A few months ago I attended a Time’s Up men’s meeting in Los Angeles. It was a packed room of Hollywood actors, producers, agents, and other male “influencers.” The women hosting the event introduced two male experts in the field of gender politics and then excused themselves, declaring the room a “safe space” for the boys to talk.
I smiled to myself and wondered why we would feel unsafe if they had stayed and joined the conversation. Wasn’t an open dialogue kind of the point? But it turned out that the safe space was a good idea. My brothers had a lot on their minds.
The first speaker opened with a statistic presumably intended to comfort us. “I just want you all to know that 85 percent of men are not predators, abusers, or harassers. The vast majority of you are good guys.” Wait. What? That means that 15 percent of us are predators, abusers, or harassers. In other words, of the 200 guys in that room, statistical probability said that 30 of us were assholes. I was not comforted.
As the discussion got under way, I listened to a handful of passionate speeches about the need for men to step up in support of our sisters. There was universal acknowledgment that we were all responsible for creating safe and equitable environments in which to work, play, and love. At the same time, the dominant vibe in the room was one of anxiety. Obviously, the horrors of sexual abuse were easy to condemn. But what about the subtler dynamics of power and sexual politics? Many of the men were confused about how and where to draw the line, which appeared to be shifting daily as more and more men were being called out for bad behavior—often ending or destabilizing entire careers.
One celebrity confessed that even as he regularly spoke out against gender inequality and the abuse of power, he knew that he could be taken down in an instant for something he’d said or done years before—or worse, for something he hadn’t said or done. How are we to know if our seemingly innocuous behavior has been unwelcome or even destructive to the women we work with, live with, and parent? Having entered that room pretty sure of my bona fides as an outspoken male feminist, I felt my confidence beginning to wane.
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While the gathering provided no easy answers, it started a conversation for me that has continued ever since. All my male friends are wrestling with the same questions. I asked one of my beloved female castmates on Scandal whether she was uncomfortable with my touching, hugging, or squeezing. She replied, “Pumpkin, I do the same thing to you!” True, but it’s not the same, is it?
I heard a woman on NPR decrying what she called “benevolent sexism” (how’s that for an oxymoron?). She was fed up with men doing things like opening doors for her in the name of chivalry. “I can open my own goddamn door, thank you very much.” This woman felt diminished by something I do as a matter of course. Yet when I asked my 27-year-old daughter if she was offended by guys opening doors for her, she said she actually liked and appreciated it. So how do you know?
I remembered an incident some years ago when I was directing a sex scene between two women on The L Word and unthinkingly demonstrated how I wanted one of the actresses to caress the other with her hand. The assistant director took me aside and said, “Tony, I know you have the best of intentions and that you’re very close with the actors, but you can’t do that.” I was mortified. It had never occurred to me that my actions might be perceived as inappropriate or even predatory. I believed that a profound level of trust had been established between the actresses and me. But how could I be certain? Well, I could have asked.
Empathy goes a long way, for sure. We cannot have healthy, loving, mutually respectful relationships without it. But we’re not psychic. At least I’m not. And intuition can only take you so far, especially when a person’s sense of safety, comfort, and self-worth hangs in the balance. The lecturers at the Time’s Up men’s meeting spent a lot of time talking about the social cues that men in our culture are taught. We’re raised to believe that asking for help—that not having all the answers—is a sign of weakness, somehow challenging our manhood. Boys grow up believing that, as sexual partners, they need to have their game down on Day 1. How insane is that? Why aren’t we teaching them to ask for what they want and, more important, what their partners want?
It takes courage to acknowledge uncertainty. And nothing is more attractive than demonstrating to another person that he or she is of value to you. The simple truth is that men are better bosses, colleagues, parents, friends, allies, and lovers when we ask instead of assume. In doing so, the mere posture of knowledge and authority is converted into actual knowledge and authority. Here’s the paradox: Conferring power onto another human being actually increases one’s own sense of power.
Our age-old faith in divine male intuition is no longer good enough. Reality check, fellas: We are not gods. We are men. Let’s own it.
For more stories like this, pick up the June issue of InStyle, on newsstands and for digital download May 11.