In my "letter to a young pro-feminist" post of yesterday, I wrote:
Don't be hurt or frustrated if you encounter people who are initially suspicious of your professed egalitarianism. In our deeply sexist culture, men are "guilty until proven innocent." That's our own damned fault, frankly, and the sooner we cheerfully accept the burden of proving ourselves innocent, the better off we're all going to be. (I've blogged about this before.)
I really can't agree with you on "guilty until proven innocent". Males are not born sexists, homophobes, rapists, or what have you.
Sorry, but I've read far too many articles and reports about countries and cities in those countries where "guilty until proven innocent" is the default operating standard and it's nothing short of hell.
And Jeremy replied, nicely:
Yes, the principle "innocent until proven guilty" is vital to a free society, but it only applies if you are in court being charged with a crime... you do *not* have the right to be assumed harmless. If I'm walking home late at night and a woman takes the trouble to keep her distance from me, well, it really sucks that she's acting as though I'm a potential threat but guess what, I just have to deal with it. I *don't* have the right to demand that a passing stranger treats me the way I would prefer them to.
The bold emphasis is mine, not Jeremy's. It's an important point he makes, and a good one.
I wrote nearly two years ago about the frustration of the "good guy" who is judged by the actions of others. I wrote:
First of all, the obvious point is that women's intuition, while not entirely the stuff of myth, is not so powerful that it can automatically separate "good guys" from the bad. No woman can walk down the street and as she passes a man, know with certainty that he isn't a threat. Given the high incidence of rape and assault and harassment and other forms of mistreatment, a woman would be a fool to leave herself continually vulnerable. The old adage "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" seems to apply here. When a simple smile is so frequently misunderstood and construed as a sexual invitation, American women generally do have to operate on the assumption that men are guilty until proven innocent.
I stand by that today.
When I hear my brothers complaining that women don't smile enough at them, or don't respond to their "innocent hellos", I am reminded of my white friends who are bewildered and indignant when people of color point out their white privilege to them. Men who complain about being "guilty until proven innocent" are demanding to be seen as individuals, separate from their perceived sex and the history that goes with it.
While "innocent until proven guilty" is an excellent guideline for courtroom proceedings, it doesn't translate nearly as effectively into public life and relations between the sexes. When men complain that women are suspicious of their intentions merely because they are men, they are forcing women into the role of the district attorney, the one shouldered with the burden of proving guilt. In a society where women, rather than men, are overwhelmingly the victims of harassment and assault, those who have suffered most are the ones being asked to lay aside their prior experience and knowledge and approach each new male in their lives with a blank slate, free from judgment. That's a hell of a weight to ask women to carry, and a hell of a risk to ask them to take, again and again and again.
In our culture, where rape and harassment and abuse are so common, men have lost the right (if it ever existed) to insist that women should be able to differentiate (in a matter of seconds) between the harmless and the threatening. A man is entitled to a presumption of innocence from a jury in a courtroom, but not from his classmate with whom he tries to strike up what she ought to know is just an innocent conversation!
Is it frustrating to be viewed with suspicion merely because of one's sex? Heck yes. (Is it frustrating to be viewed as a sexual object merely because one is young and female? Ask around.) Men ought to be angry that they need to "prove their harmlessness". Indeed, they ought to be enraged! But our anger is rightly directed not at women who have been the victims (individually and collectively) of predatory males, but at those men who have "poisoned the well" for everyone else. Rather than demand that women "smile more" or "trust more" or "just know that I'm a good guy", men need to channel their frustration at being "pre-judged" into a commitment to end what it is that causes women's suspicion in the first place.
Holding other men accountable, challenging sexist and objectifying language and behavior in yourself and in other males (whether or not women are around) is the single most effective thing men can do to change the culture of "guilty until proven innocent." Rape, assault, and harassment are allowed to flourish not merely through the actions of a few "bad apples", but through the unwillingness of the "nice guys" to challenge other men. Silence is, in practical terms, tacit consent and approval.
There's more to being a "good guy" than not raping women. Good guys hold themselves and other men accountable, in public and in private. That's a high standard to meet, particularly for the young. But it's only by meeting that standard that men can help to change the culture.