Saturday, January 7, 2012

My First Brush With Speaking Up And Related Thoughts

To explain a little relevant backstory, I have a friend named Beatrice. She's a coworker of mine, a single mother who is half a generation older than me. Namely, my age is almost exactly the average of Beatrice's age and Bea's daughter's age. Anyways, to get to the point, Bea is also rather good looking for her age. This leads to lots of people hitting on her, married men, guys half her age, and so onI became a dear friend of hers since we both carry undeservedly large amounts of the burden at work, and her extreme frankness in private has opened a door to me about the realities of what it's like to be a woman.

Seriously, you didn't know?

This article is what got me onto the subject of thought. I can't say that I've always been unaware, my long days of online gaming and my scrupulous attention to the OK Cupid blog have brought this issue up many a time in the past. The issue, of course, is all the blatant sexual harassment experienced by women. What has changed, in me, however, is the notion that I need to start speaking up about it. After all, if no one in my community wants to bring it up, then how is it ever going to go away?

Before I get to my story, I want to share my thoughts on the matter. Catcalling and things like that create a hostile atmosphere that's intensely damaging to both genders. It offends women and builds a sense amongst women that all that men want from them is sex. The fact that the harassment is incredibly gendered is where the real poison lies - women develop a distrust of men, which leads to an excessively restricted partner selection process. This means that, in many cases, "good" men are ignored, "bad" men are accepted. If you're laboring under the notion that men in general are only interested in you sexually, then why bother trying to sort the wheat from the chaff? Why investigate every guy who considers himself good, if everyone considers themselves basically good but then, from your perspective, they turn around and collude with the guys you know are bad and don't stop them from hurting you?

In this scenario, both men and women suffer. Women, from the obvious degradation, and men, from the consequential presumed guilt. The ideal result would be that men treat women as more than sexual objects, while women understand men as emotional individuals. The primary barrier to this, however, is male shaming techniques. No men want to speak up because it's not a big deal to them and they stand to lose the respect of their peers. Well, it's about time something changes.

What I did is disappointing, yet hopeful

Now that I've built you up with all of this introductory thought, here's the story. I was working with Bea and my more immediate coworker Bryan. Bryan is a fair bit younger than I am, and is the absolute pinnacle of "the man box". His behavior is so sharply dictated by the content of that box, I cannot even describe. When he first started working with me, he gave me this huge unprofessional speech about how he never gives anyone respect unless they earn it, about how he didn't really want the job but just did it because he didn't have anything else better to be doing (how about reading, troglodyte? OK, I didn't say it, but I wanted to), and so on. In his first week, he outed himself as a first-class piece of shit. Happily, I'm a mild soul, so I basically told him that if he crossed me he'd get his comeuppance and to just do what I told him to do until he got the hang of it.

To make a long story short, the kid has come a long way. He really did get his comeuppance. Very nearly fired, he angered a few people in very important positions and only barely hung on because of a few "Ol' Boys Club" networking contacts he had made. He's developed a decent work ethic and is closer to what I would consider a minimal level of respectfulness for a human being. Huge progress for a guy like that. One way, however, in which he has not made any progress at all, is how he treats the women who work there. Bea being an excellent example.

Bea is the kind of person who always wants to be cool with everybody, who wants everybody to be happy, even her enemies, and this is an admirable quality. However, she suffers from having insufficiently guarded boundaries, she doesn't know how to say no, except in the most flagrant of cases. After having read the above-linked article, my mind was filled with ideas of standing up and making a difference. The three of us, myself, Bea, and Bryan, were working together, when Bryan made a smart comment about something, Bea told Bryan that she was gonna beat him up (jokingly) for saying it, and Bryan commented that he'd be fine with that if they were both nude [while fighting]. OK, the fighting comment was somewhat objectionable, but I decided that this was the place to take a stand. This was the time. I needed to make a point about this just to get the wheels turning, even if it wasn't the ideal situation.

So, I bided my time. I waited until Bea left Bryan and I, and I cornered the poor kid. "Look," I said, "I know we all have a lot of fun joking around and such, but I need you to be more respectful towards Bea. That comment about nude wrestling seemed innocent enough, but I want you to keep off the sex topic. It's disrespectful and it makes her uncomfortable." Bryan was speechless. He simply looked at me, then looked at the ground, apologized, and I patted him on the back and that was that. Afterwards, I caught Bea and told her what I did. She hugged me and cried. Tears. I mean, I figured she would like that I said it, but she literally cried because nobody had ever said anything about it before. When Bryan made the comment earlier, she laughed, but when she cried, I began to actually understand what was going on, how much was being hidden.

Of course, not even a half hour later, Bryan was trying to shame me. He even tried to call me a bitch in a joking way, but I know how to navigate these waters. I could've gotten mad at him, called him out, something like that, but it would just feed him. Instead, I just smiled at him, knowing that he respected me deeply.

Concluding thoughts

In hindsight, I feel like this was a really good way for me to get my foot in the door. I had the advantage of respect from Bryan. I didn't need to explain myself beyond a simple "it makes her uncomfortable", and I didn't need to defend my manliness from him. I didn't need Bryan to think I was in the man box, because the respect he has for me comes from a history of behavior that I've built with him. This makes it safe for me, the only embarrassment I have is the fact that I didn't call out his behavior sooner. It went a lot easier than I thought it would, he didn't try to resist at all. He sensed my disapproval and was ashamed of his behavior. Later he would try to reassert his status, but I didn't give in to his taunting and thus took away his power, being as that he was trying to misuse it. I don't think it will always be this easy, but the opportunities do exist out there for other men.

If you have a story of calling out someone else for their abusive behavior, I'd love to hear it about.

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