The woke gent’s guide to blurred lines

The Me Too movement has made relationships with women fraught for men. Just how can you be a decent chap these days?

Features
Cover illustration by Miriam Elia

Some months ago, I was working out at the gym and noticed that my trainer — let’s call him Tom — was more than slightly distracted. As I grunted my way through various undignified movements, Tom’s eyes were glued to his phone. Eventually I gave up on the dumb-bells and asked him what was the matter. The distraction turned out not to be a family emergency or a really unbeatable offer on reclaiming mis-sold PPI, but a lady from Essex who was doing some fairly extraordinary things in her bedroom whilst her children were eating their cereal next door. She and Tom had been chatting the previous evening on a dating app and the lady was live-streaming her antics to Tom’s phone for his real-time gratification. Leaving aside my astonishment that anyone would have the organisational skills for that sort of thing before the school run, I was also pretty surprised that she and Tom had never met in real life (IRL as the young kids say). As far as she knew, he was a random stranger, a collection of typed words in messages, and yet she not only trusted him with these extremely intimate images, but was doing so entirely on her own initiative. I asked Tom how he felt about this.

“It’s normal,” he replied. “I get a few of these every day.”

He then apologised profusely for what he feared had been his “inappropriate” behaviour in looking at the video in my presence. His mortification appeared genuine.

“I wouldn’t have switched it on if I’d known — I was just checking my messages,” he explained. I didn’t feel angered or threatened, though I did point out to Tom that watching amateur porn in the presence of his clients maybe wasn’t a great business strategy.

I was fascinated by Tom’s evident confusion at the collision of two entirely conflicting spheres, the professional and the personal. I’d been working out with Tom for a decade at that point and I knew him pretty well. He had never done or said anything to make me feel uncomfortable. The video had taken him by surprise and he was extremely anxious that a few minutes’ hypnotised perving could cost him his job. As cognitive dissonance goes, it was a tough one. On the one hand, Tom was perfectly aware that his action could have caused great distress to a female client, on the other, his reality as a single man who uses dating apps was that many women choose to initiate explicit sexual communication online. The problem wasn’t whatever images Tom and the lady were consensually exchanging, it was that he had been momentarily blindsided into allowing those conflicting spheres to elide.

We discussed it over a coffee. What I took away from the conversation was that Tom is perhaps representative of many men in the Me Too era. He is heterosexual, he likes and respects women and is genuinely horrified at the thought of sexual abuse. He also exists in a world where sending and receiving hard-core images has become normalised. Women are the adult monitors of their own sexual desires and destinies; they also have a right to feel safe from harassment. Smartphones and the vast availability of online porn have effected a revolution in less than a decade, whilst during the same period women have become increasingly and rightly vocal and assertive in refusing to tolerate sexually exploitative behaviour. Tom’s own experience of this had left him confused and uncertain, unsure of how to behave.

The Me Too movement was founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke, with the aim of creating a community to help survivors of sexual violence, in particular women of colour. In 2017, the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted “Me too” in a gesture intended to expose the magnitude of the problem of sexual abuse in the entertainment industry, and the phrase went viral. Thousands of women spoke out for the first time about the harassment they had endured, and the initiative bred Time’s Up, a movement intended to address sexual abuse across all industries. Prominent figures such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey and the comedian Louis CK were called to account for their behaviour. Meanwhile, a recent survey in the New York Times noted that over 200 men had lost their positions since the movement’s inception. Inevitably, there has been a backlash, with #MeToo activists being accused of witch-hunting, while the attempts of some of those accused to explain their actions have been seen as opportunistic hypocrisy.

However, to acknowledge that there are men who are struggling with Me Too is not to become an apologist for the previous status quo. Deborah Frances-White, the writer and founder of the hugely popular podcast The Guilty Feminist, responded to suggestions that Me Too had gone too far with the suggestion  that the “‘women have to put up with any sh—t’ movement had a really good run”. But she added “[men] not knowing whether they’re being inappropriately flirtatious, bullying, intimidating, sexually explicit — they just didn’t know because they never thought to ask — that’s fascinating and now there are consequences.”

I doubt that anyone reading this would dispute that this is a good thing. But Me Too is also a generational issue. Behaviours which were tolerated, accepted or even went unnoticed in the relatively recent past are now understood as expressions of a power structure which no longer pertains. Conversely, genuine social and professional equality can seem fraught with ambiguity. Consider this exchange from Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia:

Hannah: Almost anybody.
Bernard: Darling —
Hannah: Don’t call me darling.
Bernard: Dickhead, then, is it likely . . .

Is Bernard treating Hannah with the equality she purports to demand, or is he using his assured place within a patriarchal power structure to dismiss and diminish her? Which is more patronising, “darling” or “dickhead”? Your instinctive answer to that question might well have consequences, and wishing to avoid them doesn’t necessarily make you a retrograde monster seeking to cloak your unregenerate lechery in political correctness. Maybe your definition of what of means to be a decent chap just needs a bit of an upgrade.

A straw poll among male colleagues didn’t come up with much useful advice. “You know when your behaviour is inappropriate,” “Don’t be a dick.” But is it being “a dick” to offer a compliment to a female colleague, or to hug her if she’s upset? To open a door or stand up when she enters the room? To conduct a confidential meeting in a closed office? The answers to such questions might seem clear to a digitally-savvy Millennial, accustomed to the self-policing of social media, but might not be so apparent to an older man. And if Me Too is to build an enduring legacy of respect and tolerance, then confusion around such issues needs to be treated in a humane and inclusive spirit. Women are not wide-eyed kittens drowning in a bucket of masculine lust, and men are not seething cauldrons of barely-repressed lubricity. Beyond the acres of polemic which have surrounded Me Too, most of us just want to get it right.

How not to be a sex pest

1. So long as you believe sex is something nasty that men do to women, you’re on a loser. The Cockayne-land of the Fifties where men were men and women were Valium-popping, girdle-wearing second-class citizens, and consent meant the strong possibility of an unwanted marriage or an illegal abortion, no longer exists. Women like sex. They like it with people they like. That may not be you. If you want a guaranteed executive send-off, hire a sex worker, it’s their profession. If you don’t, accept that no amount of coaxing , cajoling or coercing is anything but abuse.

2. Question yourself. How would you behave with a male colleague? Your daughter’s friend? A senior female co-worker? If anything you are contemplating doesn’t feel right in any of these categories, then it’s not going to be right in general.

3. And ask questions. “May I kiss you?” might not seem like the most erotic of preliminaries but it gives all parties an opt-out. If the answer is no, desist gracefully. (See 1.)

4. Don’t be afraid of clarity. If you are attracted to a woman and feel that she may be attracted to you, it’s fine to ask if she’d like to spend some time in your company. However, be realistic. If you’re the CEO and she’s the receptionist, then your request might be intimidating. Disparities of power, income or professional seniority can make refusal difficult. Think about it from her perspective, and if it seems as though she could misconstrue even the best-meant invitation, don’t offer it.

5. Consider whether your presence is welcome. Are you, in any way, in her space?

6. Texts and photos are a minefield. Naked selfies are no longer considered shocking, but never ever ever send anything like that uninvited. Like, ever.

7. There’s nothing wrong with giving a woman a compliment. Obviously you would never remark on her body, but praising a hairstyle, jacket or handbag is neutral. If you find yourself following Joanne from accounts round the office repeating, “I really like the shape of your . . . handbag,” odds are she won’t find it funny.

8. Do not watch amateur porn on your hand-held electronic device in public.

9. Mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, partners, mates, friends. Women are all of these things. We are not mysterious, mercurial creatures who need to be alternately bullied and petted. Our complexities and vulnerabilities are as myriad and varied as yours. Above all, we want to be respected as human beings. Me Too includes you.