#BelieveWomen, Sauerkraut, and 7 Ideas to Help Men Listen to Women and Other Survivors of Sexual Violence
I have to confess how I went into the Kavanaugh hearings last week. Since I’m a therapist and I often write about women’s issues and relationships, sex, politics and religion, you might be surprised to hear that I felt uninterested.
My sister called me, enraged, prior to the start of the hearings and trying to commiserate. I was having none of it. I didn’t have the energy to bond — I said, “I have to be honest, I’m so cynical…I’m probably corrupted or something. Even if Kavanaugh and I disagree on everything, who can prove assault from 30 years ago. He’ll be on the Supreme Court anyway.” I admitted to myself that with so many allegations of assault from years ago being aired at this time and with such a burden of proof — maybe women are undermining the cases that are current and can be proved. Then, I think “Is this Stockholm Syndrome?” I just don’t know. And like many people, sometimes, I just try not to think too much.
That was my mindset going in. For better or worse. I had no intention of listening to the proceedings.
But, I got off work at literally the same time Judge Kavanaugh started testifying and I almost always listen to NPR on the way home. And then I couldn’t stop.
I was appalled and riveted and have since found myself trying to put words to much that I find difficult to explain. The women I am connecting with seem to ‘get it.’ (An unhelpful and vague phrase, I know). Yet some men I know seem to push back and question the anger or the process of the topic — and this pushback can hint at disbelief. The therapist part of me believes most people are of good will, but we struggle because of communication. Some men seem to be missing the mark in their response to women who are not just asking, “Believe her” but also asking, “Believe me.”
So, here are some ways I think men could convey support and belief in women who report they have been sexually abused, harassed or assaulted:
1. Listen to the whole story. Say, “Tell me more.” “Is there anything else important for me to know.”
2. Don’t assume that because you are discussing issues with a woman who is not crying or looking sad or victimized that she is not sad or has not been a victim. Most women I know, including myself, have been the victim of some sort of sexual abuse ranging from harassment to violence. When I talk about, write about, or discuss these issues with a man, even the most beloved men in my life, I feel vulnerable and sad, even when I look like a put-together, well-spoken wise woman.
3. Ask yourself tough questions and answer honestly. Realize your answers may color your non-verbal communication and come through in an attitude you convey:
- Do I believe that women are responsible for putting on the breaks if drinking/sex are at issue?
- Do I believe that men are wired (because of testosterone) so that they can’t always restrain themselves?
- Do I objectify women? If so, how? Do I routinely use the words, ‘bitch’ or ‘slut?’ Do I routinely watch porn? Do I put women on a pedestal? Do I tend to distinguish between ‘good’ women and ‘slutty’ women?
4. Don’t assume that the way you personally treat women or feel about women is the place other men come from.
5. Try to mute your natural defenses. I know that it’s our human condition to want to defend ourselves, to speak up for the ‘other side,’ to say, ‘but I’m not like that.’ However, when you defend, or act as Devil’s Advocate, the sharing of experience is inadvertently shifted to a conflict. The person sharing their painful story, who perhaps entered that act of sharing with hope of being seen and heard, now feels unseen, undefended, and even afraid.
6. Don’t assume all victims of sexual abuse or violence are forever damaged and weak and in need of saving. Many just want to be heard and to know that the men in their lives respect, care and will listen. No different than anyone.
7. Trust the process. I think many men are afraid that innocent men will be wrongly accused and that any woman who has ever been looked at sideways will claim assault. Women don’t want this either. In any shift in our society, we can’t guarantee that all involved are mentally healthy and stable. I imagine a few innocent men will be accused and that some women who actively flirted will claim harassment. But, my experience tells me this is not a significant percentage. I believe most women are sane, vigilant, and above all else, fair.
Let me shift gears here:
I’ve always wanted a brother and when I lived in DC, I lived with 3 guys in a ‘group house’ in Georgetown and lots of guys were around, a lot. And many of them are, to this day, like brothers to me. I love them. I couldn’t have asked for men to care about me more or look out for me more. And something about me…I don’t know — I always wanted to see if I could be as cool or stupid or goofy as the guys I hung out with.
I remember one time they’d grilled a whole bunch of brats and burgers and we were playing board games and watching football. There was a big bowl of sauerkraut on the table in the family room and I was going on and on about how much I loved sauerkraut (I was prone to hyperbole in those days).
“You love sauerkraut, huh?” They laughed. “How much do you love it? Do you love it $80 worth?” They each threw in a $20 and bet me that I wouldn’t eat the whole big bowl of sauerkraut for $80.
“Oh, I’ll definitely do that.” I bragged. “No big deal.”
As I started eating the bowl…I took my time. There was no time constraint on the bet and I didn’t have to shovel it in…the guys started saying things like, “Your ass is going to burn tomorrow. Oh my god, you’re going to be in pain when that comes out.” They were teasing and torturing me just like I’d seen them do to one another about other things all the time. But suddenly, I was the focus of it. And suddenly, I didn’t feel like I wanted to eat that bowl of sauerkraut anymore. I wasn’t really tough enough for the teasing and I wasn’t really ‘one of the guys.’ I felt stupid and embarrassed.
Those guys didn’t make me feel that way that was how I had learned to feel from other experiences growing up female. And when I bowed out and said, “Nah, forget it. I don’t want ya stinkin’ 80 bucks,” no one made fun of me or pressured me. ‘Whatever’, they thought. ‘Its just a funny story.’
But I think it shows how hard it is to be female in both expected and unexpected ways, in the world. You think you want to take part in things, but sometimes these things begin to feel too scary or that you’re in over your head. Lots goes on under the surface and informs us and men don’t know or see it, because we’ve tried to be tough, or we’ve blamed ourselves for putting ourselves in certain situations, or we haven’t spoken up because it didn’t seem important.
I feel like this at times as a writer and a sharer of my feelings and experience. What if I say what I think or feel and people are mean to me about it? Am I up for it? Am I strong enough?
In the end, we are at our human best when we are connected and we are most connected when we are both strong and vulnerable. It is strong and vulnerable to tell your story. It is strong and vulnerable to truly listen.