Question: “What man would you be most devastated to learn had secretly been a misogynist all along?”
Answer: My brother. My closest male friends. My favorite male podcasters. My favorite male musicians. Male theatre actors I’ve cried over and crushed on. The cast of Whose Line Is It Anyway.
A seemingly-progressive friend-with-benefits who talked the talk of sex-positivity and consensual kink. Oh wait, that happened already. A seemingly-progressive radio personality I once found charming. Oh wait, that happened already. A seemingly-progressive photographer who once shot pictures of me naked and having sex. Oh wait, that just happened.
In a world where men didn’t systematically hold far more power than women, where men’s abuse of women was as harshly stigmatized and fairly punished as it deserves to be, and where male hatred of women was not a widespread cultural problem, this question would be nothing more than a harmless hypothetical. But since we don’t live in that world, it’s a terrifying question to me. Every time another seemingly “good,” “safe” man is revealed to be toxic garbage, I can’t help but wonder: Who’s next? Who else will betray us? Who else will break our hearts?
The first night I remember meeting Ren Bostelaar in person, it was for a porn shoot for a feminist porn collective owned by some friends of mine. (They’ve since cut ties with him.) I remember, very clearly, that he asked me if I would be comfortable receiving some direction from him during the shoot – if, for example, he needed me to move a leg or turn my head so he could get a better shot. I was charmed that he asked this, and that he was (or seemed) so respectful, so conscientious a photographer. I said yes, of course that was okay. He didn’t give me any direction during the shoot after all, but that interaction stuck with me. He’s a good guy, I remember thinking.
Later, when he sent me the photos, I was delighted. He’d made me look great, and thereby, feel great. I told him so. “I’m so glad you like them!” he replied. Again, I thought: He’s a good guy.
Friends of mine liked him – progressive, feminist friends who I admired and whose opinions I trusted. Any time he was brought up in conversation, people spoke well of him. He’s a good guy. This is the thing about abusers, of all sorts: they are highly skilled at convincing people of their goodness. They are charming and persuasive. They know how to work a room, how to get people in their sway, and they do it amazingly well and often.
In the feminist and sex-positive communities I’ve been a part of, women rely heavily on other women’s testimonials about men in order to know which ones can and cannot be trusted. Men who are widely vetted as “good guys” usually attain that honor through consistently being good: supporting women, listening to us, calling out shitty dudes, speaking out in defense of feminism and women, and so on. It is understood that being a male ally is achievable only through consistent action, not just words. We watch carefully to see which men do what – and which men don’t do anything when they ought to do something. This information is always noted, assessed, and discussed in backchannels. It is a way we endeavor, as women, to keep ourselves and each other safe.
What’s devastating is that even men who’ve been widely vetted as “good,” like Ren, can turn out to be very much not so. Can turn out to have – in this case – leaked women’s private nude photos and personal information onto a “misogynistic cesspool of the internet.” We do all this careful screening and watching and weeding-out, and it can all be meaningless in the end, because people’s outward personas can look entirely different from the hate and rage swirling inside them.
This is why many women I know, myself included, have been tweeting/posting/saying lately that we feel we can’t trust men right now. Because even the men who seemed the most trustworthy can fail us. This is not unreasonable. If a panel of esteemed marine biologists told me a particular bay was safe to swim in, but then I saw someone get mauled by a shark in said bay, there’s no fuckin’ way I would set foot in that bay ever again, scientists be damned. This is not discrimination, unfair generalization, or unreasonable paranoia. This is pragmatism. This is self-protection. This is learning from experience.
I’m not saying there are no men I trust, or that I’ll never trust a man again, or that I believe all men to be inherently untrustworthy. I’m just saying, I and many other women in my community feel we need to be careful about men right now, and going forward. Even more careful than we had previously been about men, which was pretty damn careful.
Men: we do not need your loud proclamations of #NotAllMen, your privilege-blind demand that we consider all men innocent until proven otherwise, or your hindsight-20/20 insistence that you knew the creep was a creep before his creepiness went public. We need, instead, your support, your action, and your resolve. We need you to call out misogyny when you see it in your social spheres, to examine and unlearn your own misogyny when it comes up, and to listen to the concerns and frustrations of women.
To return to my shark metaphor: we don’t need you yelling at us about how the water’s fine. We need you lifeguarding, patrolling the water, and ready to take down a shark when the time comes.