In the wake of the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, (writing that makes me bristle) many women around the country, myself included, feel ignored, fearful, and furious. Instead of letting this showcase of political authority and misogyny render me heartbroken, I asked myself: how do we ignore the divisive vitriol, find ways to grieve and commune in hope? An informal poll among (straight) men I know shows that they are increasingly clueless about their role in this fraught cultural climate, so I have some ideas on how the good guys out there can step up and participate in the making of an anti-sexist, anti-misogynistic future.
A few weeks ago I received an email that gave me hope. It was a potential blueprint for forgiveness and salvation by a high school friend, a man, who I rarely speak to now our lives have diverged with age, but with whom I shared many fond memories
Well, mostly fond memories.
David and I became friends as teenagers while working at the local Italian restaurant in our small country town in northwestern Sydney. He was a dishwasher and I was a waitress and, during closing time, when the restaurant was empty, we would hang out together in the kitchen while he finished the dishes and talk about music and movies.We were both outcasts, more concerned with the world at large than local gossip, and each grateful to find an adventurous, kindred spirit.
I dated some of David’s friends and he liked some of mine, but romance was something we rarely discussed. We never exchanged flirty glances or got drunk and made out. I don't think either of us ever considered it. We were buds. We watched “Punch Drunk Love” and listened to Radiohead's Amnesiac, went skateboarding, swimming, and talked endlessly. We were passionate, emotional people who found safety with each other to express ourselves freely. The first time I was dumped, I left my boyfriend's house, a dull, throbbing, pile of heartache, and drove straight to the only place that could bring me some solace — David's house — where I sobbed uncontrollably on his bedroom floor for hours. He taught me how to change a car tire and when I directed the school play in the 10th grade, his critique mattered to me the most.
After high school, I moved to Europe for a summer and when I returned to Australia, we became roommates in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. We picked up where we left off, going to movies, and shows, the beach, and tried to become adults. Eventually, he got married, I moved to New York and, our friendship petered out.
"Very sorry to write like this, and disturb peaceful family life."
I was at work on a Friday morning when an email notification flashed on my phone. The last we spoke, probably the first time in three years, we were friendly but mundane, discussing kids and family life. Without reading any more, I knew the subject matter. I'd thought of it only the week before. My brain deftly swerved around it while I recounted to my husband the time David and I saw “Donnie Darko” in a beautiful, art deco, now closed cinema in Paddington, Sydney. "I don't think you know David, he's a really great guy though, we were super close. You'd like him." I said. I skipped right over the awkward memory, because it was irrelevant to my story about art deco cinemas we can never visit, and he had been one of my best friends. He was a good guy. He'd just behaved poorly once. I never knew where to slot that memory, so it just hung around trying to not pollute the affectionate ones of the boy who meant so much to me growing up. Of course, it did, and my portrayal of David to my husband felt dishonest.
Nervously, I left the photo shoot, hid in the dressing room, and opened the email.
Very sorry to write like this, and disturb peaceful family life.
I am unsure if it would be a memory for you or not, but there was a night when we were flatmates in xxxxxxxx where I massively overstepped a boundary. I'm writing, way overdue, to apologize unreservedly.
Stating it plainly, my memory is that while laying on a lounge next to each other I became inappropriately physically aroused, and you left the room. I then followed you into your room and laid on top of the bed (over the covers) either next to, or on top of you. From everything I can recollect, that is the entirety of what took place — I eventually got the very obvious message, and left your room.
If I've inadvertently left out any information above, please know I am incredibly regretful that anything like this situation, a huge failure of my character, ever occurred. I am so sorry for anything negative it caused for you. To think I likely made you to feel less than safe/secure in your own home is stomach-churning. I'm disgusted that I breached the trust we had built up over quite a few years of friendship, and then made it way worse by not respecting your response to this significant mistake from me. I am embarrassed and ashamed of what happened, that I did not address it and apologize at the time (pretending nothing happened), and possibly worst of all that it's taken a wider improvement in society for me to fully acknowledge and apologize for this incident a lot of years later. I am so very sorry.
Yours was a friendship I had hoped would continue throughout our lives, whatever directions they took, but I fucked it up. A massive regret.
From here, I'll be trying to ensure the next generation of xxxxxxx men do better.
It's pretty tame, right? Awkward, and embarrassing, for sure, but he didn't rape me; didn't corner me in a room, cover my mouth with his hand and assault me while his friend kept watch; he didn't masturbate in front of me before I went on stage; he didn't drug me; or lure me into a hotel room under the guise of work and try to force himself on me. I have more salacious stories I could share of being traumatized at the behest of men like when I hid on the roof of a house to avoid a would-be assailant, or when I was encircled by a gang of men in a park before a passing police officer rescued me, or remembering that the first blowjob I “gave” was against my will. But David didn't do any of those things because he's a good guy. But he's a good guy who made a mistake, and you're probably a good guy who has made mistakes too. And because there are probably more good guys than rapists, and because the bad guys with authority and control have made it clear they are going to savagely infringe upon the rights of women to assert and maintain their privilege it is up to you “good guys” to be actively involved in the defense against our culture being completely obliterated by systemic misogyny.
Fortunately, as David's email shows, becoming involved in resisting a culture of misogyny is not difficult. It requires introspection, honesty, and vulnerability — all readily available tools. Most importantly, it takes the courage to say, without cover, “I'm sorry. I see you. I acknowledge you. Your experience in this world matters and I take responsibility for how my behavior shaped that experience then and now.” I was exhilarated after reading David's email. Slightly rattled, as I noted all the other apologies I would have liked to receive, but overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunity to file this memory correctly, and to forgive.
Here's the thing some of us know and others need to understand: trauma isn’t only transmitted by abhorrent violence, but takes hold in any instance when our vulnerability is exploited. Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk writes in The Body Keeps Score, “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort.” When I read David’s account of the events, that he “laid on top of me,” even though some people would think it a little creepy, but no big deal, I remembered feelings of betrayal and danger. Of course, not every transgression is going to be perceived by women as traumatic; however, what would it mean if we still took these transgressions seriously? It would contribute to a culture of respect and humility rather than reactionary proclamations of innocence. What David rightly pointed out is that he made me feel unsafe in my own home — he did not try to soft pedal it or contextualize as not that big of a deal in the scheme of things. In some ways, while he was referring to the apartment that we shared, he understood the gravity of his actions — how my body is also my home, and moving through the world in this body, often puts me and my sense of “home” in danger.
The exhaustion that comes from the feelings of constant endangerment contributes to the pervasive anger women are expressing in the wake of the #metoo movement. I understand that asking good men to put their hand up and confess and challenge their positions of privilege and comfort (i.e. “boys will be boys”) feels like asking you to strap on a social suicide vest.
However, an apology without cover like the one David offered and the value of coming forward without being asked cannot be understated. Of course, I can’t speak for everyone and I can't guarantee every woman will welcome your apology, but the current callout culture wasn't created so that we can make men feel terrible when they say sorry, it was because men refuse to recognize the enduring legacies of their unthinking behavior. When David apologized to me, it reminded me why we had been close friends in the first place. It healed a wound and reminded me of the power of vulnerability.
Conversely, the apologies that have been publicly shared have often come after a man was busted. The public shame is seemingly what they are most apologetic about, and the damage of their actions are at best tone-deaf (re-read Mario Batali’s letter) and egocentric (re-read Louis C.K.’s letter) and at worst, alarmingly ignorant to the repercussions of their actions (re-read Harvey Weinstein’s letter). This is why David’s email is so important and why every good guy out there needs to do what he did. He took on the calls of #metoo seriously, and thought about his own culpability: "I'm a man, what have I done to contribute to this?" He didn't say, "Not all men are like that, you know." (a favorite retort). Or, "I'm not Harvey Weinstein, I don't rape, what are you so mad about?" (also a winner). Not being the worst version of a thing, doesn't make you the opposite or even better. It doesn't mean you haven't participated in, contributed to, or benefitted from the culture that made it possible. To be “good,” you have to be good. Not passive. Not merely denial. It is an action, not a default. You have to express dissent and discomfort to the rising chorus of misogyny because so far, it’s only gotten louder. You need to actively disavow your own investments in patriarchy.
To be honest, plenty of women, myself included, didn't recognize the voracity of misogyny until Trump's election and #metoo jolted us out of naivety. To counter the despair, I threw myself into learning the history of feminism and the cultural influences that culminated to this moment in time. Like everything humans do, it's messy and complicated with few clear answers, and there is plenty of debate among women, let alone men, about how best to move forward. Before turning a lens on men, I asked myself how had I been part of the problem and what I should do to change that. I've worked in fashion my whole career, and contributed to a toxic culture for women and profited from it. I didn't protect women when I should have, I didn't call out situations I knew were wrong, I made brutal comments and participated in demeaning banter to feel a part of a group. I called women “bitches” and was silent as they questioned their body and their worth. When I realized my culpability I didn't defend it. I had to admit it freely. Now I try to show how fashion, can do better. This journey of introspection is what we need the good guys out there to do.
Back when #metoo got traction with popular media, I asked my husband his own #metoo story — what has he done that he now regrets? My question wasn’t accusatory, I was curious. It struck me then, as it does now, that perhaps an effective solution to this problem would be to have men admit their participation, voluntarily. I dream of an Instagram account of men posting their anonymous, unreserved, raw apologies to the women they hurt. It is an antidote to the pain and triggering of reading women’s accounts again and again. In the case of my husband, this question has sparked an ongoing conversation between us and continued introspection on his part. David’s letter has tasked him with determining if he has a letter to send.
I'd love for men to share articles, podcasts, books, and interviews about the nuances of feminism and toxic masculinity with the same feverish enthusiasm that my girlfriends and I do. I'd love them to help each other and themselves untangle this mess in a space where they feel safe and supported and invited to be honest, the same way that we do. I’d love for us all to do it together, but we can’t be expected to always come to the table first.
I'd love, just once, for you to have a conversation at dinner, over too many wines like the ones women do. Feeling the same shame, and then the same freedom from shame's grip by uttering truth out loud.
In the spirit of vulnerability,
*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Words: Laura Jones
Copy Editor: Sonjia Hyon