Occasionally, guys will ask me about how to make it easier for them to get laid. My answer is almost always the same: the way to make it easier to find people who are up for sex is to create a place where they can feel safe.
I realize I get shit for leading with the idea of sex to improve society, but I believe in enlightened self-interest. Folks who may not do the right thing because it’s the right thing will do the right thing when it’s in their own interest. And the fact is that the culture we’ve created alienates women and makes them feel unsafe. We live in a culture that perpetuates and even celebrates harmful and, frankly, dangerous behavior and ideas about how men are supposed to act around women. It lionizes men who act like predators and insists that this is just “how things are”.
We trivialize issues of consent and sexual assault. Women are blamed for being assaulted, while judges express concern for their rapist’s “promising future”. We make jokes about rape and high-five dudes for getting some from women who didn’t want to have sex. We treat sex as a goal to be achieved by any means and women as a trophy. It’s a toxic narrative that poisons our culture and leaves women feeling that they’re not able to trust or feel safe around men.
And most of us don’t realize we’re doing it.
Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on how you want to look at it – the news cycle has given us a perfect example of what this behavior looks like and how we perpetuate it.
The Normalization of Sexual Assault
On Friday, October 7th, the Washington Post released a recording of presidential candidate Donald Trump having a conversation with Billy Bush, apparently unaware that their mics were live. Besides crude talk about the looks of a soap-opera actress who was waiting outside the bus, Trump dropped this particular gem (emphasis added):
I’ve got to use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. I just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.
Then, after a little cross-talk and a reiteration of “whatever you want”, Trump added – to appreciative chuckles:
Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.
I need to tell you a story. With the love and support of my husband, I’ve decided to share it publicly. A very long time ago I ended a long emotionally and physically abusive relationship with a man I had been with for some time. One night I was at a show with a couple girlfriends in Hollywood, listening to a DJ we all loved. I knew there was a chance my ex could show up, but I felt protected with my girls around me. Without going into all the of the details, I will tell you that my ex did show up, and came up to me in the crowd. He’s a big guy, taller than me. The minute he saw me, he picked me up with one hand by my hair and with his other hand, he grabbed me under my skirt by my vagina— my pussy?— and lifted me up off the floor, literally, and carried me, like something he owned, like a piece of trash, out of the club. His fingers were practically inside of me, his other hand wrapped tightly around my hair. I screamed and kicked and cried. He carried me this way, suspended by his hands, all the way across the room, pushing past people until he got to the front door. My friends ran after him, trying to stop him. We got to the front door and I thank God his brothers were also there and intervened. In the scuffle he grabbed at my clothes, trying to hold onto me, screaming at me, and inadvertently ripped off my grandmother’s necklace, which I was wearing. The rest of this night is a blur I do not remember. How I got out to the car. How I got away from him that night. I never returned for my necklace either. That part of my body, which the current Presidential Nominee of the United States Donald Trump recently described as something he’d like to grab a woman by, was bruised from my ex-boyfriend’s violence for at least the next week. I had a hard time wearing jeans. I couldn’t sleep without a pillow between my legs to create space. To this day I remember that moment. I remember the shame. I am afraid my mom will read this post. I’m even more afraid that my father could ever know this story. That it would break his heart. I couldn’t take that. But you understand, don’t you? I needed to tell a story. Enjoy the debates tonight.
Then, as Bush and Trump exit the bus, Bush and Trump start to push actress Adriana Zucker into hugging them…
Bush: How about a little hug for the Donald? He just got off the bus.
Zucker: Would you like a little hug, darling?
Trump: Okay, absolutely. Melania said this was okay.
Bush: How about a little hug for the Bushy? I just got off the bus. There we go. Excellent. Well, you’ve got a nice co-star here.
…followed by some uncomfortable “banter” from Bush and Trump over which of them is hotter.
Bush: Now, if you had to choose, honestly, between one of us: me or the Donald? Who would it be?
Trump: I don’t know, that’s tough competition.
Zucker: That’s some pressure right there.
Bush: Seriously, you had to take one of us as a date.
Zucker: I have to take the 5th on that one.
The whole exchange is awkward on its own, but the context makes it worse. Trump has just gotten finished talking about how he uses his celebrity status to pressure women into submitting to whatever he wants to do without complaint to laughs and approval. Now Billy Bush – acting like Trump’s wingman – pressures Zucker to be affectionate with them. It presents a textbook example of how men are taught to treat women as objects, to do whatever they please, while consent is something that happens to other people. “Here, be affectionate for my bro. Now do the same for me. Now tell us which of us you want to fuck more. Be a good sport and play along, we can fuck your career you know.”
And to be sure: it’s not as though it’s unusual for Trump to brag about how he does whatever he wants with women and gets away with it. On the Howard Stern show, Trump crowed about how he would regularly barge in on Miss Universe contestants while they were naked – again, to chuckling approval.
While Trump may be a high-profile example, he’s hardly alone. He’s merely the most visible example of a culture that trivializes harassment and the assault of women. And he’s only half of the equation. The other half are the enablers.
When the story of the recording hit the media, the Internet, predictably, exploded. Besides the expected condemnations of Trump’s language and behavior came the defense: “What’s the big deal?” “This was just locker room talk.” “Guys like to talk about this.”
— Fox News (@FoxNews) October 9, 2016
The message from the defenders is perfectly clear: “this is normal stuff. It’s typical guy behavior. This is not a big deal.” It’s ok to talk about women this way, as long as women don’t overhear it. It’s guy talk, meant for other guys and thus women shouldn’t be offended. The problem isn’t what Trump said, it’s that what he said escaped the privacy of the “locker room.” Nobody should take it seriously, because it’s not that big of a deal. And besides, women shouldn’t be shocked; all guys talk like that. Right? Right?
The constant refrain of “it’s guy talk” diminishes the impact of what’s being said. It turns the description of sexual assault into mischievous behavior by a puckish rascal, something we should find charming in a roguish sort of way. The chuckles and encouragement offered by Stern normalizes, even encourages, this behavior. Insisting that “all” guys are like that is part of how we excuse the behavior with a knowing laugh and a wink. Boys will be boys after all. Of course guys are going to act like this. Everyone knows that guys are dogs.
It absolves men of any responsibility for their action or the need to control themselves. After all, it’s just “how we are”. And in doing so, we teach others that this expected, even desirable behavior among men. After all, how awesome is it that this guy just goes up and starts kissing beautiful women? Who among us wouldn’t want to do just that? Why shouldn’t we try to get as much action as we can?
In practice however, it’s giving approval to terrorizing women and treating them like toys. It’s no different from the people who think yelling “Fuck her right in the pussy!” is hilarious, that it’s fun to try to sexually harass women in a foreign country, or that assaulting Gigi Hadid is a clever prank. Nodding, chuckling and high-fiving over this behavior is an affirmation: sexual assault is awesome. It’s what guys should aspire to do.
It’s too bad, then, that we don’t think of what else we’re saying when we normalize this behavior.
How Men Tell Women “You Are Never Safe”
When we treat behavior like Trump’s as “just guy stuff” or imply that it’s something all guys do, we send a very specific message to the women in our lives: you aren’t safe around us. This isn’t a small thing; 1 in 6 women in America have been the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault or rape. In fact, almost every woman you know is likely to have a story about how someone has tried to “grab them by the pussy”. They’ve had someone grope them, harass them or otherwise treated them like a toy.
Even if you don’t know somebody who’s been groped or assaulted, the women in your life do… and they’re paying attention to what you say. When you laugh at Trump’s wacky stories of barging in on women when they’re changing or YouTube bros running up and grabbing women’s asses, they notice. When you dismiss cat-calling and street harassment as not a big deal or as a compliment, women take note. They pay attention the folks who thought that the best way to respond to the Dickwolves controversy was to double down, or to those who dismiss harassers as “just socially awkward”. Women keep track of the guys who think the best way to respond to stories of sexual harassment is to argue technical distinctions, as though that made things better.
Because that behavior is sending a message. And that message is “you’re not safe.”
That may seem unfair to you. You never behave like that. You don’t run around grabbing and lifting strange women. You might not “just start kissing” someone because hey, beautiful women. But by signalling your approval of that behavior, you’re telling them that you don’t think it’s that big of a deal. What is just a goof to you is part of the background radiation to women. Minimizing the impact or normalizing it with “well it’s how guys are” tells people that you might not do it yourself, but you’re not opposed to other people doing it.
Thing is: that tacit acceptance cuts both ways…
Confronting Toxic Behavior In Male Only Spaces
The other side of downplaying behavior like Trump’s isn’t just telling women that they’re not safe, it’s telling other men that you approve. One of the reasons why defenders of this behavior are quick to describe it as “guy talk” is to legitimize it and take refuge in the numbers. Like a particularly shitty ball of sardines, they try to evade the consequences of their behavior through sheer volume. If all guys do it, after all, then they can’t be singled out for their own sins.
This is also why so many are quick to label behavior like this as something guys do when they get together. By dismissing this as “locker room talk,” they attempt to downplay its importance. The message is simple: “it shouldn’t count against us if other people don’t overhear it.” Now, like when it comes out that people made racist jokes in private, the problem is people found out about it, not that it was said in the first place.
That’s why it becomes especially important for guys to speak up against talk like this. Men who are quick to label this as #yesallmen look to drag even people who disagree in by association. Consequently, everything that isn’t a refutation becomes validation. Laughing, nodding or sharing it are obvious signs of approval, but even silence gets taken as agreement. After all, if you disagreed, you’d say something, wouldn’t you?
Of course, guys who’re invested in this behavior will also be quick to try to delegitimize others speaking out against them. Speaking out against shitty behavior online brings in the chorus of accusations that you’re “white-knighting” or insisting that you’re just “virtue-signalling” – showing off how “good” you are for the benefit of others. It’s in their own interests to insist that you don’t actually believe what others say. In their minds, the only people who would disagree with them are working an angle, pretending to care in order to gain some nebulous advantage. Shouting down people who challenge their status-quo serves the narrative that they’re the dominant force instead of just the loudest and most visible.
And to be fair, there’s a lot of pressure to stay quiet. That ongoing silence from others serves to isolate people who disagree. You don’t necessarily want to speak up only to find yourself alone with your metaphorical dick flapping in the wind. This is why it’s so important for men to speak out – not just publicly but in those “male-only” spaces where men like this assume that everyone agrees. Open dissent sends a message, not just to the assholes but to the others around you – they’re not alone. They have support. They can speak up too. And those men, once empowered, signal to others that they aren’t the minority.
Just as importantly, it sends a message to other men that they don’t have to pay lip service to bullshit ideas of manhood. It encourages men to be better, instead of allowing the default state of man to be “asshole”.
Men Need To Lead The Way
When it comes to pushing back against toxic bullshit like Trump’s behavior with women, it’s vital for men to take the lead. We have to be willing to lead by example – with our behavior as well as our words. We may not be individually responsible for creating this culture, but as a group, we have the responsibility to fix it.
A lot of us will have laughed at those jokes or given our approval over antics like these in the past. That’s ok. You may not have known then… now you do. Forgive yourself for having been imperfect, and take the opportunity to make things better.
It’s also important to note that men speaking up will have an impact that women may not. As shitty as it is to acknowledge, many men will dismiss women’s protests or even their lived experiences, but give credence to other men who say the same thing. As long as that privilege exists, it’s incumbent on us to use it to make things better. This doesn’t mean talking over women, but speaking with them and amplifying them as well as speaking out on our own, especially in those male-only spaces.
The assholes will push back. They’ll try to silence you. Don’t let them. You may be one voice, but that one voice speaking up can inspire others. Each voice can be part of a chorus. One person pushing back against a shitty, toxic culture can be part of the movement. It’s time to send the signal: no, men don’t do this.
It’s time to start being better than we are.