Suddenly, the lights turned on. Sexual harassment has always been there, in the shadowy corners of Hollywood and corporate America. Many people talk about honoring women yet have long excused (or winked at) abusive behavior. But the Harvey Weinstein case flipped a switch. Suddenly: klieg lights. Suddenly: people are actually losing their jobs.
This is a sea change for our culture. This is a moment. And as a social researcher (who for 15 years has been hearing the innermost things people think but rarely say) I wanted to know what folks’ private thoughts were about this.
I generally know what women think (a combination of relief, giddiness, and serves you right). But I was particularly curious what men think about the #MeToo tsunami.
Here’s what I found.
Thought #1: I had no idea
I interviewed three men in an airport a few days ago. They were tired after a long day at a board meeting and eating a hasty Chinese food dinner before catching flights home to Seattle, Dallas, and Atlanta. Their top reaction matches the top reaction of nearly every other man I’ve interviewed: I had no idea. I had no idea it was this pervasive. I had no idea you as women had to deal with this so consistently. I feel so bad.
Not long after the #MeToo movement started, one man told me, “I think my female co-workers have tried to tell me about stuff that happened in other jobs, but I just assumed it was isolated. Sort of the same thing you’d feel if someone told you they got hit by a car. ‘Oh that must have been so painful. Glad that doesn’t happen very often!’”
As one of the airport road warriors put it, “I’m still trying to figure out how to wrap my head around the fact that there’s been this whole parallel reality that I knew nothing about.”
Thought #2: So now I’m angry — and I’m glad I have permission to say something about it
One thing I learned about men during the For Women Only research study, is that most men have a deep compulsion to provide for and protect those they care about. While most of that compulsion goes toward providing for and protecting their family (71% of men say it that is always or often on their mindd, in case you’re curious), that same instinct wants to protect all those who are more vulnerable. Which is what makes this doubly galling for all the good guys out there. Women were being hurt right under their noses: and because they had no idea (or didn’t realize what a big deal it was), they failed to protect them.
Many of the men I spoke to were angry. Not in a “I’m going to go all Braveheart on you” sort of way, but in a quieter, simmering, “I’m now going to be on the lookout for this” sort of way. There was a sense of purpose: that if they saw it now, at least they could do something about it.
Thought #3: Shame
A lot of men have realized they’ve seen truly abusive behavior right in front of their eyes and downplayed or discounted it as no big deal. Like seeing one gregarious, raunchy boss who regularly did things like look at a news article about safe sex and joke to the gang – including the one woman – that having safe sex meant providing kneepads. Seeing… and never saying anything about it.
These men are now reckoning with the reality that what they personally observed (or heard about) was not just a coarse, unprofessional approach but in some cases true abuse. That over time those behaviors have real consequences for a woman’s thoughts, fears, worries, and even job prospects. That by downplaying it they failed to protect women who needed it (per Thought #2).
Many of these men are doing some soul searching. How could I ever have thought that it was not that big of a deal? They ask themselves. How could I have ever thought the woman should have to be the one to just ignore it or brush it off? Would I want some guy saying that stuff around my daughter? Would I want my wife to have to play along in order to not rock the boat? Would I want my daughter’s colleagues to excuse it just because its always been that way?
Famed director Quentin Tarantino, who worked with Harvey Weinstein on nearly all his films, had a telling mea culpa in a New York Times interview. He said he had heard the rumors that Weinstein was a bit lecherous, but “I chalked it up to a ’50s-’60s era image of a boss chasing a secretary around the desk… As if that’s O.K. That’s the egg on my face right now.”
Thought #4: Who’s next? I’ll bet there are some men quaking in their boots right now.
The question that many of us are asking — “Who’s next? Which domino will be the next to fall?” — is definitely in the minds of the average guy. And just like with women I talk to, I hear a savage satisfaction from men in knowing there are some abusers out there who are going to their jobs every day, wondering whether or when they will be reported for previous actions.
One guy put it well. “It’s the same thing that you feel when the bad guy gets it at the end of the movie. If I was working in a corporate environment, and I had a skeleton in my past, I’d be living with a lot of looking over my shoulder.”
After all, the first punishment of the guilty mind is waiting to be found out.
Thought #5: But this means I have to restrain genuine affection for, respect for, and togetherness with female colleagues
There’s an inevitable downside to any good movement, and this is it for this one. Nearly all the men mentioned this concern. A single law partner who is genuinely interested in exploring a personal relationship with a junior associate is going to hold himself back. She might be sensing some attraction and hoping he’ll reach out, but if she’s junior, she sure won’t say anything – and now he might not either. An honorable man who would otherwise suggest that a female colleague join him to close the Boston deal is going to think twice. After all, it will only be the two of them in the hotel. And forget those genuine but platonic workplace hugs.
As one guy ruefully put it, “It’s the law of unintended consequences. The course correction needs to happen, but I worry that the men who care the most – who already were being careful – are the ones likely to hold themselves back even more! And that could drain away the feeling of camaraderie at work. I hope the pendulum doesn’t swing too far.”
Thought #6: Finally, the good guys win… or at least aren’t losing
And finally, I’m also hearing an interesting, very private thought from many of these men. If they have not played it fast and loose over the years, if they have tried to be honorable, if they have been respectful of women … they have often watched men who did the opposite rocket past them in their careers. So as one man put it, “I am all for this moment in history. I think it is grand. Because it feels like, for once, the good guys aren’t losing. So many of the bad guys got ahead by disregarding the right thing in a lot of ways. By trying to be straight up, a lot of good men got sidelined. But now, finally, there’s a cost to the wrong attitude.”
Another had a more personal observation, “I hope you can share that there are a lot of men who try to honor our wives, and women in general. We take that seriously. We may not be getting recognition for that. We may have done poorly in comparison to other guys because we wouldn’t join the locker-room crowd. But that’s okay. I love that I can go to sleep at night with a clear conscience.”
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Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average, clueless people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her newest book, The Kindness Challenge demonstrates that kindness is the answer to pretty much every life problem, and is sparking a much-needed movement of kindness across the country. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.