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The problem with good guys

December 13, 2017

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

I recently had a conversation with a guy who assaulted me. I reached out to let him know the ways that his behaviors had hurt me, the ways he made me feel small and silent, the ways I still think about what happened. I decided to send him a message because I believe that sexual assault is a very messy issue. I don’t think it’s realistic to expel from society every person who has ever harassed or assaulted someone—it’s too many people. Until we have made societal shifts toward equity and respect, there are going to be people who have been abusive, but wish they hadn’t been. There are people who have no idea that they have done things to hurt other people. Before continuing, I want to acknowledge that the issue of sexual violence disproportionately affects women of color and LGBTQ+ people. I also want to say that reaching out to someone who assaulted you is by no means an expectation. I did it because it was what I wanted to do, and every survivor has the right to make that choice for themself.

The exchange I had with this guy was surprisingly positive. He took full responsibility for what happened, he apologized, he indicated that he would use this as an impetus to think through his actions differently moving forward. In his response, he said something that has been rattling around in my brain ever since: “Like many guys my age, I think of myself as a flawed yet generally good person. We’re under the illusion that we just aren’t the kind of people capable of sexual transgressions. Evidently, I was wrong.”

People who are not targeted by a certain oppressive system (e.g. racism, classism, ableism, etc.) must be critical of the ways in which they benefit from that system. This is true even if they don’t like it or don’t feel personally responsible for its creation. As a white person, I always contribute to racism. I just do. It is fundamentally important for me to constantly engage with my own involvement in ideologies of racism and my own contributions to the system. If I’m not thinking of myself as a beneficiary of racism, then I’m facilitating the erasure of that problem. I believe that the same principle applies to any other structure of oppression. I understand that this self-reflection is a disturbing and challenging practice, but I believe it to be essential to any kind of social progress.

I see the designation of “Good Guy” as antithetical to this progress. It has become a hostile term to me—I feel sirens going off inside whenever I hear it. To me, it indicates that I’m listening to someone who thinks that he can step outside of the problem of sexual violence, and sexism more generally. When men identify themselves as “good guys,” they construct themselves as not benefiting from patriarchy. As having an unblemished record of interactions with women. As not needing to worry about the implications of news of sexual violence, because there’s just no way that they could be a part of it.

What is disappointing to me about so much of what I’m hearing from men right now is that they clearly do not view themselves as part of the problem. So many men, these self-identified “good guys,” fill their airtime pointing to different reasons why they are not involved. They spend time deflecting their own culpability. They scapegoat the monsters, speaking loudly against the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Cosbys of the world, without making space for any critical self-reflection.

I’m not sure if I’ll be assaulted by some high-power executive or television star one day, but I know for certain that my voice will be overlooked in a conversation with my male peers, or that I won’t feel totally safe walking home alone tonight. Some forms of gender-based violence are rare. The impact of their trauma feels like getting hit by an earthquake, with delayed aftershocks that arise long after the event. Other forms are everyday, and the impact of their trauma feels more like a series of paper cuts.

If we are committed to stopping the earthquakes of sexual violence in our world, we must also take a hard look at the paper cuts. Both hurt. Sexual violence does not exist in a vacuum. It is not a violence without logic. It comes as a direct consequence of a system that mandates the ranking of genders, with men at the top and others falling below. This hierarchy allows for people to view some as subjects, as agents in their world, and others as objects, to be acted upon. This is something that exists all the time, not just when a news story breaks.

I never want to hear the words “I’m a good guy” again. It’s a nothing statement. It is a performance of allyship that, in fact, allows for zero intellectual or emotional work on the part of the speaker. Instead of calling yourself a good guy, I encourage you to consider in what ways you’ve been a bad guy. If you believe that sexual violence should not happen, if you believe in the equity of all people, in which instances have you not lived those values? That acknowledgment, that work, is actually way more beneficial to the cause. Talk to other men. Listen to women. Take responsibility. Apologize. Know that if you are hiding from your own role in the problem, you are contributing to its power.

Tessa Westfall is a member of the Class of 2018. 

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6 comments:

  1. Class of 2019 says:

    Westfall writes: “I’m not sure if I’ll be assaulted by some high-power executive or television star one day, but I know for certain that my voice will be overlooked in a conversation with my male peers, or that I won’t feel totally safe walking home alone tonight. Some forms of gender-based violence are rare. The impact of their trauma feels like getting hit by an earthquake, with delayed aftershocks that arise long after the event. Other forms are everyday, and the impact of their trauma feels more like a series of paper cuts.”

    This paragraph suggests that Westfall believes that her voice being overlooked in a conversation with male peers is a form of gender-based violence. Is having your view dismissed from a conversation by a group a form of violence (evidently it is often gender-based)? Will I have suffered violence when this comment is overlooked?

    You are right that it is sexist and wrong for men to overlook your voice on account of your gender. They should stop doing that. But certainly doing so is not a form of violence.

  2. ConcernedBowdoinSupporter says:

    “I’m not sure if I’ll be assaulted by some high-power executive or television star one day, but I know for certain that my voice will be overlooked in a conversation with my male peers, or that I won’t feel totally safe walking home alone tonight.”

    Hmmm, this sounds weirdly hopeful. Finding victimhood alluring? Luckily for you, everyone’s voice gets overlooked sometimes; but being female gives you the privilege of blaming it on the patriarchy, de facto, while others have to just feel bad about being overlooked in silence. So here, here for those who suffer iconicized injustices, for they shall inherit the right to victimhood and self-righteousness. Then, while shaking your finger, you can admonish whole groups of other people to contemplate how they have contributed to your personal, yet universal, suffering. Or maybe you would rather just cast the first stone.

  3. Class of 2021 says:

    Thank you for writing this. I have encountered so many men on this campus who remove blame from themselves when they hurt people with the excuse “but I’m a good guy”. This phenomenon made me question the sexual assaults I have experienced. I have felt the need to protect the feelings of my assaulters for fear of hurting the reputations of “good guys”. Rapists are very rarely men in hoods in alleys. Assaulters are the men in our classrooms and dorms. So thank you for writing about this because maybe it will help people start to change the narrative.

  4. Jo says:

    No. Just no.
    Tessa Westfall is painting with too broad a brush and indicting people based on race and gender and closing all room for dialogue.
    This kind of writing and thinking is not the way forward.

    And yes, there are good guys.

  5. Shaun says:

    A white person does not contribute to racism simply by virtue of being white. Likewise, a good man does not contribute to sexist behavior against women simply because he is a gentleman. There was nothing good about the man who assaulted you – he and others like him who consider themselves to be good are nothing short of delusional. That said, there are plenty of good men out there who respect woman and treat them honorably. To consider oneself a good guy is not to deny the existence of violence or harassing behavior against women.

    • Erin says:

      Shaun, I agree with the author’s opinion. Privilege is thinking that something is not a problem because it is not a problem for you personally. That is exactly what is being described here and used two-fold; as a white person I strive to be aware of my position daily and learn from my mistakes as to not uphold the racist society we live in, as a woman I hope that men in the world can see their power and privilege and instead of defending their personal honor see the bigger picture and help effect change that makes the world a safer place for all women.


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