Even before I was a journalist or a minister, friends and strangers have been comfortable telling me just about everything. All I’ve had to do to learn is listen.
I listened when a college friend told me that she had been sexually assaulted by a relative. I listened when another close friend told me that he had been sexually assaulted by one of his relatives, and that his best friend had been assaulted by one of her relatives. I believed their stories, which shifted my perception of the world.
(If you’re a man and no one’s ever told you about a sexual assault, you may want to read this.)
My record of believing victims isn’t perfect. Along the way, I mistakenly doubted a few stories, mostly because I was naive and couldn’t fathom such cruelty. But no one person’s experiences are a universal barometer for what humans are capable of doing to each other.
Sexually abusive behavior is rampant. I see its effects in the faces of the women at the congregation I serve. I hear it in the conversations with every female-identified person in my life. As a gay man, I’m familiar with the exhausting vigilance required to try to stay safe. And for many women and girls, vigilance is not enough to thwart the forces of domination and entitlement that so many men embody.
Domination and entitlement are old habits in this country — European conquest, entitlement to stolen land and to the labor of slaves, wives as property. Such destructive and dehumanizing habits are hard to dislodge when they favor those in power.
As America continues to be roiled by just how bad things have been for women and girls, those whose voices have been silenced or on the margins hold the key to our country’s salvation. They must be at the center of our national discourse, and their suffering, grief, anger, and stories must be heard and believed.
There’s also plenty of speaking up to do for more privileged people like me. I’m male-identified and comfortable in a male body, but traditionally male values like competition and subjugation have never interested me. In elementary school, I was the boy who was fine with standing next to the girls in the lunch line. (They were kinder, more talkative, and would give me their leftover food.) I am not free of sexism, but the idea that women and girls were somehow “other,” or some kind of opposing team, never took root.
The “war between the sexes” is a culturally manufactured conflict that helps men by implying a false equivalency; in this lopsided “war,” we know which side most often loses. The good news about a culturally manufactured conflict is that it can be culturally dismantled over the long haul.
For women, the cost of sharing their stories – the cost of simply being female – is still far too high. But there are glimmers of hope in all the truth-telling that is pouring forth, and big cultural shifts in the offing. The elementary kids in my daily life don’t self-segregate by gender when they line up for lunch. And a 17-year-old young man I’ve known since birth decries toxic masculinity in ways that we could only dream of hearing from men in Congress — men who should be very afraid indeed.
In the words of Arundhati Roy, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.”
The younger generations are poised to do better on gender than the generations currently in power. We need to ensure that there’s a democracy left for them to inherit.