There’s no such thing as a Nice Guy.
Not because all guys are monstrous, evil, puppy-kicking scum, but because we’re all human. We have moments of kindness and generosity, and we also have asshole moments. The ratio varies from one person to the next, but the mixture’s there in all of us.
I bring this up because it’s relevant to the ongoing conversation about sexual harassment in Hollywood, in SF/F, and pretty much everywhere. More than a million people spoke up this week with the #MeToo hashtag, talking about their own experiences being harassed. According to a 2011 United Nations report:
- Between 40 and 50 percent of women in European Union countries experience unwanted sexual advancements, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at their workplace.
- In the United States, 83 percent of girls aged 12 to 16 experience some for of sexual harassment in public schools.
It would be a lot easier if the harassers were all mustache-twirling villains, heartless evildoers with zero redeeming qualities.
You know. Bad Guys.
The trouble is, most harassers and rapists and abusers are just…people. They’re friends and family members and coworkers and colleagues. A lot of the time, they’re perfectly pleasant. Maybe they have a great sense of humor. Maybe they always shovel their neighbor’s driveway after it snows. Maybe they donate money to animal rescue every month.
This is the first part of the Nice Guy problem. Because when someone speaks out and names their harasser, we look at them and think, How can he be a harasser? He’s such a nice guy. Nice guys don’t harass people. Ergo, this so-called victim must be lying or exaggerating or overreacting or misunderstanding or whatever. Because logic!
I remember the first time I sat in, learning how to facilitate a domestic violence intervention group. The man to my right had been sentenced to participate after a conviction for abusing his wife. He was friendly and charismatic. It would have been easy to like him. There was almost nothing to distinguish him from anyone else.*
Nice Guys™ can harass others. Nice Guys™ can be stalkers. Nice Guys™ can be rapists and abusers. Our belief in that false Nice Guy/Bad Guy dichotomy helps those abusers. It provides another shield against accusations, a first line of defense against any consequences for their actions.
Some of these guys know exactly how to play up that defense, using it to protect themselves and punish any accusers. Some abusers deliberately craft a Nice Guy persona in order to better harass their victims.
And we let them. We see someone crossing the line, but we rationalize it in our heads because we know they’re a Nice Guy. We hear the stories, but refuse to accept them. We allow the behavior to continue.
Just like the Myth of the Nice Guy makes us likely to excuse other people’s problematic behavior, it also gets in the way of us recognizing and being accountable for our own.
I believe harassers and abusers can learn to change their behavior. (Though many choose not to.) Better yet would be for them to have recognized the harm they were causing and learned to do better before it reached the point of chronic harassment or assault or abuse.
It’s hard to step back and realize you’ve done something abusive. It’s harder if you’ve built yourself up in your head as a Nice Guy. It’s called cognitive dissonance. Someone points out that you’ve been being creepy and inappropriate. That contradicts your self-image as a Nice Guy. So your mind searches for a way to safely resolve the contradiction: She’s wrong. She’s lying. She’s misremembering.
Even if you bring yourself to acknowledge you did something wrong, you recount the story in a way that preserves you as the Nice Guy. You minimize your actions. You obfuscate the details. You mention reasons the accuser might not be giving a fully truthful or reliable account. And you stress what a nice person you are, how you’d never intentionally hurt anyone, how the guilt is tearing you apart, and so on.
What you don’t do — what we don’t do — is own our shit. We don’t dig deep to look at where our own behaviors come from.
We grew up in a society that treats women as lesser. That teaches men to be “strong” and to take what we want. We learn about the “friend zone” and the idea that women owe us sex and companionship. We hear our peers boasting about groping a girl between classes. We see them passing around nude pics of their girlfriends, because girls are things to be shared and used.
You can’t grow up like that without some of it rubbing off.** It takes active, conscious work to change those attitudes, and to do better. And you can’t do better if you’re so fixated on being a Nice Guy that you won’t even acknowledge your shit.
And now, a few disclaimers…
- I’ve referred to men as harassers and women as victims in this post, because that’s the most common dynamic. But it’s absolutely not the only dynamic. People of all genders can be victims, and people of all genders can be harassers.
- “But what if she’s lying?” Why is that the first response from so many people — almost always guys? Yeah, false accusations are a thing. A rare thing. You know what’s a hell of a lot more common? Sexual harassment. Sexual assault.
- I believe there are good people out there. I believe there are assholes out there. But nobody is 100% lawful good or chaotic evil.
We need to stop letting predators off the hook because they’re Nice Guys. We need to stop excusing ourselves, too. The goal isn’t to be a mythical Nice Guy. The goal is to be accountable for our behavior, and to strive to do better.
*I say “almost” because I did pick up an undertone of attempted manipulation from him a few times. It was subtle, but it was there. That said, I don’t know if I would have caught it if I hadn’t been looking for it.
**Yes, I’m including myself here. I’ve spent decades trying to uproot the messed-up assumptions I grew up with. I’m still working on it. I suspect I always will be.