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When Being a Good Man is Not Enough

by Melissa Au about a year ago in feminism
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"One mustn't strive to be a good man alone, but to be a good man towards women"

An image from the protests following Everard's murder. 97% refers to the percentage of women in the UK who have faced assault and harassment.

On the first night of Freshers, my roommate and I walked home with 3 men. Although I can now say with conviction that they are good men, at the time they were strangers to us, people we had met a few hours prior.

We split into two groups—my roommate was drunk and having a giggle-fest with the other drunk guy, let's call him S. The three of us, let's call the other two A and W, were sober and mildly amused, pausing every hundred metres or so to wait for them to catch up. Eventually, we decided to let them walk a few hundred metres ahead of us so we could keep an eye on them, making sure they wouldn't fall into the river or walk into the road.

Yet somehow, the three of us reached our hall before they did. I'm not sure how much time followed where we sat in the lobby awaiting their return but the first night of my university experience was one of the most stressful. At best, my roommate was drunk with a stranger and lost. At worst, this stranger was taking advantage of her. She had the same concerns. I was supposed to be right behind her but was suddenly not. I hadn't gotten a phone card yet and couldn't call her and she couldn't call me for the same reasons. In the end, she returned safely. We were lucky because they were good men.

But here's the thing: in our group of 5, two of the men, S and A, had gone to the same school and knew each other. And despite both of us expressing a lot of worry for the other, neither one of them brought it up to us. They had each other's contacts, they could have made the leap to call the other had it been on their minds. To them, they didn't really know each other, having been in different years and not in the same friend group, but to us it was crucial information that could have brought us some peace of mind.

I found this out a few months later, as I began dating the S. I had offhandedly mentioned something about A's pre-university experience when S told me that they had in fact gone to the same school so he knew the exact anecdote I was bringing up. It's been over three years since the incident and I still think about it from time to time, wondering how it could have slipped both of their minds to mention this.

The thing is, being a good man is not enough. There is so much discourse about how not all men are assailants, not all men are bad. But in those unending moments whilst I sat in the lobby waiting for my friend, I could not tell if S was bad. The older I get, the more I understand how lucky we were that night. But we were still so afraid for each other that night, and so many nights after. Being a good man is not enough to stop us from being afraid.

A few months ago, at the height of the outrage about Sarah Everard, I reposted an image on Instagram that read "boys, your silence is very loud" with a message that I had been physically and sexually assaulted by more men that I knew (i.e. not strangers) than the number of men who had taken personal culpability for adding to an environment of fear that women live in. A male friend asked me why it mattered if other men posted these kinds of messages with an implied, "isn't it enough to just be good?"

In general, we post about a movement or issue on social media when it crosses a certain moral standing of ours. For many women, the murder of Sarah Everard was a line that triggered many stories. But for the many men I know, the outpouring of stories was not enough for them to take a stand to make a public post. Needless to say, there were a decent number of men who went in the other direction, saying #notallmen were part of the problem, ignoring their complicity. There were a number that condemned the treatment of vigil-holders at the hands of the (mostly male) police. But condemning the actions of the police but not self criticising feels like a cousin of #notallmen. It makes the police the problem, not the system of complicity.

In addition, there is just the signalling that posting allows. Recognising that you are likely complicit in many situations is a way to signal to women that should they need help, you would be an available help-station. Obviously, I have many male friends who I could go to help for who did not publicly post about this. However, they almost definitely have dozens of female followers who don't know them well enough to understand this and will not view them as a potential ally if a situation were to arise. In short, it's a way to signal that you are willing to be an ally.

Sometimes being a good man isn't enough. You cannot be a good man without self analysing the areas where you may have fallen short, without asking the women around you what you could do more (and here's the crucial bit) and following through. One mustn't strive to be a good man alone, but to be a good man towards women.


About the author

Melissa Au

hold my hand and we can jump straight into the cold unloving sea

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