Richard Smaby

I am writing this as a man giving advice to men. I am not addressing gay men, but most of what I write applies to relationships between human beings in general. The #MeToo phenomenon has highlighted the asymmetry in the power of men and women, especially powerful men and less powerful women, that leads to widespread abuse of women by men. Men also experience sexual abuse and there are women who perpetrate sexual abuse, but I focus on men abusing women, since I have heard the stories from women who tell me of the lingering pain of having been abused by men.

I may be accused of preaching in what follows. Perhaps I am. I am also praying. Praying that I can make a difference in people’s lives by stating a moral position passionately and directly.

We, men and women, routinely categorize other people according to their roles in society. When I was much younger, my teacher was, well, my teacher. I was surprised to find out that she had children, played guitar or worked after school in an auto shop. She went home at night; she didn’t sleep in the classroom where she taught me. This tendency to categorize people by their roles in our lives can be destructive. All too frequently a man views a woman as sex-object, categorizing her according to a male fantasy of a woman.

I am a man. I can never truly understand the suffering of a woman who experiences being regularly viewed by men as an object of their sexual desires and fantasies. I wish I could understand and I wish I could make the world a better place for her.

Sexual Attraction is Natural. Abuse Should Not Be

Men most generally are attracted to women. They are programmed that way; procreation is important for a species to survive, but the question is how they handle their sex drive.

Sexuality is deeply embedded in our lives; it appears in subtle ways, even subconsciously.

Sexy images of women can turn men on. A sexy image is not a woman. A woman is a subtle being: a mother who is on a mission to pick up her children or is busy writing a brief for her next day in court.

She has aspirations, responsibilities, and plans for the future that don’t currently include you. If you ignore the richness of who she is and force yourself on her even in a small way, you are abusing her.

A Full and Varied Person

You can see the rich dimensions of her life, if you let yourself. She breaks the bonds of sex object in your imagination, when you see her as a full person, deserving of your respect and appreciation for her potential to contribute to society. Take the time to let that happen.

Locker Room Talk and Power

Locker-room talk may be an extension of potty talk from childhood. It is something to prove a man is one of the guys and can talk trash and conquest. It also reinforces, legitimizes, and trains men to ignore women as full persons.

Men are often confused about their sexuality. Many think of having sex as conquest, an expression of their power and worth, like money and other measures of worth. They will often choose a woman who will be regarded as a trophy.

If you are in a position of power over her: you're her boss, her teacher, her parole officer, any imbalance of power, don’t approach her at all, no way, shape, or form. In working with her you will learn her strengths and feelings. Sometime later when one of you has moved out of the power relation, perhaps you might consider getting to know her better.

Mixed Signals

If you think she is sending mixed signals, she’s not. She is sending positive signals because that is who she is. If she is interested in you, she will make that clear. She will suggest going to coffee - probably a chance to get to know you better. She may accept a coffee invitation from you, again on the premise of getting to know you better, before forming her opinion about doing more things together. If after the first coffee she declines your second invitation to coffee, accept that the connection is not going further. If she wants it to do so, she will figure out a way to indicate that clearly to you.

Be aware that many women (most women?) are raised to please, to be considerate of your feelings and concerned for your welfare. A consequence is that a woman might respond positively to your overtures in order to protect your feelings or to avoid being thought a bad person. How to know the difference? Be observant of her personality. If she is a person that is considerate of others’ feelings, take extra care to make sure she really is returning your same interest.

A woman will often dress to be attractive according to current fashion norms. This will be more often the case for an evening out. She dresses attractively to be noticed and appreciated. Her dressing attractively is not her invitation for you to hit on her.

In Buenos Aires there is a custom of 'cabeceo' at milongas (where dancers come to dance tango). The cabeceo is a formalized metaphor for relationships between the sexes as expressed on the dance floor. It deals with the asymmetry in gender codes (though it is not necessarily seen as having broader implications by Argentine men). A milonga typically has three seating areas around the dance floor. One is for couples. One is for single men and another for single women. The tables for single men are on one side of the dance floor. The tables for single women are on the opposite side facing the men’s tables. If you want to dance, you direct your gaze across the room, scanning the opposite gender’s tables. There will be fleeting eye contacts, as men and women scan their opposites. On eye contact a man initiates with a slight nod of his head. The woman may continue scanning the men or she may nod her head in acceptance. If she accepts the cabeceo, she stays seated and the man stands and walks to her table and offers his hand for the dance. This small ritual saves a man from being turned down in front of others and enables the woman to gracefully (invisibly, really) decline without feeling guilt or creating a scene. Practicing similar subtlety and respect in general could benefit both genders in social situations.

Empathy and Life After Sexual Abuse

Women who have talked to me about being abused by men always report that they live with the memories of that abuse for the rest of their lives. They replay the situation over and over dealing with the trauma and guilt. Yes, guilt. They have been taught that they should have been able to figure out a way of getting out of the situation and were made to feel at fault by the men they reported the abuse to.

Try to put yourself in her shoes. In her shoes, not in your fantasy. Try hard to imagine what she is feeling, when you are interacting with her. React to her ideas, not her sexual attractiveness. She is likely focused on informing you of something or convincing you of something. Pay attention to the content of what she is saying. Resist the thought that she is admiring you and wants you to conquer her.

Respect and Equality

We hear the words 'respect' and 'equality' repeatedly, but what do they really mean? Their meanings lie in our actions.

Her wishes are as important as yours. Her needs are equally important. Her future and her plans are, too. Don’t do anything to diminish her.

Inform Yourself By Reading Women’s Perspectives

In her very short book We Should All Be Feminists Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gives her personal view of relations between the sexes. She writes with passion as she addresses the subtle ways we, both sexes, have been taught to view the other sex. You can also view her Ted talk on the same topic.

Comments powered by Disqus