Watson name-checked former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton in her speech, referencing the former first lady’s 1995 speech before the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where Clinton declared, “It is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.”
Watson noted that, at the time, only about 30 percent of the audience Clinton addressed was male. “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” she asked. “Men — I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.”
This is a message that is starting to resonate in the culture at large. While women such as CNN’s Rachel Nichols and ESPN’s Hannah Storm criticized the NFL for its response to Ray Rice and other instances of NFL player-involved domestic abuse, they were joined by CBS Sports anchor James Brown, who passionately and eloquently informed viewers “this is yet another call to men to stand up and take responsibility for their thoughts, their words, their deeds and, as Deion [Sanders] says, to give help or to get help, because our silence is deafening and deadly.”
Watson’s message echoed that of organizations such as Men Can Stop Rape that recognize the need to enlist and involve male allies in ending violence against women. For men, it means speaking up when your boy trashes a woman with gender-based epithets, or when he brags about taking advantage of a woman who was too intoxicated to consent to sex, or when you know he’s engaging in violent behavior toward a woman.
Often, conversations about sexual assault revolve around what women should do to prevent it — don’t dress a certain way, don’t leave your house alone during certain hours, don’t jog with your headphones turned up too loudly, don’t leave your drink unattended, don’t drink to excess in the company of men, and on and on and on.
But, say many activists, this sort of rhetoric shifts responsibility from perpetrator to victim. Instead of teaching men and boys that intimate partner violence is unacceptable — and that they play an active role in stopping and preventing it — it communicates that women and girls are responsible for their own attacks. This messaging is what campaigns such as the 2011 Slut Walks were attempting to upend. It’s why there’s a student at Columbia University dragging a mattress wherever she goes on campus until the university does something about her rape.
“The more I have spoken about feminism, the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating,” Watson said. “If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop. For the record, feminism, by definition, is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.”
But that wasn’t the totality of Watson’s message. Her other point: that patriarchy is detrimental for men, too:
I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less “macho” — in fact in the U.K., suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20 to 24, eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either.We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes, but I can see that they are — and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong. … It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, not as two opposing sets of ideals. If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by what we are — we can all be freer. And this is what HeForShe is about. It’s about freedom.