The Convenient Fiction of One-of-the-Good-Ones

Since the murder of Sarah Everard I have been a mess. My pain is not comparable to the pain and fear she must’ve known. It is not the dull, constant dread that every woman must feel walking, sitting, eating, being. But it is my pain, and it is real, and today I hope to transmute it into something useful.

“I hate men. Men are the worst.” If I counted the number of times I’ve heard this I would be in tears before I had recounted half. These words have come to me from people I love and people who say they love me. Of course these words are quickly and inevitably followed with, “I don’t mean you, you’re not like that.” And this is supposed to be a badge of honor, that women feel comfortable enough around me to share their very real and very legitimate frustrations and fears. 

My father told me that in the old days when a Marine was promoted and their new chevrons pinned to their uniform they would not use the pins’ backing. They would drive the tiny metal spikes through the cloth, into the flesh. The pain was comparatively small, the wound would bleed only a little, and the freshly-minted sergeant would have a very tangible reminder of the hardship they had endured to achieve their new rank. I wore my badge of honor, One-of-the-Good-Ones, like this. It is indeed an honor and it only hurts a little. 

Being One-of-the-Good-Ones is not a mistake or a happenstance. I have worked hard to develop a personal comportment, a bearing, that makes women feel at ease. I never discuss sex or sexuality with women or around women, to the point that I have been accused of being a “prude.” I almost never touch a woman, and when I do I ask permission first.* Even when I’ve known them for years, even when the last ten times I’ve asked the answer has been an eye-roll and an “Of course,” I still ask. A few times I’ve been answered “No” and I do my best to pivot away from both the question and the answer, face hot, head swimming with embarrassment. No one has done anything wrong in this instance. In fact saying “No,” when social norms would say to say “Yes,” takes a tremendous amount of bravery and I am always impressed by the woman’s resolve. But also I am ashamed. The other person doesn’t want me to touch them, and it’s not because of who I am, but what I am. A man. What Thomas Hobbes called “violent… nasty, brutish.” And they are not wrong.

I’ve got some ideas…

Only an alcoholic needs to make rules governing their drinking. “I won’t drink liquor while the sun is up” is not a rule that a well-adjusted, casual drinker needs to make. Only those who have drunk the cup of sorrow to its dregs need to make a rule like this. The purpose of the rule is to protect them from themselves.

I am a pacifist. I have sworn off violence as a means of conflict resolution. I have decided violence is an unacceptable means of interacting with my world and the people in it. Many have pointed out that sometimes violence is necessary, that I may need to break this vow some day. I acknowledge this possibility and hope I never need to raise a hand to protect someone I love. I did not make this rule, this commitment, instinctively. I have raised my hands in anger many times. Even today I feel anger and an inclination towards violence. Like the alcoholic, I make the pact of pacifism to protect myself from myself. The truth is I am a violent man. I am an angry man. I am a lustful man. I live with these impulses every day. I cannot, or have not as of yet been able to, get rid of them. But I have decided I will not serve them. Non Serviam.  When a woman expresses that no, she does not feel comfortable with me touching her, I feel shame because I know the truth. That I, like all men, am a violent creature. That try as we might— through reading, discussion, mediation, practice— we are dangerous beings at heart. That even if we don’t act on it we all have within us great capacity for harm.

The murder of Sarah Everard is a sharp reminder of the darkness inside my brothers and me. Every time I’ve read a woman’s account of her fear of men it cuts me not because “Not All Men” but indeed because “All Men.” It hurts because it’s true. Reading encouragement to walk on the other side of a street when I see a woman at night offends me not because I feel persecuted but because I feel seen. And I do not like what I see.

When I heard the news Saturday night, that the murderer was a cop, relief washed over me in an awesome wave. Of course it was a cop. Thank god it was a cop. It has already been statistically demonstrated that men who become cops are ten times more likely to physically abuse their partners and children. These types of men are those who have decided to embrace their violent natures. They are not like me, and this gives me hope. Perhaps expressions of my violent nature are not an inevitability. Perhaps, through attention and choice I can remain One-of-the-Good-Ones.

This is a convenient fiction. My brothers and I, we are all the problem. Not a single one of us is without blame in the pandemic of sexism and sexual harassment. Though I may be known by many as One-of-the-Good-Ones, I am known by some as a Jerk. A Bad Guy. It shames me to say it but it is no less true. I have made an inappropriate comment. I have laughed at a sexist joke. I have touched a shoulder without permission. I challenge that there is not one among us who has not. The outrage I feel at being told to walk on the other side of the street is rooted in this shame. In knowing that I am guilty, that I SHOULD cross the street. This is not behavior I set out to engage in. But I will not deny my culpability. I believe that only through acknowledging and owning our shortcomings can we find the inspiration to be better. The first step is admitting we have a problem.

To be clear, I am not saying every man is a rapist or a murderer. I am saying every man is complicit to varying degrees. Listen to the stories. The emotional response will rise. Allow it to fade, continue to listen, and you will agree that what I say, what women are telling us, is true.

Vision gets it.

Sisters, what can I say but I am sorry. None of us asked to be born like this, violent and angry. Truly I do not believe all the love in the world can unfetter us from our beastial natures. While some of us will choose to work against these impulses many will not. Your fear and anger is true and justified. Be careful and I sincerely hope you find the safety you deserve.

Brothers, if you hear news about Sarah Everard, if you read reactions to it and feel outrage, offense and shame, I am with you. I feel the same way. And now we both have a choice. Knowing that the fears women have of us are well founded, what will we do? Will we allow ourselves to be ruled our base natures, or will we, like the men we wish to be, say, “I Will Not Serve.” We have all made mistakes. We will all make mistakes again. Only one mistake will be the last one we ever make. Until then we must give the best we have to give today. We must own our failings and let our mistakes remind us of the work still to be done.

Sexism is a problem. The solution to this problem is simple. You are the solution. I am the solution. Let’s be the men that our mothers, sisters, lovers and friends deserve us to be. Let’s be the men that we wish to be. Let us say together, “Sexism Stops with Me.”