive woman walking down the street as existing on the same spectrum as Elliott Rogers opening fire on a college campus. What I’ve realized they have in common, though, is that they’re both fundamentally rooted in a system in which women are viewed first and foremost as sex objects, which is what makes possible all of the objectification, infantilization, and abuse that #YesAllWomen is a testament to and a reaction against. Do I fight against that system and try to treat all women in my life with respect? Yes. But do I also contribute to it myself? Absolutely. And that, I think, has been the biggest takeaway for me from all of this: it’s all too easy to say that I belong in one bucket or another—good or bad, ally or enemy—but the truth is that both sides are a part of me. I’m used to focusing on the good, but it’s useful to shine a spotlight on the bad from time to time, too; as Justice Brandeis once said, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Even though I’m part of what I assume is the vast majority of men who’s never going to commit an act of abuse—sexual or otherwise—against a woman, that doesn’t mean that I’m not part of the problem. For the first time in my life I feel, viscerally, my own culpability in the perpetuation of a system in which not only are women made to feel uncomfortable and afraid solely because of who they are, but also one in which the emotion that’s been tapped by #YesAllWomen is such a universal but unspoken truth for women that learning about it, as a man, feels somewhat akin to a fish learning that water exists.
I’m not going to try to forecast what the long-term impact of this conversation is going to be in my life—I imagine it’ll be something I’ll look back on as a moment of awakening, but at the very least it’s highlighted the connection between my internal world and the world that women have to navigate on a daily basis, which is huge in and of itself. Going forward I’m going to have to hold myself to a higher standard of personal conduct in order to still be able to think of myself as one of the good guys.