When you’re a cis man with any significant degree of familiarity and confidence with the women in your life, there’s a dance that you often become a part of in social situations.
When I go to parties or bars with friends who are women, at least ones who know me and trust me, there are regularly the moments in which I can be called upon to act on behalf of my companions’ safety.
We’ve all seen some version of the moves: it’s the woman planted in one spot while a dude, maybe one she knows and maybe not, takes up her field of vision. He is attempting to maintain her attention.
Maybe he’s trying to impress her with some point or story (wide wingspan, square hips, slightly elevated chin to convey size, stature, and strength).
Maybe he’s leaned in close and attempting to charm her with some degree of wit or what he perceives will come across as scintillating communication (one shoulder cocked forward, at least one foot planted on its ball, neck loose to keep a snake-like snare of her gaze).
She’s normally curled inward, posture hunched, or at least turned as away as possible. She might be smiling, though a second look at the top half of her face shows eyes either down or darting for an out, brow twitching slightly or grimaced.
When I arrive, I’m often seized upon by her and brought into conversations—introduced and pressed in. On some occasions, she leaves me with the dude until I politely excuse myself from him. The woman, my friend, will later thank me, say that the guy would not take the hint, would not back off.
I don’t say this to take pride in any patriarchal protector role. I’ve known a lot of men who do that, but the conceit makes me uncomfortable. These women don’t need protectors due to any weakness within themselves—they look for back-up because of the dangerous situations these men have placed the women in.
Cis Men and Power Dynamics
Cis men in our culture don’t have to think about power dynamics between men and women because by virtue of their gender identity, upbringing, and societal reinforcement, the power in the situation is ours.
Now, the action movies, dystopian literature and war documentaries we consume (and that we make up the largest audience for) all show us caricatures of power. The villains with vast resources and heroes with innate strength, either physical or mental, who push against obstacles and bend others to their wills.
This is a form of power, yes, but it is an overdrawn, exaggerated version that distracts us from realizing that we hold so much power just for being the baseline of the culture in which we exist. What those who are not cis men contend with on a daily basis is the threat of those who wield that power in a clueless, callous, or cruel way.
Admitting this difference in power dynamics is the first and often the most difficult step to becoming earnest allies within our own communities. It is the only way in which we, as cis men, can engage with our own trespasses against others, and the existential threat of interpersonal violence that exists for those around us every day.
One variation on those stereotypes that pops up is the predatory villain. These are the bullies, the cartoonishly sadistic bad guys who inflict violence, either because they don’t care about others or because they relish it. They’re the misogynists, the war criminals, the murderous monsters (often played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). In our culture’s skewed worldview, these cartoonish villains represent the type of violence that the hero (with whom we identify) must defeat.
The problem is that interpersonal violence is typically far less candid than that easy-to-digest narrative would have us believe. Those women at those parties looking to me, asking with their eyes for some help, are typically dealing with a man whose unnoticed power has transformed into expectation and entitlement.
Not long after the results of the presidential election were called, news outlets from Time to the Intercept to People of all places began reporting hate crimes against women, Muslims, people of color, and LGBTQ* Americans. Many of our Facebook and Twitter feeds were clogged with friends and family telling us about assaults and verbal threats they were witnessing and experiencing as emboldened Trump supporters began acting on these impulses.
It’s easy to call these attacks out as unacceptable and to applaud when bystanders (often men) intercede to protect those attacked. I have no intention of downplaying these protective actions: they’re frankly the right thing to do and it can take tremendous guts to put oneself out there. What I do wish to point out is that it is just as right to act when witnessing subtler, more interpersonal acts of violence in our communities.
The perpetrators of violence in those news stories were not born in some cabbage-patch following the announcement of Donald Trump’s candidacy, nor did they blossom like the critters mutating into monsters at the beginning of Gremlins. They have always been there. A lot of them were those guys uncomfortably hitting on my friends at the parties and bars. I’d wager that even more of them are still doing just that, having found a good deal less backlash by operating in the shadows.
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Our roles as caring men and allies is to catch acts of violence in the micro—that is, microaggressions, negging, undesired touching and entitled demands of attention, time, and affection. Every instance of calling these acts out is discourages these acts to exist in the macro, and is also an act of justice. Cis men, and especially white or or straight men, have the privilege of getting away with interrupting these microaggressions without risking themselves in the same ways those who don’t have privileges would be at risk.
And if there is any ethical use of privilege, that’s it right there.
[Feature Image: A photo of two people standing next to each other in a bar with their backs to the camera. The person on the left is wearing light jeans, a light tank top under a long-sleeved grey shirt, and a tan bag. The person on the right is wearing a long-sleeved dark greyish shirt and dark jeans. In the foreground is food and beer sitting on a low table. Source: Gareth Williams]