Alex glanced down at his phone. Seventy-two new Whatsapp notifications – a new record.
“Jesus Christ…” he mumbled inaudibly as he held his thumb against the home button to unlock his phone. He opened the app and started reading:
“Steve – get me Bea’s number.”
“Yes. She was fucking fit.”
“Haha. She’s got a boyfriend mate.”
“Pfft – details.”
Those first few messages set the tone for the rest of the conversation. He drafted some inane response a few times to ensure he was seen as participating in the banter, but couldn’t bring himself to press send.
Alex was not a misogynist. He was not violent towards women, nor was he lewd or disrespectful. You wouldn’t group him in with the Weinsteins or Trumps of this world, nor would you include him under the umbrella of ‘toxic masculinity’. He was, nonetheless, guilty of a crime; he was a coward when it came to confronting his peers.
As a younger man he had embraced the herd mentality of masculinity, quick to brag of his sexual conquests and always seen laughing at his friends’ suggestive comments, or even contributing his own. He had even begun to assimilate the language of sexual violence into day to day areas of his life – sporting teams were violated at the hands of opponents, for instance – and in turn he was accepted into the all-male, all-white group of friends he had formed. It was a slippery slope and it was only when he met Jean did he manage to stop his descent.
While Jean did not exactly consider herself a hardcore feminist – she shared the occasional Guardian article on Facebook, sure, and from time to time posted a status agreeing with the latest shared experience hashtag – but to Alex she was a modern-day Emmeline Pankhurst. She opened his eyes to the point of view of a young woman, and he began to understand (to the limited extent a young man can understand anything) the plight that faced them. The gender pay gap was real, the glass ceiling was real, the forced choice of career vs family was real; all these things that he had easily ignored were suddenly uncomfortably confronted.
He began to educate himself, reading novels by empowered women such as Margaret Atwood, Jeannette Winterson, Sylvia Plath; he began to distance himself from the jokes that normalised rape-culture; he stopped commenting on the appearance of women to his friends. It was slightly backwards that a lot of Alex’ efforts had begun in an attempt to impress Jean, but let’s give him a break; he was trying. He was even aware how backwards that was. Fast forward to today and Alex had spent years atoning for the misogynist mistakes he had made, but there was still one barrier he could not overcome. He was a coward when it came to confronting his friends.
And so, he continued to be part of the problem as he put his phone face down and ignored the nasty tone the conversation had taken, instead drafting a nasty-toned email of his own to Matthew at INNOVATE.