This week, Scottish journalist Amna Saleem found herself in an unwelcome situation, one that’s so common as to be unremarkable. A man in a bar offered her a drink, she politely declined, he persevered, she apologised for not taking it, but said she’d like to read her book while she waited for her boyfriend. The man nonetheless persisted, asking her if her boyfriend wouldn’t allow her to have friends. So far, so Saturday night, except Saleem was then approached by a woman she didn’t know, who pretended to be her friend, hugged her warmly and whispered, “You OK?”
When Saleem tweeted praise for the woman’s thoughtfulness, her story went viral (over half a million likes and over 100K retweets). Many tweeters shared their own stories of Good Samaritans stepping in to save women from persistent unwanted male attention. People shared tips, advice, spoke of the need for a less spontaneous action plan in the event of a man refusing to hear “No” in a public place. There were reminders of Ask For Angela, a groundbreaking campaign conceived in 2016 by Lincolnshire County Council, calling for women to ask venue staff for “Angela” if they feel uncomfortable in male company, allowing at-risk female patrons to be removed discreetly and safely. It’s not the only way women are being encouraged to safeguard themselves from the consequences of unwanted attention from men in public places. Discreet black dots drawn on hands to alert strangers of physical abuse, lockable pants (yes, truly) to prevent sexual assault, anti-rape-drug nail varnish (just dunk your fingertips in a drink and see them change colour if it’s been spiked. Mmm… finger gin), a convoluted bar ordering system involving shots with a host of coded garnishes to notify the barman of the actions you’d like him to take and why (truly, I felt drunk just reading the instructions) – all real ideas put forward in the war against harassment, abuse and assault against women.
All are meant well, all are designed to protect women, some will no doubt prevent someone from having the worst day of her life. There is no downside to being offered a lifebuoy when some lunatic has pushed you off a pier. But why are these initiatives outnumbering – more often, substituting – school lessons where boys are taught the basics of social and romantic behaviour, where the importance of female consent – not just in sexual encounters, but in everyday interaction – is covered? Why are women ushered from bars into a safe taxi, while pestering men are allowed to get another round in? Why did my friend Maria, who politely ended a seemingly friendly but persistent conversation with a man on a train this week, then have to endure a barrage of abuse and accusations of arrogance, ugliness and rudeness, the moment he realised her work emails were more important than his chat-up opportunity? Why did I have to shriek at a man in a bar to stop touching my friend Laura, when both of us had already politely and firmly asked if we could be left alone? Why did his embarrassed-looking friends leave me to confront him? Was there a conversation about it afterwards, where he was read the riot act on how to behave, or did they gaze at the floor while he continued to dismiss me a “miserable bitch”?
There is no problem in chatting someone up, no problem in offering to buy them a drink. The very simple difference is in backing off when it’s made clear the other party is not interested
So many questions; not one of them, it would seem, more important than: “What about the good guys?” These gaping holes in male learning and collective action are filled not only by female solidarity, where knowing women look out for one another and swoop in where able, but also by a noisy minority of men whose chief priority in the war against sexual harassment seems to be in reminding everyone that not all men are evil. Many of the responses to Amna Saleem’s tweet (which merely praised the woman who helped her) were positive, but there were countless tweets from strangers calling for her to acknowledge that some men would have done the same good deed. This need to frame the entire #MeToo movement as an unjust witch-hunt against the male gender is wearying and bizarre. If someone casually praised the service they’d received in M&S, would you ever think to step in to defend John Lewis? Does appreciating the beauty of Italy undermine the landscape of Spain? When we hear of a man robbing a senior in the street, no one rushes to redress the balance by pointing at those who don’t. Praise for a woman is not an attack on all men – it is not an opportunity to hand out medals to those who may possibly have helped had they even been there to start with.
Men are not in danger from #MeToo – women are demonstrating to the world that they are in increased danger from the moment they step over the front doorstep. The art of flirting, dating and love are not at risk from #MeToo – its supporters hope that the persistent act of engaging in unreciprocated advances is. If having to respond appropriately to “No” ruins dating for one man, it’s improving it for every woman he encounters. There is no problem in chatting someone up, no problem in offering to buy them a drink. The very simple difference is in backing off when it’s made clear the other party is not interested. To suggest this is any way confusing to sentient beings, or endangering to romantic connections, is offensive and obtuse.
Believe us, we know the vast majority of men are not monsters. We have brothers, fathers, partners and friends who are not about to undermine our safety and agency. They needn’t feel attacked when we call out those who are, because, as men frequently remind us, they’re not on their side. But, in hearing the experiences of harassed women as something in which unrelated men are the victims of discrimination, the #NotAllMen brigade undermines what is a huge and daily problem for women, and demonstrates their lack of commitment in tackling the causes, not just the emergency solutions. If Not All Men are against us, they must prove that they are for us. Simply listen; don’t interrupt.