Following numerous sexual harassment allegations aimed at him, actor James Franco has reportedly contacted several of his ex-girlfriends to inquire about his past behavior with them. This comes only a week after a woman described a troubling sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, and Ansari came forward saying he was “surprised and concerned” by her account of what he thought was a “completely consensual” evening.
While both Franco and Ansari admit to insensitive behavior, they stop short of admitting actual harm and continue to brand themselves as allies. Citing “mixed signals” and assumed consent, they follow an all-too-familiar script of claiming ignorance while simultaneously asking us to congratulate them for their growth.
Since the #MeToo movement began, a few men have reached out to me with inquiries about their past behavior. But they’re not seeking to make sense of the movement itself, or to learn more about feminism. None have asked me how they can hold their fellow man accountable. No, every one of these men has contacted me to ask about specific incidents in their past and to receive validation of their innocence ― that whatever a woman might be accusing them of wasn’t actually illegal, or to be reassured that they were better men because of their willingness to reflect on the events now.
It’s becoming more and more apparent to me that many men aren’t seriously reckoning with this movement at all, and we haven’t really forced them to. Both men and women have been complicit in gently defending men’s inability to read minds, saving their harshest criticism for the women at the receiving end of insensitive or abusive encounters. We’ve allowed men like Franco to continue leaning on already exhausted women to explain why accusations in the news are a big deal.
It’s time to stop treating men with kid gloves.
As more people admit to hand-holding the men in their lives and new reports of harassment, mistreatment and assault continue to come to light, one thing has become very clear to me: It is time for all of us to do a better job of holding men accountable for their actions.
Men are not the oblivious, bumbling, sex-blind idiots we’ve let ourselves believe them to be. They are adults who, despite knowing they may have had a negative impact on a person in the past, are simply content with doing the bare minimum in rectifying that harm or even admitting to causing harm in the first place.
Harassment, assault and rape culture are not new and impossible concepts to comprehend. Men have understood enough of feminism to blithely embrace the concepts that have been largely advantageous to them, like sex-positivity and a perverted version of “enthusiastic consent.” That is to say, if a woman comes across as embracing sex-positivity, there should be no reason for her to ever say “no,” and anything less than a “no” shouted at the top of her lungs denotes irrevocable consent.
The assumption that men can only understand a strong, loud “NO” only serves to delegitimize a woman’s discomfort. Many encounters of coercion begin with non-verbal cues, such as Violet Paley’s description of an alleged experience in a car with Franco, where she said Franco repeatedly pushed her head down towards his crotch, a non-verbal request for oral sex. There’s no reason to believe that her self-described non-verbal resistance and her pleas of “can we do this later” were mixed signals he was suddenly unable to understand.
We are going to be unlearning and rewriting for a long time and we don’t have time for hand-holding.
It’s time to stop treating men with kid gloves. Learning to pay better attention to one’s partner ― or even to the woman in front of them in a non-sexual context ― is not an insurmountable task that men are incapable of accomplishing. There have simply been insufficient consequences for failing to do so.
Meanwhile, women have somehow honed the skill of reading non-verbal cues and deflecting, defusing and de-escalating uncomfortable situations, precisely because the consequences are high. Starting in childhood, women learn to constantly make quick decisions to avoid harm based on signals ― both verbal and non-verbal ― from men that potentially pose a threat. When Lupita Nyong’o found herself in a vulnerable position alone with Harvey Weinstein, she employed everything from reverse psychology to humor to get her closer to the door.
Her story is not unique. From street harassment, to workplace harassment, to drunk encounters at a bar, to “good guys” who feel they’ve earned the right to your body, women pay great regard to men’s feelings in order to avoid or escape uncomfortable situations at the hands of men. These same men think reading a room and regarding a woman’s feelings just seems too much to ask.
It is long past time to hold men accountable for failing to do the simple task of regarding a woman’s personhood and seeking not just enthusiastic, but affirmative consent. We cannot continue to baby the accused men by believing them to be incapable of thoughtfulness and emotional intelligence by nature.
As more brave men, women and non-binary persons come forward with their stories, we will be tasked to be more introspective regarding the structures and patriarchal culture that allow for varying degrees of sexual abuse, harassment and assault. We already live in a society that has always been quick to question victims and the legitimacy of their accusations, and dictate how many different decisions they should have made. Shifting the conversation to asking men what they can do to be better is not a witch hunt and will not destroy or weaken the movement (or anyone’s masculinity). We are going to be un-learning and re-writing for a long time, and we don’t have time for hand-holding.