Recently, a friend told me about her experience with an acquaintance from her apartment building. She’d been chatting with him at a building-wide party when she noticed him peering at a spot below her neck, where her obligatory name tag hung. Confused, she said, “You already know my name. It’s Suzanne.”
“Oh, I wasn’t looking at your name tag,” he replied, grinning. “I was looking at your boobs.”
She landed a good slap to his arm. Then she said, steely-voiced, “Mark, you can’t say that.” And she went on to tell him why.
These days, I no longer startle at hearing these stories, or think to myself, Women are still getting this kind of crap?! It’s not as if I didn’t know about the existence of sexual harassment and abuse; it’s been part of the public discourse for a good 40 years. What I didn’t realize until recently was just how pervasive and enduring it remains. In the last six months, virtually every woman I’m close to has told me a story—or 10—about being on the receiving end of this brand of soul-dimming put-down.
Now I get how regularly, and how casually, many men continue to humiliate women via crude sexual comments—or much worse. My own challenge, as a guy, is figuring out how to respond to this issue in a way that’s nonreactive and possibly even helpful. Our lead story takes on the largely unnamed complexities of this movement for men. In it, Lauren Dockett explores how therapists can help men respond to women’s experiences in healthy ways, rather than going silent, stewing in guilt, feeling helpless, or loudly protesting their own innocence. In particular, the piece explores how the unlocking of women’s voices is complicating couples’ relationships, and what needs to happen to allow each partner to genuinely listen to, and take seriously, the other’s experience.
As you may have noticed, clients aren’t the only ones who’ve been shaken up by the #MeToo movement. A lot of therapists have been, too. Forceful, explicit, and thus far tireless, it’s pressing therapists of all persuasions to focus, as many used to in past decades, on the larger sociocultural forces that shape us. The stories we’re hearing in our consulting rooms and the media have been disturbing, no question. But they may also have the power to unite us, and even to help heal us.
Here are women, half the population, who share a society-wide trauma and are finally speaking out and talking back. My friend who was harassed at her apartment party, for example, told me that before #MeToo, she routinely stayed silent in the wake of sexually explicit comments. Each time, she felt diminished. No more.
As for men—the other half the population—we’re now forced to deal with women’s legitimate outrage, one way or another. Guys need to talk with each other about their own reactions, but also about how they might promote a larger culture of respect and safety for women. In fact, perhaps the most pressing challenge for therapists is to help both sexes build a world in which women can work, walk down the street, enter a meeting room, chat at a party, engage in all manner of ordinary life, and be free from sexual intrusion. That’s a biggie. And, like so many men, I’m still in learning mode. But if #MeToo has achieved anything, it’s taught us that recognizing and challenging many of the taken-for-granted indignities and inequities we previously ignored is a project both men and women need to take on.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.