Jennifer O’Connell: ‘There’s no TripAdvisor to separate the good people from the bad’
Women being more equal at work and men being more hands-on at home means we all have to learn new ways to behave
Not all men are relishing the self-awareness they’ve had to develop in the wake of a year of stories of sexual abuse, harassment and systemic misogyny. Photograph: iStock
A number of surveys in recent months – mostly in the US, but bear with me – suggested that some men may be in the throes of a post #MeToo meltdown. In one study, conducted by Pew, 51 per cent of adults said men aren’t sure how to interact with women in the workplace.
Another study of male managers by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organisation found nearly half reported being “uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socialising together.”
Recently, actors Sean Penn and Taron Egerton expanded on the theme that #MeToo’s main achievement has been to stir up trouble for guys like them. Penn called the movement “salacious”, and said it is mainly responsible for dividing men and women. Egerton told the UK’s Radio Times that when he’s ready to start dating again, “there are certainly situations where I avoid being alone with certain people, definitely”. By “certain people”, we can deduce that he means “women”.
Watch out for that particular man who always talks to your boobs
I’ve heard other men say versions of the same thing: that they now feel uncomfortable walking alone on a dark street if they see a woman on her own up ahead, especially if she’s walking more slowly. They have to cross the road to avoid her, and then cross back again when they overtake her, all so she won’t think she’s going to be attacked.
It’s very tempting to shrug this off with a “Lads, welcome to our world”, because, of course, women go through a lot of life in a state of low-level vigilance, navigating the world with a whole armoury of coping mechanisms, many not even conscious. There’s the voice in our ear, an inner bossy older sister reminding us to watch out for that particular man who always talks to your boobs instead of your eyes, or the one who sends you unsolicited, late-night messages, “just wondering how you are”. There’s our own version of a Cobra radar detector that tells us not to walk down this particular street or to get out of that particular taxi as quickly as we can.
Then there’s what journalist and author Caitlin Moran calls our “web of women. On some occasions, you had only to mention [a particular man’s] name for a woman to suddenly take you by the hand, look you hard in the eye, and say, ‘Darling, oh God, me too’,” she writes.
The trouble is that, as men are discovering, there’s no TripAdvisor to separate the good people from the bad. You can’t look up the reviews and discover he’s “a bit leery, but probably harmless” or that she’s “liable to throw around false accusations like dildos at a hen party”. (I’m not sure how many of these women actually exist, even if the likes of Egerton seem convinced there’s one on every third barstool.) But the web of women is very much alive and well.
A while ago, I was going to be spending some time in the company of one of Those Men. A man who is successful, charming, funny and more than averagely handsy. Beforehand, I got advice, solicited and unsolicited, from three other women on how best to handle him. Get yourself out of there before his third glass of wine, one urged. Make sure you’re not sitting too close to him, another suggested.
Not all men are relishing the self-awareness they’ve had to develop in the wake of a year of stories of sexual abuse, harassment and systemic misogyny. The “I could be fired for a hand on your knee” chap; the “PC gone mad” dude and the “More feminazi bullshit” keyboard warrior are loudly furious. But even decent men, the ones who are unequivocally relieved for the women in their lives, and thrilled not to have to pretend to laugh at Trump-style locker-room jokes anymore, may well be feeling a bit uncertain.
The #MeToo movement has the potential to spark a gender revolution
The big social movements of the past year have proven a useful receptacle for a collective anxiety about other sweeping social changes we’re all navigating, but it’s not just about #MeToo.
Women being more equal at work and men being more hands-on at home means we all have to learn new ways to behave. Diversity initiatives and gender quotas are making some men understandably nervous about their career prospects. And we haven’t begun to calculate the impact on men’s sexuality of having porn on your phone, a click away at all times and entirely free. In his podcast The Butterfly Effect, Jon Ronson points out that erectile dysfunction is up 1,000 per cent in 16-21 year-olds since 2007– the same year we got free, streaming porn.
The #MeToo movement has the potential to spark a gender revolution. If its legacy is only to divide us further, it will have failed.
The answer, I think, requires us going back to its roots. It was originally about the power of stories; women finding their voices and having conversations about what it means to be a woman. If it is to become something more enduring and inclusive, it requires men finding their voices and having those conversations. It’s over to you now.