Nice guys of America, we need to talk about sexual assault. I’m talking to you—the guys who would never, ever support taking sexual advantage of a vulnerable person, yet think #metoo has gone a bit too far. The guys who feel a little guilty when they laugh at a Louis C.K. joke, but still think he’s funny. And the guys who are decent human beings now but are terrified that they weren’t so decent when they were younger, who worry about whether they could ever find forgiveness and redemption. I need to talk to you.
I understand that it must be truly jarring to consider for a moment that you may have hurt someone. That perhaps your past behavior, which wasn’t considered a big deal back then, is not being accepted now. Or that you could be held accountable for actions that your friends took, that you never thought were wrong. As a sexual violence and harassment prevention educator, I’m sympathetic. I understand why a lot of men in America are freaking out right now. It probably feels like masculinity itself is on trial, and you’re all scrambling for emotional defense attorneys.
Over the last 25 years of teaching this subject to military and civilian audiences, most people are unable to process information about what constitutes sexual violence and harassment, because it makes them feel bad. I can often see reactions happening in real time while I’m teaching: you make me feel bad, so you must be wrong. For them, it’s not about facts; it’s about preserving one’s identity as a good person. Cognitive dissonance overwhelms the system—the brain senses an attack, and instinctively responds to preserve the concept of who that person believes themselves to be. The Nice Guy Brain cannot handle the combination of two opposing truths—I am a good person and I have hurt someone.
As a teacher, this is a tough math problem to solve. How do I challenge you, Nice Guy, to reflect on your behavior, without shaming you into shutdown? To foster introspection instead of conspiracy theory? But if you’re game, I’d like to try. Instead of making this a “he said-she said” debate, let’s talk about power—in this case, your power.
With regard to sexual violence, think about power in this way: you want something (sex); you don’t care if the other person doesn’t; and, you have the ability to take it from them without their consent or consequences. This can also manifest in taking gratification through intimidation and arguing that it’s just playful banter or your joking nature. It’s when you identify someone’s vulnerability and see that as a bonus opportunity.
Even when there weren’t explicit laws against that behavior, it was always immoral and cruel. It has always meant that someone’s pleasure is worth more than someone else’s pain. Power simply means that you think you’re more important than anyone else, and your desires justify your actions. In this context, that is what sexual violence looks like.
So, if you are truly a Nice Guy, here’s what you must understand about how forgiveness and redemption work in this case. First, you must reflect on whether you may have hurt someone. This could be either for harming the person or standing by and laughing while someone else did. Then you must hold yourself accountable for your actions. And regardless of whether any past offense has been committed, a Nice Guy needs to stand up and do something when he sees someone else engaging in callous, dehumanizing behavior. He must help disrupt those cultural norms that give people tacit permission to behave in ways that hurt and take advantage of women, and frankly, all human beings. That is the pathway to genuine redemption. You don’t need to be some Viking Warrior of Social Change. You just need to speak up and clarify what’s right and what’s wrong.
It will take many small acts of courage to really change this culture, but if you decide that it matters—that vulnerable people matter, you will speak up. You will challenge the morally bankrupt notion that it’s acceptable to push someone right up until the point it becomes illegal. You will do so because you know that sexual assault and harassment aren’t wrong because they’re crimes—they’re crimes because they’re wrong. You will speak up, because nice is never enough.
Dr. Gail Stern
Dr. Gail Stern is the co-founder and Chief Visionary Officer of Catharsis Productions, the largest provider of military sexual violence prevention programs for the Department of Defense (DoD).