Men Are Terrified. Is That A Good Thing?

It’s getting real in here.

In 2017, we saw sexual assault scandals cause heads of powerful men in media, entertainment, and politics roll all across America. Every day, men are questioning themselves. They’re looking at their past behaviors and wondering if they’ve said or done something that was offensive or demeaning to women. It’s a time of self-reflection, caution, and fear.

1_OukvR2w7qaNjg14FeWIctg.jpeg

Men have confided to me about their attempts to navigate the hot button issue of physical contact, personal open-versus-closed door policies, and making sense of old assumptions about men’s and women’s roles in society. They have all leaned on the side of caution, unsure of what will be perceived as harassment or as genuine human contact. Most of them express bewilderment and disgust for the actions of men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, and Matt Lauer (really the list grew so long and fast that it would take the rest of this article to name all of them).

Personal growth often requires discomfort, resistance, and soul-searching. It’s a part of how we crazy humans learn to do things differently. The same is true for nations. America is redefining what it’s willing to tolerate and what results in social annihilation.

Harvey Weinstein’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies was protected within a culture of guilt-swallowing complicity by assistants, actors, and movie execs. The cultural threshold of tolerance had to get crossed, not lightly and joyfully like newlyweds cross thresholds, but like a train derailed, skidding sideways and knocking down surrounding walls. It was ugly and perfect. It was ugly because the details of his assaults were horrifying. It was perfect because it left no doubt that a safe and easy ride was no longer a guaranteed option for predators. America was finally choosing to be on the side of justice for victims.

Men in their everyday lives heard stories of Weinstein raping women or Matt Lauer sending sex toys to women coworkers and thought, “What a scumbag. How does anyone ever think that kind of thing is okay?” But when Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Roy Moore and others entered the maelstrom, men began to ask themselves different questions. They wondered if that joke they told about a woman’s role in the kitchen, a casual slap on the ass, or a dismissed HR claim were all really as okay as they had initially assumed.

Questioning the certainty about your choices is difficult, but it’s what growth looks like. Men have needed a reality-altering reason to shake loose of their privilege-enabled indifference, snark, and willingness to look the other way to start reevaluating their own contributions.

Shit had to get so real and so much in everyone’s face that to just crack another “What did she expect?” joke and walk away wasn’t acceptable.

But hesitancy, caution, and fear, when not properly directed, turn into narratives simmering with resentments and blame. Men being afraid for their jobs and feeling criticized is not a good long-term strategy. It will, and for some already has, led to less opportunity for women because men will avoid being alone with them.

This can threaten a woman’s career advancement because private, in-depth, vulnerable, and honest conversations are part of building the key relationships that influence promotions. And it puts men on the defensive, expending mental energy figuring out how to save their careers instead of seeing themselves as protectors and allies of women.

Culturally, we’re moving forward, but the road into the future will look less like a flat highway through Indiana and more like a curvy trail through Colorado mountains. It will involve more men being accused, women feeling emboldened to speak up, and more questions than answers.

But it will also include men whose self-reflections have led to conscious decisions about how they’ll use their strength, positions, and privilege to create a world that is safer and kinder for women.