If a tidal wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations means 2017 is shaping up to be the year of the angry woman, it seems it is also shaping up to be the year of the “confused” man.
No really. This is quite serious. This isn’t run of the mill male confusion, the kind that results in the men in your life getting lost and refusing to ask for directions.
Last week, the New York Times ran an article exploring mens’ “confusion”, as the conversation around workplace harassment reveals it is a nationwide epidemic. The article described a “confusing season for America’s working men” who “wonder if they have been involved or ignored the signs”.
“Cancel the holiday party,” says a director at a San Francisco- based design firm. “Just until it has been figured out how men and women should interact”.
“I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong”, says a senior man at PWC. “But has anything I’ve done been interpreted another way?”
Hmmm, it seems we’re going to have to “figure this out” and well intentioned men’s actions are regularly “interpreted” the wrong way…..
Google men, sexual harassment and confused, and you get a number of articles chronicling this trend.
In the UK, John Humphrys, the host of BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning news programme Today, wondered whether women coming forward with stories of assault and harassment was confusing men. Not only are holiday parties at risk, Humphrys expressed his concern romance was now dead.
In the Washington Post, writer Irin Carmon described men as “bewildered. Uncomfortable. Wrestling with the spector of their own wrongdoing. Frightened, most of all, about how the ground rules for being a worthwhile person are changing so fast.”
And a number of feminist writers, including Rebecca Traister in The Cut, have chronicled how numerous “confused” men have turned to them for clarification, putting forward a myriad of scenarios and looking for a kind of feminist thumbs up or thumbs down.
“They text and call, not quite saying why, but leaving no doubt…are they condemned? What is the nature and severity of their crime? The anxiety of this — how to speak to guys who seek feminist absolution but whom I suspect to be compromised—is real,” wrote Traister.
Here’s the thing: Though Traister and others may have the patience to address the “confused” men of the world or those in their immediate orbit, I am not sure I do – or, at the very least, I think it’s risky if we do it on their terms, not ours.
Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland put his finger on what makes me uneasy about pandering to the world’s “confused” men: “When men have spoken out, this input has too often collapsed into the self-pitying complaint that all is now confusion, that today’s cheerfully innocent man has no idea how to behave as he is forced to pick his way through a dizzying hall of mirrors constructed by feminism and political correctness”.
There is clearly a cultural reckoning of sorts taking place at the end of a year that started with Trump’s “Pussygate”, saw a high-water mark with Weinstein, and subsequent wave upon wave of further allegations batter our shores.
Women are overcoming a lifetime of conditioning to second guess their experiences and remain silent. Many men are, genuinely, confronting their complicity and silence, and, we can only hope, vowing to do better. It’s these men and those kinds of conversation that I, personally, have quite a lot of time for.
But the trademark questions of the “confused” man are not those of a man grappling with his failure to speak up when he knew a friend or colleague was acting inappropriately (in so many of these cases, the perpetrator’s behavior was described as an “open secret”).
And the “confused” man is not thinking about how he may have personally failed to adhere to a standard he clearly knew existed but (rightly) believed he could violate without consequence.
The logic of the “confused” man is to feign complete befuddlement: cancel the holiday party, romance is dead, refuse to be alone in the company of women, or extract a signed consent form and make her wear the niqab.)
There are several risks of pandering to this particular group of “confused” men and a debate framed in these terms.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it reinforces the idea that this stuff is really terribly confusing. It gives weight to the suggestion that perpetrators can stumble into harassment and assault accidentally, in a kind of confused fog.
When you look at the recent high profile examples, these men were far from confused. They knew exactly what they were doing and how they were exploiting their power. As Trump said, when you’re a star, you can do what you want.
They were blind, the “confused” men claim, but with our help now they see. What has gone before is water under the sexual harassment and assault bridge. This is a common theme of the high-profile perpetrators’ mea culpas. Funny how having your behavior publicly exposed helps clarify confusion almost overnight.
Secondly, being taken in by requests to provide clarity for “confused” men is a form of derailing, luring women, particularly feminists with a public platform, into playing harassment umpire in a variety of highly specific scenarios and discerning the difference between the “high level” and “low level” abuse. This is something that will ultimately backfire.
Having played that game, and contributed to a lengthy, and highly specific playbook governing relations between men and women in the “new” post Weinstein era, women will simply be told: see it is all terribly complicated and how on earth are we supposed to remember all that. We won’t win.
Lastly, and this is related to the last point, indulging “confused” men in this way infantilizes them. Are they really incapable of seeking out widely available and long standing guidance on sexual harassment, consent and abuse of power and applying it? We don’t really need to put pen to paper and work this stuff out now.
At the end of the day, I am weary of contributing to anything that normalizes the idea that treating women with dignity and respect, abiding by the principles of consent and avoiding abuse of power is a complicated, confusing endeavour men are incapable of mastering without women playing tutor and schoolmarm.
I am also mindful that it is going to take a lot more than the clarification of men’s “confusion” to sort this. It is going to take a genuine commitment to dismantling the structures and culture that give men such power over women in the first place and makes so many of us complicit in protecting them when they use wield it.
Rather than chasing the red herring of clearing up men’s “confusion”, I’d rather go to the holiday party. If the “confused” men of the world decide not to come along, well then, that’s just more food and drink for me.