It was in the boys’ locker room of my high school that I learned the true meaning of homophobia. I took a weightlifting class my senior year, and one day after I was standing around talking with a couple of guys I ran cross country with. The subject of homosexuals came up, and one of them said something that’s stuck with me ever since.
“I don’t want some guy looking at me the way that I look at girls.”
Even at the time, I thought that very telling, and have told the story many times in the decades since. A few years ago, reading something online (I wish I remembered well enough to find the link) written by a teacher, a similar story came up. A boy in class declared his homophobia, with the excuse that he didn’t like being looked at that way. The teacher asked the boy if his discomfort arose from being the object of unwanted sexual attention from someone who might physically overpower him and he agreed that yes, that was it precisely. The teacher then asked the class if anyone else had had a similar experience. Every girl’s hand went up.
It’s a tribute to the depth to which masculine privilege is embedded in our society that I missed that part of the lesson for so many years. I’m often a pretty bright fellow, though I felt pretty dim in that moment.
It’s said that though not all men harass women, all women are harassed by men. It can be difficult to grant that validity, or even conceive what it’s like if you haven’t experienced it yourself, which most men frankly haven’t.
There is, however, a corrective available, and I urge all straight men to avail themselves of it. Go spend some time in a gay bar. Have a couple drinks (they’ll be strong), make some new friends, be the object of unwelcome advances. Chances are it’ll make you uncomfortable if not outright ick you out. Stick around, see how long you can stand it. See if you can successfully shut down someone who won’t take no for an answer without resorting to violence or harming his ego so he does.
I can tell you from personal experience it’s not easy. I worked once upon a time in a gay bar for a few months (I was young, and I needed the money). Even after I came out as straight I was the subject of constant undesired attention. I learned to deflect it gracefully, along with many other valuable lessons. But I won’t lie. There were times I felt unbelievably uncomfortable, in a situation it could have cost me my job to leave, though I never felt any fear of physical intimidation.
Was it the same as what women go through? No. It was for a limited time in a particular place, which I could escape at any time. And I had all the weight of empowerment that society has put behind me all my life. But it was nonetheless enlightening (as was seeing the comfort and relief of the women who came there, knowing they were safe). And it gave me some idea, based on my own experience, of what it can be like for any woman, anywhere, at any time that men are present. A glimpse, no more, but one I profited from greatly, and highly recommend.
If you wonder, as a man, what it’s like to be the object of unwelcome desire from an individual (or group) with the capacity to force the issue (something women face every day), if you think it’s not as big a deal as some women make it out to be, then I urge you to give it a try. If you’re right, it shouldn’t be so awful. If you’re not, you’ll likely learn something valuable. What have you got to lose?