I have a hard time accepting how empty the “men are trash” vs. “not all men” discourse feels. I feel it should be possible to hold space for women’s experiences without talking about masculinity like it’s a genetic disease.
Am I wrong? Can’t we hold space for both? I mean, I get where each camp is coming from but it just frustrates me how we can’t seem to escape this endless loop of polarization. It doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere.
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The Origins of “Men are Trash”
One night on the subway a man smiled at me, I immediately regretted smiling back because after that, he wouldn’t leave me alone. He followed me for several stops making comments about my body, saying things like, “I’ve always been a really sexual person…” then fucking me with his eyes.
When I got up, he moved closer. When I tried to walk away he got up and followed me. When I told him I had a boyfriend he smirked before asking about our sex life.
There’s a man sitting across from me and when I look up at him I notice he’s watching this whole interaction and…laughing. When he sees me staring, he immediately sobers up and looks away. But it’s too late, I’ve already added him to my list of people who are doomed to hell.
I’m a mess trying to figure out how to escape when a woman comes up to me, gives me a hug and starts going on and on about how long it had been since she’d seen me and how lucky she was to have run into me that night.
I have no idea who she is, but I play along because I know she is saving my life.
“You have to come sit with me!” she squealed, “We need to catch up!” then she grabbed my arm and started walking me down the aisle, through the subway cars and out of danger.
Months ago, I’d seen a post online about this exact thing happening. About a woman being harassed, about another woman stepping in and pretending to know her, about how that deterred the harasser, about how women should do this for other women. I remember reading the comments and seeing others sharing similar stories. I wonder if she saw it too.
I have this weird feeling as I come into full awareness that this stranger and I are walking arm and arm, that she does not know me, that she chose to take a risk for me anyways, that it worked. I look at her and hold tighter.
Only a few years later in 2021, I would hear a story about a woman who was raped in a subway train in Philadelphia. There were other passengers nearby who apparently just watched. I feel physically sick thinking about it. It makes me want to hide.
The Origins of “Not All Men”
I’m walking through Toronto’s downtown core, relaxed and smoking a joint when I notice someone approaching me. At first, I think he’s going to ask me for a lighter so I start fumbling in my bag to find it before I look up and realize that is not at all what is happening.
“Are you from Africa?” he asks.
He’s very high but I don’t suspect he’s been smoking weed.
“No,” I reply as I start trying to back away from him. He’s swaying back and forth and keeps trying to take more steps towards me even though he is already uncomfortably close.
“You’re so beautiful,” he drones.
“Uhh, I can’t talk right now. I need to go.” (I take one step back)
“Black is beautiful, did you know that?” (He takes one step forward)
I start looking around and panicking when I notice a second man who is slowing his bike to a stop nearby. He doesn’t say anything but he’s watching intently with visible concern. He doesn’t step in, but is clearly ready if he needs to.
It takes a second for this first Down With the Swirl™ man to register why he’s no longer holding my attention but once he notices The Bike Guardian™, his demeanor shifts and he finally starts backing up.
The Bike Guardian™ holds my gaze until I have totally backed away and made it to his side.
“Thank you,” I say. He stands there, still wordless, before offering me a nod as a reply. I wonder what more I can say to him to express my gratitude. Nothing comes to mind so I just offer a nod in return.
I start walking again, look back and try to telepathically communicate my gratitude again. I smile, he smiles and then we are both on our way.
There’s Levels to This Shit
My understanding is that “men are trash” began as a chorus from women who are understandably tired of fielding shitty experiences being harassed by men they don’t know or harmed by men they do know within the context of intimate relationships. And “not at all men” was offered as a reply from men who, understandably, don’t want to feel like men are only offered negative representation and perceived as threats by the people around them.
In my writing I talk about how generalizations are useful and often necessary when discussing social issues but also acknowledge how they flatten people into neat political narratives that often struggle to contain our individuality or the complexity of the human experience.
No, not all men are trash and also saying not all men can feel like it opens the door to having women’s experiences denied or downplayed as rare occurrences when being harassed is so common it almost seems to be a rite of passage or coming of age experience for young women and girls.
“Not all men” or “men are trash” are quick succinct ways to summarize how people feel about the state of gender relations. But maybe a better way to start the conversation is something really quick and equally pithy like, “Omg it’s really fucked up how we’re socialized to accept and normalize women constantly being harassed and treated like prey, we really need to find a remedy for that in our culture but maybe the solution isn’t to create a political narrative that denies men their humanity and frames them as literal pieces of garbage.”
Maybe???? Idk, I’m still working on it.