Dear Men in Power,
I know you’re scared.
Maybe you haven’t slept well in the past two months since the #MeToo movement took its stride. Perhaps you lay awake at night thinking back to those times you might have crossed a line with a female employee. Or you wake up with anxiety in the morning, fearing that phone call or email with an accusation. I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. Genuinely. It must be terrifying. I know many good men who have messed up.
I can imagine this might make you pissed at women, or think that women are abusing their power, or that they’re making things up or blowing them out of proportion. You may want to blame women for being teases or just being overly sensitive. On the flip side, maybe you just want to stop interacting with women in a workplace setting, so you’re not at risk of being accused of anything. Perhaps you want to stop inviting women to private meetings, or even hiring them in the first place, so that you don’t have to worry about any of this. All of these reactions make sense when your career and financial well-being feel threatened, and your reputation and current relationships could be at stake.
But just because these reactions make sense, it doesn’t mean that they are healthy for you. Or that they are good for your loved ones. Or that they make you a good man and good person. Maybe you don’t care about these things. But I’m guessing most of you reading this want to be good men. You don’t want to hurt others, and you like contributing to your community and society in a positive way. You want women to feel safe around you. You also may be thinking, sexual harassment is pretty harmless. Everyone likes to flirt and get attention. Sexual energy adds a little boost to an otherwise tough workday.
And you know what? Many women do like flirting. We like sex and sexual expression. We like feeling beautiful or attractive or getting compliments on an outfit that we carefully chose. What we don’t like, though, is being touched by a man we don’t want to be touched by. We don’t like feeling self-conscious that our bodies are being assessed when we’re trying to make a living and do our jobs well. We don’t like feeling scared that if we don’t laugh at an offensive joke, or acquiesce to flirting, or agree to meet for drinks, or pretend we like seeing your penis, that our job opportunities or work evaluation will be in jeopardy. We don’t like feeling continually distracted and uncomfortable in the workplace. And we don’t like being put in a position where if we go along with sexual advances in a work environment, others will gossip and judge us. But if we don’t go along with sexual advances, you might badmouth us, and others will gossip and judge us. We don’t like being placed in powerless positions, that we are blamed for creating.
If you’re scared because you know you’re a jerk, and like to push to get your way with women, I can’t help you here. But if you’re scared because you feel like you sometimes mess up when you had good intentions, and didn’t think you were doing anything wrong, then this may be a great opportunity for humility and learning.
I don’t want you to feel paralyzed with the fear of messing up. I also don’t want you to be scared or ashamed of your sexual desire or sexual energy. Fear and shame feel terrible for anyone, and often lead to more bad behavior. But I do want you to be more mindful and responsible with what you’re doing with your sexual energy. And to acknowledge that sexual energy can be such a powerful thing, that your version of expression may feel unsafe and really wrong to others, even if it feels lighthearted and easy to you. This requires the humility to consider that there are other different and valid interpretations and experiences of sexual energy. You may have a history of inadvertently prioritizing your fun and comfort over the experiences of others. But if you’ve ever received negative or unexpected responses to your flirting in the past, I hope you’ll be open and curious to learning why.
I have seven suggestions that may or may not hit the target for you, but will at least give you some food for thought:
1) Have compassion for what it feels like to be in an uncomfortable and powerless position. Think about a time that you felt backed into a corner, and how that affected your ability to do your work. Or imagine feeling like you had to go along with the physical touching or comments about your body by a man or woman in a position of power over you, who you were not sexually interested in. And if you tell anyone, you will be blamed regardless of your role in the situation. Sit with what this might feel like. (For more details, here is a great article about how women have to “be perfect” to even have a chance to be believed.)
2) Take a look at gender role socialization. You might not be aware that through gender role training from a young age, many girls and women are taught to laugh at jokes, be nice, and go along with things that feel uncomfortable, just to avoid making social waves. It doesn’t mean we are actually enjoying the interaction or want more. So pay closer attention to social cues. How? The next suggestion will help.
3) Learn emotional intelligence skills. Many men are at a huge disadvantage in this realm, because being socialized “to be a man” means disconnecting from many human emotions and always putting up a “strong” front. (Check out this relevant and beautiful TED Talk by Justin Baldoni.) But this leads to misreading many human interactions. For example, after the charges of sexual harassment to Charlie Rose, he stated that he always thought he was "pursuing shared feelings,” although he now acknowledges that he misread them. Emotional intelligence—the ability to recognize, control responsibly, and articulate one’s emotions, across a broad range of emotions—is vital to empathizing with women and being responsible with your sexual energy.
4) Consider how power and being in charge of others feels good. This is a normal feeling. So own and take responsibility for how your power over others makes you feel, and recognize how you might be using that good feeling to coerce others.
5) Create a safe space for feedback from employees on your style of management. Don’t get defensive, don’t ridicule, and don’t belittle. Listen and try to understand. Create a culture of communication, listening, and respect. Emotional intelligence skills are vital to this as well. If you struggle to understand others, identify a coworker or colleague who has excellent interpersonal skills, and ask for help and guidance. Often, someone else in a meeting or conversation will pick up on subtle signals that you may have missed while you were talking.
6) Be a role model for other men. Call out the inappropriate behavior of other men. Be a man who is respectful to women and admires them for their intelligence, hard work, creativity, collaborations, or clear communication, instead of commenting on how nice their rear end looks in a skirt. Vocally demonstrate to everyone that you value the work contributions of women.
7) Be a positive role model to boys. If boys are not taught to respect women and their bodies, they won’t do that as adults, especially once they’re in a position of power. Have open conversations with the boys and teenagers in your life about this. Ask what the #MeToo movement means to them, and offer them nuanced perspectives that are based in compassion and respect.
Most men I know and speak to want to be good men. That is why I wrote this piece. They want to be respectful and kind to women, and they want women to feel safe around them. But they haven’t been taught how to do this within a context of emotional intelligence, listening, and sexual responsibility. I hope this is an opportunity for you or the men in your life to reflect on your past choices and start on a new journey.
Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus -- Sociologist, Sexologist, & Sexuality Speaker