(First published in The Dominion Post, December 29.)
In 2014 the then leader of the Labour Party, David Cunliffe, controversially apologised for being a man.
Some commentators ridiculed him for wallowing in liberal male middle-class guilt. To others, it just looked like an attempt to ingratiate himself with women voters.
But you could see what Cunliffe was getting at. He was speaking at a Women’s Refuge symposium and the subject was male violence. He made the point that most sexual abuse and domestic violence was perpetrated by men, and who could dispute that?
Cunliffe’s mistake was to assume personal responsibility for what some other men did. But following the worldwide outpouring of women’s fury at sexual harassment, I imagine many more men are now wondering whether they should feel ashamed to be male.
A couple of things are clear. One is that sexual harassment by rich and powerful men has been going on for a very long time. The other is that the perpetrators have been protected and encouraged up till now by the silence of their victims – a silence that almost amounted to complicity.
I’m not sure what’s changed, but women who previously kept quiet have now come out into the open. Perhaps there’s an element of opportunism in some of the accusations being made, but what’s not in doubt is that far too many men behave abominably toward women.
And while we’ve heard a lot about celebrities who have gone to the media with their accounts of harassment and molestation, there remains an infinitely greater number of powerless, anonymous women suffering silently in factories, restaurants, offices and other workplaces.
Sexual harassment mystifies me. What pleasure could a man get from sex with a woman who doesn’t want it? Groping, Donald Trump-style, is equally hard to explain. It can only be about humiliating and demeaning the victim.
In those circumstances sex isn’t about mutual pleasure. It becomes a means of asserting power. The feminists are right about this.
I have known men who used their positions to obtain sexual favours. They didn’t boast about it, so perhaps there was some part of their conscience that told them it wasn’t something to be proud of.
It was usually the victims who revealed it, and I was shocked by their apparent acceptance of it, as if having sex with the boss was something they had to do to get ahead.
Some of these women were young and attractive while the men they slept with were decades older and slobs – Harvey Weinstein types. Even if one accepts that power is an aphrodisiac, and that some women are attracted to men in positions of influence, there are surely limits.
Anyway, back to David Cunliffe. In the light of what has now been revealed about rampant sexual harassment at the highest levels of politics and the entertainment business, should all men feel guilty?
There is an extreme school of feminism, after all, which holds that all men are rapists. It’s not unusual to hear the entire male sex disparaged as if all men can’t help behaving like dogs around a bitch on heat.
But I would guess that only a relatively small proportion of men are sexual predators, and those who are not in that category don’t need to do a Cunliffe in atonement for the sins of others.
What we will have to do, however, is learn some new rules, because one consequence of the “me too” harassment saga is that it will redefine relations between the sexes, and not necessarily for the better.
Men will find it harder to discern where the boundary lies between mere flirtation, which many women welcome and enjoy, and harassment.
Physical contact, in particular, has become a minefield. It brought down Garrison Keillor, the revered former host of the American radio show A Prairie Home Companion.
What Keillor characterises as a misdirected pat on a female colleague’s bare back years ago, which he says he apologised for at the time and thought had been forgotten because the woman seemed to remain friendly with him, came back to bite him last month when he got a phone call from her lawyer.
Now he’s in disgrace and his former employer has taken such fright that it’s changed the name of his old show.
At what point, I wonder, does a touch or a kiss become harassment?
Blatant groping or an uninvited hand up a skirt can’t be mistaken for anything other than molestation, but there’s now an undefined grey area between what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Like the kindergarten teacher who no longer feels it's safe to cuddle an upset child, we're all having to navigate new territory.