One of the most uncomfortable conversations I ever had in college came during my RA[ref]Resident Assistant[/ref] training sophomore year. We'd gone through training on everything from how to document illicit alcohol containers to how to give directions to lost students on campus to how to fill out university purchase orders for community events.
One of our last days of training was with the sexual assault prevention team.
We all received packets beforehand by mistake - our Wednesday training was bumped to Thursday, but we already had the materials we'd be covering - and many people on my team read through the agenda to see what we were in for.
On particular line item immediately prompted a close friend of mine to ask for an exemption from the training: re-enactments.[ref]Watching scenarios and discussion appropriate responses - we weren't the ones involved in the scenarios.[/ref]
My friend was granted the exemption and skipped that day of training, but I followed up after dinner. I was concerned and wanted to make sure everything was OK.
I learned that night my friend had been raped the year before. They had reported it to the police and to the school. No one had done anything about it - but apparently the sexual assault team had gotten a hold of the report, anonymized it, and had been using it as part of their scenario re-enactments. My friend didn't want to relive the experience or the shame that came with no one believing his story.
Yes. His story.
He received no support at the time because all of our support services were geared exclusively for female victims. Furthermore, he was publicly chastised for missing the training and called out as contributing further to the problem by "refusing to support victims" when he skipped the training course.
Us versus Them
When I first noticed the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter, I was furious.
I was angry at the events that prompted the hashtag in the first place. Events in which I played no part. Events I wish had never happened. Events I pray daily will not happen again.
I was angry at the a society that necessitates such a hashtag. A society where women affected by violence and oppression are marginalized and shunned into thinking they're the only ones living through a nightmarish experience. A society that vilifies the victim while excusing the perpetrator of their crimes.
I was angry at myself for not doing more to stand up for fairness and equality. For being silent too often when I saw something out of place or suspected something wrong was going on.
Mostly, I was angry at those using gender as a way to clearly divide the community into groups of "us" and "them" and pit the two halves against one another. I was angry at people pointing at me and saying that I was responsible for the evils of men because I am a man. I was angry at people saying I could never relate to the struggles women face because I'm a man. I was angry at people refusing to engage me in what should have been a constructive conversation because I was one of "them."
I was angry that a conversation that should have united my friends and peers to a common cause instead divided us into corners based on outwardly applied labels that we didn't choose in the first place.
More than a Hashtag
The point of #YesAllWomen was to show women who'd been victimized, harassed, or in any way marginalized that they aren't alone. To build solidarity and strength in the community so women would feel more comfortable coming forward with their stories and addressing the pervasive violence in our society.
In the same way, I would love to have seen it unite men in the same way. To see it demonstrate to men otherwise blind to the oppression and violence around them daily that there is a problem. To see it encourage a unified community standing up to the demons around us and putting an end to the violence and fear.
Instead, I saw it slowly turn "men" into "them" and watched the tone of conversation become increasingly hostile to the voices of anyone "not us."
The #YesAllWomen hashtag and the conversation around it drew a clear line between "us" and "them" and framed that conversation in adversarial terms. But the line between (potential) victims of violence and those who can help prevent that violence are not that clear.
Said another way, victims are no more clearly identified by an involuntary characteristic than those responsible for victimization by their own inaction.
The conversation needs to be more than a polarizing hashtag. It needs to be more than a circling-of-wagons for the sexes. It needs to be a community endeavor to eliminate violence all the way around.
Real change requires the everyone to be involved. Yes, all women experience harassment and fear. Yes, all men have a responsibility to recognize their role in either perpetrating (even through inaction) or halting that fear. At the same time, we all need to recognize that women don't have a monopoly on fear any more than men have on responsibility.
Generalizations are dangerous. Generalizations based on an unchangeable, non-elective, personal characteristic are even more so.