by Varun Gwalani
Even mental illness didn’t impact me as ferociously, viscerally as did the discovery of systemic gender and sexual violence. Ever since, I have been examining my privilege and cultivating compassion for those regarded as less by virtue of their gender. Here, I tell men exactly why we cannot turn a blind eye to this conversation, and why merely being a ‘nice guy’ isn’t enough. It’s simple: if you don’t call out sexism and actively work against it, you’re complicit in the system.
I have lived 23 years on this planet. Of those, I spent nearly a decade with a debilitating mental disorder that wrecked every relationship; every chance of happiness or true love. I lost my childhood and adolescence.
And yet, I can count the number of times I felt truly broken—like the world was ending, like there was something fundamentally wrong with the nature of the world—on my fingers
Number one happened at 16, when a person I was very close to called me to tell me about being sexually assaulted, just moments ago. I still remember every vivid detail, the image seared into my head. It was perhaps a measure of my privilege (and luck) that I had gone so many years without knowing how grave a problem this was.
Number two happened when I published 'Believe', a story that featured a sexual assault survivor as its heroine. A reader—a rape survivor—told me that the book had helped her. She added that she wished that a friend of hers, who was also a rape survivor, could have read it. "Maybe then she wouldn’t have committed suicide," she said. That was the second time I felt broken.
The most recent was when social media was flooded with the #MeToo hashtag. There it was, laid bare: The ‘secret’ that every woman knew but every man ignored, the consequence of a world we had created, in stark relief. Men with any sense of decency or empathy could not claim ignorance or a lack of complicity anymore. We were, and are, complicit.
So this is for you men who felt similarly broken, who feel unsure or confused about where to go from here. How do you fix what you don’t know? How do you suddenly adjust your perspective on everything you’ve known in life? How do you even know if what you’re doing is wrong or right?
First, let’s try to comprehend the sheer vastness of the problem. It’s global. Some have it better and some have it worse, but everybody has it. It’s no social media ‘trend’—it’s been going on for centuries. Aristotle (the philosopher who laid the basis for about a dozen sciences) wrote: "The relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled." The long history of making women the ‘other’, classifying them as the ‘inferior’, had begun. Scientists did it too: remember Sigmund Freud casually theorising that an entire gender was irrational because they were jealous of men for having penises? The subjugation of women has been ingrained into the very systems we inhabit (take language, for instance) and men have had the luxury of ignoring it for centuries.
Still not convinced? Contemplate this: women are more likely to be killed before birth (ever wonder why there was no need for the term ‘male foeticide’?); they are routinely sexually abused as children; female children are more likely to suffer neglect and die as a result; the rate of female rape are shockingly high; and 79% of women will face some kind of sexual harassment or violence in public.
Still think men are the ‘real’ victims? The people, who, by virtue of a different set of genitals, are less likely to get murdered, harassed or die of neglect than another group of people who weren’t born with a penis? Next time you say equate female ‘privilege’ with a bus seat that’s reserved for women, think of this.
Oh sure, you’ll say you didn’t create the system. #NotAllMen, anyone? Newsflash: nobody is saying that you did. That doesn’t however, absolve you of the responsibility of actively countering systemic gender violence. It’s the only thing to do, if you want to call yourself a decent human being.
What I am (and feminists) are saying is this: men are not the enemy. There is only one enemy: patriarchy. And it affects all genders. For instance, men are taught not be emotional. That emotion is somehow a ‘female’ thing. One key emotion, however, was not only allowed, it was encouraged and venerated: anger. And this, in turn, showed up as rape. As domestic abuse. As alcoholism. As self hate.
And this, I believe, is one of the key reasons the subjugation of women was allowed to continue; why misogyny grew deeper, longer roots.
You know what I would like to venerate? Empathy. Compassion. The truly radical thing to do today would be to care.
Recognise that everybody is, at first, a human being. That is what feminism is: the simple idea that we should treat people—all people—the same.
So, as men, what can we do? It’s easy: listen. Empathise. Believe. Let us stop putting the onus on victims to justify and defend their trauma. Women shouldn’t have to relive their horror and pain just to prove to us that they are suffering. Statistics show that a very low percentage of sexual violence complaints are lies which means, logically, we have to believe women.
When we, men, talk, let’s not talk over women. As a male ally—especially in the workplace—stop colleagues from cutting your female colleagues off. Amplify female and feminist ideas. Share and retweet female voices. Call your friends out on their shit. Say “That’s not cool, man.”
Let us create a safe space where people of all genders and orientations can express themselves freely. Men have let their unjustified anger and hate dominate the conversation for long enough. Let us pass the mic to the women and their justified anger.
This anger affects all of us. Before you say you’re a ‘nice guy’, know that you someone you know, love and care about, has or will be abused. You need to take a stand. You are complicit already. I am complicit already. We didn’t ask to be part of the system, but we can choose to fight it.
Let’s use our privilege for good.
Know an ally working actively to make a difference? Witness to a heroic act that deserves recognition? Send us a lead at firstname.lastname@example.org.