Let’s talk about Earl. Earl likes coffee. Earl also likes women. A frequent visitor at my job, his sexually suggestive stares and comments toward women, both employees and customers, have earned him the reputation of being a creep. It’s disturbing. I’ve long wanted to call out his behavior, yet the women I work with seem not to mind him. When Earl makes comments to them, they laugh and play along. I am confused. I ask questions. The unanimous response is that Earl means no harm and it is done in a public place, so it does not bother them. “You get used to it,” they agreed.
This does not sit well with me. Numerous women have been sexually assaulted in public spaces, sometimes by men they thought meant no harm. According to Amnesty International, “without exception, a woman’s greatest risk of violence is from someone she knows.” RAINN estimates that 73% of sexual assaults against women are perpetrated by a non-stranger. How have women managed to feel safe when the bystander effect is so well-documented? How is it possible that these women have simply “gotten used” to being sexually harassed? Then again, when immersed in the rape culture that is the U.S., how could they not be used to it? Does “I’m used to it” really mean “I’m tired of fighting so I’ll just put up with it”? If so, is this where allies come in?
Learning to navigate the world as a man when raised as a girl continually proves challenging. Among other things, I have been forced to acknowledge that I now benefit from certain male privileges. I have shared this story with friends, and some have questioned why I approached the women instead of the customer about his behavior. “It can come across as looking for a moment to praise yourself [and] use these women for your own personal gain/knowledge,” one noted. In other words, not approaching the customer meant I potentially abused one of my male privileges. Understood…sort of.
As a person of several marginalized identities, I am frequently asked when an ‘ally’ should speak. I have the same question. It is my job as a man who believes in equality and equity for women to support women by any means necessary. However, what does it mean to support? By speaking up for these women (in their presence) am I exhibiting behaviors from a ‘Male Saviour Complex’? If I do not, am I contributing to the very patriarchal systems and ideologies that I loathe?
I’ve been taught not to say, “Let me help you,” but to ask, “How can I help?” I called into question the feelings of the women because in my approach to helping others, it is important to be aware of how they would actually like me to help. In many cases this pivotal step is forgotten, assumptions are made, and suddenly a would-be useful individual becomes a victim of the “________ Saviour Complex.” I am not here to save anyone. I am here to aid. In the presence of a marginalized group, I leave the power in their hands to be in control of the situation. It is, after all, about them. And whatever happens will affect them. Though it is nice to see someone else call out oppression against you, it is also nice to not have your needs assumed and to be given the power that is often stolen from you.
This approach does not sit well with some, leaving me displeased with my inability to please all parties. When your actions are open to interpretation and criticism by an entire community with varied beliefs, it is difficult to decide what move would best benefit said people. I am not sure what to do. While I do not want to abuse my privilege and silence/bring unwanted attention to any group I have social power over, I also do not want to ignore the possibility of using that power for good. Privilege, at times, is beneficial. It can allow one to help to helping marginalized communities. Albeit being highly problematic, it is through privileged individuals that messages are often understood by the masses.
To date, I have said nothing to the customer about his behavior. It seems as though doing is a catch-22: educate a misogynist, but ignore the wishes of women directly involved. I’d be using my privilege for a greater good yet personal evil. This goes against many internal beliefs that I am not willing to compromise. So I will sit in silence, as demanded by my coworkers and to the dismay of both other women and myself. This makes me uncomfortable–angry, even. I understand that my silence is problematic and do not agree with silence being the solution. But I accept it when necessary. And for now I suppose it is necessary.
(Photo: ‘Who Needs Feminism?‘)