In my work as a systems engineer in a hospital, I have a regular challenge that I face. Once I am called in to examine and model a system, I am almost invariably told that the true problem lies outside that system’s boundaries. The OR can’t fix its own turn-around time, because the real problem is down in decontamination, who aren’t getting the instruments cleaned fast enough. The real problem is in the PACU, who doesn’t prep the patients for surgery on time. Etc. Dealing with this is difficult. In part because there is almost always some truth to it. Environmental could do the decontamination faster. The PACU could be more efficient.
But that simply offloads the responsibility for change. If I were to agree, and decide to go try to work with the PACU, surprise surprise, someone else would be the problem. This is a pretty common human behavior, I think. I know I do it. Whenever I am confronted with a challenge in my life, my first instinct is to cast about: whose fault is this? Because surely, sure as hell, it isn’t my fault. Except that it is usually my fault. And even when others had parts to play (which is often enough), I had a part as well. I contributed to my own difficulties.
I find myself thinking about how men in the gaming industry, and in response to the celebrity cloud-hacking scandal, and in general in response to issues of violence against women, are reacting with such vitriol right now. So many men are collectively seeking to externalize responsibility. To claim that women are responsible for these acts against themselves. Or to claim that the real perpetrators are a mysterious class of “other” men, which they deny belonging to (“Not all men!”). When a woman is assaulted or attacked, the chorus goes up, “Was she drunk? Was she clad suggestively?”
What this means, of course, is “Did she step out of line?” Did this victim transgress the role we men have prescribed for her in society? Did she deserve it? And I think it’s self-protective for men. I think for many of us, if we can assign some blame to the woman for her victimhood, then we can relieve ourselves. We can say, “I’m not the problem. I don’t have to change.” Change is hard. Change is really hard. Especially when we enjoy the thing we’re suddenly trying to change about ourselves. Really especially then.
Now, in the abstract, it is not victim-blaming to hold that people should be careful in the world. That getting drunk around strangers is a risky activity. That not carefully securing your online data increases the chances for exploitation. These are risks for everyone, though the stakes are not even close to evenly distributed. But men, stop for a moment. We need to consider the implication, and consider where we stand in the priority of those tasked with giving… let’s say “wise counsel” rather charitably.
Why is it dangerous for women to drink around strangers? Because many of us are predators. Why do those personal photos need to be so rigidly protected? Because many men are criminals who will exploit them for prurience and profit. So, when you hear of an attack, and you exhort women to protect themselves, who do you think you are, exactly? Do you think women haven’t been told this hundreds of times by their mothers, their teachers, their fathers, their friends? By every responsible woman in their lives? Do you think women just never thought of personal safety? Maybe it just never sunk in until you said it?
Telling adult women to protect themselves is an attack. It says, “You are not obeying the rules we’ve determined for you.” And it is a defense mechanism. It says, “I don’t have to change.” And finally, it’s a threat. It says, “You’d better be careful. You don’t know what could happen to you.”
It is an act of defiance for women to simply go out and enjoy the freedoms we men take for granted. A real act of courage. And I know that men are capable of seeing it, because I know the fear we feel when women we love go out alone at night. We fear for them. Because we know there are predators out there, there are predators among us. Among our own cohort of friends and family. Whatever trepidation we feel for the women in our lives, I cannot imagine how much more it must be for them.
It is well past time for us, we men, to stop placing responsibility for protection from harm on those who are at risk. The blandishments that not all men are predators and that women have some role to play in their own security are facile. No one has ever disputed such things. These are obvious facts which do not excuse men – yes, all men – from culpability when we participate in a societal structure which routinely victimizes vulnerable members. Which looks the other way when atrocities are committed. Which consumes the fruits of criminal invasions of privacy.
In AA, one of the hardest things to do is to look at our own part in the resentments we have. But we have to, to recover. I believe that men, collectively, need to look closely at our own part in the habitual, relentless victimization and exploitation of women in our midst. For our society to recover from this sickness, we men must be willing to look first at how we contribute. How we participate. It is ongoing, and lifelong. It is something we men must teach boys. Look at ourselves first. The problem is within our sphere. My sphere.
I have written many times that there are women who deserved better than I’ve given them. Even in sobriety, I regret some of my behaviors. I’ve been far from perfect. And I had strong and effective women teaching me from boyhood. It takes more than that. It takes willingness, and I believe it takes adult men teaching boys hard truths about our gender: many of us are predators. It is all of our responsibility to change that. And it is each of our responsibility to change ourselves. Uttering vague platitudes about personal security are simply the vapor by which we excuse the malefaction of our kin, so that we may deny our personal stake in it.