No, you don’t need to “be careful” in the era of #MeToo

In the wake of the #MeToo movement is the wave of men saying they are now too scared to talk to women. I have repeatedly heard men saying they feel the need to “be careful” around women. The phrase “be careful” caught my ear because it seems to be the phrase of choice for the current situation. I want to examine that a bit closer.

The #MeToo Movement

For those of you living under a rock for the past three months, the #MeToo movement, which was originally created by activist Tarana Burke in 2006, was popularized this past October by myriad women and men sharing their stories of assault and harassment. Initiated by the ousting of Harvey Weinstein et al., many celebrities have come under fire for everything from groping to rape.

What surprised me about this whole thing was that people were actually surprised. I couldn’t count how many times I have been made to feel uncomfortable, or even downright scared, of a man. This has happened on the bus, at parties, at conferences, while running through my own neighborhood, and by people I trusted. A select few instances have gone from uncomfortable to physically violent. The turn to violence was unexpected and quick in all cases and the first of these happened to me at 14. Further more, every woman I know (and some men) has experienced similar situations. What’s surprising to me is that there are women who haven’t experienced this type of harassment.

For some quick statistics, there’s an average of 321,500 victims of of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States. Most victims of sexual assault are women under the age of 34. One in six women experiences attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.  This is not a female-only issue as one in ten men experience rape during their lifetime. Transgender students are at an even higher risk of sexual assault. Native Americans are at the highest risk of sexual assault compared to all other races. These statistics, and more, are available through the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

What does it mean to “be careful”?

I want to preface this part by saying I don’t believe that most of the men I know who repeat the “be careful” narrative truly believe the things that phrase implies. I believe that most have simply absorbed this message through social media and news media and have internalized it without really thinking about it. That said, everyone should be aware of how that phrase sounds to the people hearing it.

We’ve established that creeps and predators are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes, ages, genders, and orientations. So let’s back up to our original point of “being careful”. There are a few different ways we can interpret this word but, in general, it means that you are afraid, avoiding danger, or trying not to make a mistake. When we are going into a situation carefully it’s because we suspect danger. And typically when we say we are careful with something it’s because we don’t want to accidentally break it. I think in the case of the #MeToo backlash, the word probably takes on a combination of both meanings.

Let’s consider our first definition, to go into a situation carefully; to avoid danger. I don’t think this is a difficult connection to make since much of the backlash of the movement has focused on people saying men are now literally scared to talk to, or be alone with, women. Not only is this argument victim blaming at its finest, but it’s pulling the victim card for an entire gender. Suddenly, women who have spent years learning how to carefully maneuver dangerous or uncomfortable situations to spare the feelings of creepy neck-beards are the aggressors. Color me surprised.

Let’s talk about why this logic is complete nonsense. The uniting factor of these stories is that they involve assault and serious harassment. People are not losing their jobs or companies because they made an awkward joke at a party. They’re losing their jobs and companies because they have spent years using their status and power to coerce people into dangerous situations. Many have knowingly, and intentionally, contributed to systemic sexism and racism for their own benefit. And, even if they were oblivious, they should be called out for it because not calling anyone out is how we got here in the first place. Samantha Bee can say it better than I can so I’ll just leave this here for your viewing pleasure.

Now, let’s examine our other definition, to be afraid that you’ll make a mistake or break something. While the previous definition is plain old projecting, this one takes a seedier turn. It implies that you can’t let yourself be around women because you’re afraid of what you’ll do. It’s the logic behind the Mike Pence rule and gives an added level of creepy to the “be careful” argument. In my opinion, if you can’t trust yourself to be alone with a woman, you should probably just be kept away from society in general.

Many will counter with the notion that they don’t want to be alone with a woman because they’re afraid of being accused of something they didn’t do. The idea that women will report a completely innocent encounter simply to bring a man down is sort of like the welfare queen narrative. While people certainly do lie about rape, the rate is about 2% which is the same as false reports of other felonies. There are plenty of studies and statistics to show that allegations like those recently revealed are very rarely faked. And those that are fake tend to come to the surface before the victim even knows they’ve been accused of something. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported. Some ask why but when we consider the fact that most perpetrators never see a day of jail time, the reasons become fairly obvious. So you are just as likely to be falsely accused of rape as you are of being falsely accused of say, arson or burglary.

So what should I do?

So, now we’ve determined that women are simply people and not blood-sucking monsters who survive on the ghosted careers of innocent men. And, in my experience, most of the guys I hear saying “we need to ‘be careful'” are not these creepy Mike Pence-esque predators who can’t speak to women. They’re respectful dudes who are actually afraid of being taken the wrong way and being lumped in with actual creeps. They’re afraid of this because of a false media narrative saying they should be. However, we know that the chances of that happening are about the same as the chance of you being falsely accused of grand theft auto. So we have to ask a different question. How can I be an ally?

In this case, I think what we’re really talking about is being mindful and intentional with our words. This is something we should all be doing all day everyday. It’s actually the first agreement in my favorite book of all time, The Four Agreements. This doesn’t just apply to men or celebrities or people in positions of power. And it doesn’t just apply to situations that might be taken out of context or misinterpreted. Shouldn’t we be paying attention to what we say in all situations? Are we really okay with absentmindedly talking throughout the day with no forethought or consideration of others? We shouldn’t be. If the #MeToo movement has caused you to be more mindful of your interactions with people, I say that’s a good thing. MTV suggests that this is happening already. Please, whatever you do, stop saying things like “we need to be careful with all this #MeToo stuff happening”. It’s creepy, unnecessary, and counterproductive.

If you’re interested in further reading, there are resources out there to help you be a good bystander. There are also resources to help you be a good ally. We all make mistakes. We’re all just humans doing the best we can.

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