I want to say something for the benefit of the men in my life who I know are trying to be better, who I know are trying to help. This is a genuine piece of advice, offered with reproach but also love. I want to say this because I’ve seen it often, I’ve read it often-er, and it has happened to me more than once: a woman will express distress/fear/anger over the behavior of another man to a man (or sometimes just...around a man she isn’t directly speaking to), and the male listener’s response is to immediately offer his own ability to do physical violence, no questions asked. Not one. Not “What happened?” Not “How does this make you feel?” And if there are questions they are only: “Who do I beat up?” or “Do you want me to hit him?” Though more often it’s the more declarative: “I wish I could beat this guy up” or “I’d love to punch him (for you).”
I know this impulse comes from a protective space (usually). I know it comes from seeing a woman experiencing an intense negative emotion, panicking a bit about seeing that, and offering the most immediate solution you can think of to make it stop. Both for her, and for you. Here’s why it’s a problem though...
The male ability and willingness to commit violence is a large part of the reason women are frightened.
First of all, the male ability and willingness to commit violence is a large part of the reason women are frightened and angry all the time at present and in general. So even if you’re offering to combat that violence with your own violence, honestly, it’s still just male aggression in a way that we simply don’t want, especially now. Or ever. It’s often literally the opposite of what we’re asking for.
Second of all, many times the men offering to commit these noble acts of retaliatory violence have, quite frankly, never beaten anyone up in their lives. So the idea that they would suddenly start now, on our delicate behalves, feels like, oh I don’t know, a bit of an empty gesture? Especially if we are expressing anger over say, a soccer player in Brazil, or the man who holds the highest office in the land. But even if we aren’t, even if the perceived target is someone “accessible,” the answer remains the same. If you’re asking me if it would make me feel better to have you put yourself in unnecessary physical harm for the first time in your life because I’m having an emotional response to a third party...the answer is, in fact, “no.”
If you’re offering to combat that violence with your own violence, honestly, it’s still just male aggression.
And this brings me to the final issue: when your mother/sister/co-worker/lover/spouse/friend/neighbor tells you she is feeling distress or dismay or anger about the actions of a man, she is looking to feel heard by you. If she is telling this to you, a man she trusts, or in a post where men she hopes she can trust will inevitably read it, it’s because on some level she wants to feel that a man understands, truly understands, why the actions of another man, of other men, make her and other women feel frightened, angry and disturbed. She wants your empathy. She wants to be VERBAL, because that’s where empathy lives and communicates best. So when you eschew this opportunity to offer that empathy with an immediate offer of (perhaps very improbable) physical violence, you are saying: I don’t need to know what happened, I don’t want to know how you feel, all YOU need to know now, ma’am, is that there is no need to be scared, a man has taken control of your situation in a masculine way you can feel proud of and should praise.
When your mother/sister/co-worker/lover/spouse/friend/neighbor tells you she is feeling distress or dismay or anger about the actions of a man, she is looking to feel heard by you.
I know this isn’t your intention. I know that isn’t what you mean. But that’s how it comes off. And it makes us feel alienated from you. It makes us want to group you in with the aggressors we loathe and fear, with the men who have shown us with their actions that they do not respect us. This in turn angers you, you were only trying to help after all. And so the subtle cycle of mutual destruction continues.
So next time don’t offer ― just listen. And don’t jump in to explain how it must make her feel just to show her that you are empathetic without actually listening still. Just...don’t declare anything. Ask. Reflect back. Marinate. Empathize. And if, miraculously, you are genuinely someone with access and a very special set of skills...empathize first. And then, when she feels heard, if you feel it’s appropriate to quietly offer your real life skills as a professional goon, just gently leave your card and she’ll get back to you if the situation demands it. Yes?