Why every man must step up his response to #metoo

Unsplash / Eutah Mizushima

Not all men. That's the roaring defence of males around the world in the face of attacks on so-called 'toxic masculinity.' We're not all like that; don't tar us all with the same brush.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, two striking online phenomena have emerged. First, through use of the #metoo hashtag on social media, women who've been subject to sexual abuse or harassment at the hands of men have been either sharing their stories or bravely putting their hand up to admit that – even if their friends and followers didn't previous know it – they have been a victim. Secondly, men have been quick to defend themselves, and while absolutely condemning the perpetrators, distancing themselves from any sort of association by gender. For some, #metoo has been recast as an attack on men.

It's been horrifying to learn the scale of the abuse. Statistics have long existed about the numbers of women who've suffered some sort of sexual assault, but it feels very different when those numbers are replaced by the faces of the people you know. I was aware that some of the women I know had been victims of sexual violence; I had no idea of the scale, the details, the lasting effects or the fact that in many cases they've simply had to bury the past without ever seeing a perpetrator brought to justice. One friend was attacked on a tube escalator in rush hour. Another received an unwanted back massage at work which quickly moved on to her breasts. Another was threatened with assault by three men in a train carriage while commuters looked the other way. Another was raped by her older brother. Another was sexually assaulted by a group of friends at a party. I could go on, and tragically, on.

To which one response is obviously: 'not all men.' Not every man is a sex offender, and not every man is violent. This much is true.

The other side of the #metoo wave has been the stories of sexual harassment. The catcalling, the unwanted attention, the sexualised verbal bullying. For some this has been a flaw of the campaign, because it strings together two related but very different problems. Yet again though, the scale is staggering. Friends have talked about the daily experience of being stared at, leered at and objectified. Some have been promised a job or promotion in return for sex. Others have been stalked, followed and even threatened. These might not equate to physical assault, but neither are they trivial things, and they are part of the same wider issue.

I have never committed an act of sexual violence. I have also never been guilty of sexual harassment. In which case, I guess I'm 'one of the good guys.' This isn't my problem; I shouldn't feel a sense of guilt by association just because I happen to be a man. Except, to think like this is to practise wilful ignorance of the wider dynamics of our culture.

'This is a man's world', crooned James Brown in a song that does little for gender equality. He was right though: our society is built on a long legacy of patriarchy; men have owned the power and the money for thousands of years right around the world. Women have played a subservient role to men throughout history, being seen and indeed defined as second-class citizens. In many countries including the UK, they couldn't even vote until the last century. And while huge progress toward gender equality has been made, today's women still feel the shockwaves of those millennia of oppression. In fact it's more than that; the system might appear to have changed dramatically, but underneath the surface, the patriarchy is still alive and well. The gender pay gap is still yawning; the real power in boardrooms throughout the business and finance worlds are still held by men. And the most powerful man on earth, elected by one of the apparently most progressive countries, is widely accused of both sexual abuse and harassment. An assertion from the man in the street that things have changed, and that 'the feminists have taken over' is about as in touch with reality as John Lennon was when he wrote 'I am the Walrus'.

This is as much a challenge in the church as anywhere else. I accept that people of both sexes respectfully hold different positions of the role of women within church leadership, but a complementarian theology should never be an excuse for abuse or harassment. And yet of course we know that if has been, over and over again. I have heard – this week – stories of domestic abuse in a Christian context which are not only heartbreaking, but were somehow being legitimised by theology. And much more subtly, our gender-separatist culture often casts women as 'weak' and men 'strong', and reinforces cultural stereotypes last seen in the sitcoms of the 1970s (I'm not against Men's Breakfasts by the way – I think they'd make an excellent forum to teach gender justice). We must put our house in order, and unless we do, we're out of step with the Spirit.

I'm incredibly grateful to one friend who agreed I could share her story with anonymity. A Christian from a church-going family, she says she had a 'a fairly standard' start to life. 'Yet,' she tells me, 'I have been raped twice by someone I was in a relationship with (the first time was the first time), seriously sexually assaulted at 18, groped and grabbed frequently. In fact it started when I was at school and one of the teachers developed a penchant for kissing 12 year old girls. Another time I was just working in an aisle of Sainsbury's when a manager grabbed me and kissed me. But I count myself lucky in lots of ways. I've barely had counselling (actually a Christian counsellor once told me it was my fault I got raped the second time because I was drunk). I have survived and it hasn't crippled me. But others have suffered much worse; it's ruined their lives. And it's more widespread than you could possibly imagine.'

Her story fills me with rage – burning angry rage – not just because this is my friend, but because this is a human being. She didn't just encounter one 'bad apple', but men, over and over again throughout her life who have believed they're entitled to treat her like this. Not a tiny minority, but the men everywhere who can't quite avoid following a young woman's body as it walks past them as they sit in a coffee shop, let alone a building site. The men who think they're allowed to push the boundaries a bit, because even they don't know it, the culture has been whispering to them for years that it's ok.

Not all men though. You can't sweep every male into this problem. I personally received a lot of criticism when I suggested than all men should feel at least a little ashamed in the face of all the #metoo stories. Shaming an entire sex isn't the answer, I was repeatedly told. I respectfully disagree. I think we should feel some reflected sense of shame, because that not only acknowledges that we're part of the problem, but also that we could form part of the solution.

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner with a group of women. Pornography offers the most twisted view of all when it comes to gender ethics.Reuters

Things will never truly change until men – and yes, all men – recognise their place in a power dynamic which places them at the top of the pyramid. And at that point, we have to choose to take some collective responsibility for the problems that arise from gender inequality. Not all men perpetrate sexual violence and harassment, but all men must take some responsibility for the system that allows it to thrive.

Because even if you haven't harassed or attacked a woman, you've almost certainly been passively complicit in their oppression. If you've ever looked the other way as a woman was humiliated for what she was wearing; if you've ever been part of a locker-room conversation objectifying females; if you've ever watched porn, which has the most twisted gender ethics of all and is responsible for the increased sexualisation of women everywhere – then you're part of the problem. As bitter a pill as it might be to swallow, #metoo is about you too.

So if you're a man, you can choose to respond to the #metoo campaign with defensiveness and a cry of #notallmen... or you can allow yourself to be shocked, saddened, sobered, and then moved to action. If you don't want subsequent generations of women (and men) to grow up in a skewed and broken system, then it's something we all have to engage with. We are talking about a literal act of changing the world here, and such change doesn't come because of one great leader, or a few policy changes here and there. It happens because every person steps up and becomes another drop in an oceanic movement.

So what does that look like, starting right now? Here are four simple thoughts:

Take responsibility

Here's the hardest bit. You don't have to feel a sense of shame, but you do need to acknowledge your place as a man in a power system that's stacked in your favour. Like a government that takes collective ministerial responsibility even if individuals personally disagree with a decision, you step up and admit that you're part of this thing. That means an end to this 'not all men' nonsense. Sure, not all men are sex offenders, but all men are implicated by gender inequality, and need to be part of the fight against it.

Commit to doing better

The change always starts with us. So let's ask ourselves how – in our speech, our behaviour and our treatment towards women – we can live out a value of gender justice. Let's not objectify women, and let's be honest, there are some more subtle and insidious forms of this. Let's not make jokes that subtly undermine women, and let's not laugh when others make them. Let's not buy into those deep-held cultural beliefs about female comedians or women's sports. Instead, we should ask how we can honour and even favour women, as we seek to redress the balance that has been horrifically weighted for centuries. Every man has power to make a difference in this area. And perhaps even more important than what we do in public, is how we behave in private. How we treat the women in our lives – and what we model to the younger men – is perhaps the most significant contribution we'll make to any of this.

Stand up for and with women

Here's where it gets harder. If you're in that proverbial locker room and the joke gets made, the right thing to do isn't simply to curb your laughter, but to challenge the joke. If you're in that train carriage where a woman is feeling threatened, you can physically stand with her. More proactively, you can amplify the voices of the women in your life, and even choose to get out of the way sometimes to let them succeed even to your own cost. And again, how we invest in the next generation here is vital: helping them to critique a culture which frequently blames and disbelieves female victims of abuse and harassment. Let's raise young men who not only believe in the idea of gender justice, but are able to spot and challenge the legacy of historic and encultured oppression.

Lead others to do the same

Ultimately, real change will come when a whole movement of men decide that gender inequality must die. That will happen because influential men choose to drop their defences, stand alongside women and not only practise gender justice but call others to do the same. That comes at a cost; I for instance will likely get a torrent of abuse for writing all this. But we're on the right side of history on this one, and as people who for the most part have never had to face what a majority of women have, that cost is small.

This isn't virtue signalling. Neither is it - Lord have mercy - because I have a daughter. I write this because #metoo has shone a light on a deep fault in our world, and as a follower of the Jesus who treated women with absolute respect and equality, and who calls me to stand for love and justice, it is the right thing to do.

I am extraordinarily grateful for the honesty, support and trust shown to me by a number of women in the writing of this article.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.