wholepeace

A Message for Men Who Feel Compelled to Say Something About Sex Abuse

In Politics on December 8, 2017 at 12:11 pm

I will begin this with a personal revelation. This is hard. It should be hard. It requires me to take as honest a look as I can at my own past and my relationships with women. I offer this as neither explanation nor excuse, but only as background.
I grew up in the 50s and came of age in the 60s. I could see, even as a young teenager, that my male friends and acquaintances were treating the girls in their lives abominably. I could see the destructiveness of cultural stereotypes and norms that asserted the superiority and dominance of men over women. I have always thought of myself as a feminist.
I was also a young man who was shy and awkward around women, who was trying to grow up in a culture that sent me a lot of harmful messages about what a man was supposed to be and what I should expect of women. Like most other young men I was stupid about such things. My early experiences with the opposite sex involved awkward and embarrassing attempts at physical intimacy, including some groping and what I’m certain now was at the very least unenthusiastic making out. I felt afraid, unattractive, undesirable, powerless and desperate.
By the time I was in my twenties, I was in a marriage that was already on a self-destructive path. In my thirties I became a college professor, and a leading figure in local theater, and I suddenly discovered that there were women who found me attractive and wanted to have sex with me. I had affairs. All the affairs were consensual and initiated by the women, so I was able to dismiss the element of power. I compartmentalized. I allowed myself to think that the attraction was based on my charm, my intellect, on all sorts of personal qualities other than the fact that I held a position of power and status. I never asked the question of whether any of these women would have found me attractive just for myself if circumstances were different.
Throughout this period of my life I was, again without seeing it, a bully and a tyrant, selfish and insulated in my struggle to become something like the man my culture had put in my head. And all the while, because I supported women’s rights and argued for women’s issues and talked about how badly women were treated, I was convinced that I was a feminist and an ally.
So how can I now claim any credible standing to speak about what women need?
As more and more men in positions of public power and influence are being accused of inappropriate behavior towards women, everyone seems to be talking about the problems associated with powerful men and sex.
Can we back up a moment here and acknowledge that when we are discussing relationships between men and women the phrase “powerful men” is redundant? In America (anywhere, really, but let’s stick with our own culture for the moment) there has always been a power imbalance between men and women; and that imbalance has always been to the advantage and benefit of men. This isn’t simply about outing and punishing public figures in the movie industry, or politics, or the news media. That will quickly get tiresome for some, overwhelming for many, and eventually fade into the fog of the 24/7 news cycle that shapes our current experiences.
If you have grown up in America, you have been daily bombarded with messages about men, women, and power. For men, power has always been attractive and expected. For women, power has always been unnatural and dangerous to the social order.
Men have always been told that power over women is essential to being a real man. If a man can’t demonstrate his power over a woman we have a large lexicon of emasculating and feminizing insults with which to attack him. If a woman demonstrates power over a man, that same lexicon has words that de-humanize and de-feminize her, and make her ugly.
If you are an American male who has reached puberty, you have been raised in a culture which has encouraged and rewarded this kind of power-imbalance behavior. Most have never committed rape or the grosser forms of harassment, but all have taken advantage of the privileges associated with being male in our culture, and hurt women in the process.
If you are an American female of any age, you have experienced an often overt, sometimes subtle, but constant stream of messages about yielding power to men, regardless of the consequent injuries to yourself. You have also been taught that sexual power is the only power you naturally have over men, but that using that power is forbidden. If you have sex with a man, regardless of the circumstances, any negative consequences are your own fault. At the same time, if a man doesn’t want to have sex with you it is also your fault, and you need to do more so that some man will want to have sex with you.
This double bind is why women spend billions of dollars every year to conform to a male-normative ideal of attractiveness, to wear carefully crafted make-up, to dress provocatively, to learn how to be what the masculine culture tells them they should be, often through the voices of other women; only to be told that they have only themselves to blame if a man is unable to control himself around them. If you are a woman in America, it is likely that you continue to follow at least some of the cultural rules that give men power over you.
If you are, like me, a progressive American male; if you consider yourself an ally, an advocate, a feminist; if you have been making or are about to make some statement about those powerful men now being brought to accountability for their actions, I suggest you stay quiet for a moment and check in with yourself about two important considerations.
Before I pay much attention to your declarations or praise you for your positions, I want to hear you explain the following:
In what ways have you, as a product of this culture, as a man who has been given the power and privilege of being male, taken advantage of that power and privilege in your life; and how has that hurt any woman or women?
I’m not asking if you have ever raped someone, or abused a partner, or even if you were once a serial groper. If any of those are true you should probably just deal with them and shut up about other people’s bad behavior. I’m asking when was the last time you laughed at something that contributed in some way to the culture’s misogynistic and demeaning attitudes toward women, like a “dumb blonde” joke. Was there ever a time in your life when you had lots of reasons with which you could defend misogynistic pornography or coercive prostitution that caters to male fantasies about women and sex; such as lofty arguments about how every sexual interaction is an exchange for value of some kind, or how there’s nothing inherently wrong with people choosing to have sex on film for other people to get pleasure from? Have you ever assumed that the fact you had sex with a woman is evidence that she freely consented to that sex, regardless of the circumstances? How carefully and honestly have you looked at your relationships with women – personally, socially, professionally, romantically – and understood the role that cultural norms of maleness and femaleness have played in those relationships?
Why do you feel compelled to make your statement now?
It is, of course almost always a good thing to make a statement in support of an important movement or action. I’m not questioning whether something needs to be said or whether men ought to be saying something. But I think that we need to be clear about our motives. So much of what men have historically said about their support for women, their admiration for them, what’s good for them, and how we want to help them has turned out to be self-serving for men and hurtful for women that I think we at least want to be honest about how we see our purpose in this. There is little reason for women to trust what we say and we need to make an effort to earn that trust. What do you want? If you’re a politician or public figure, for example, are you concerned that your silence implies that you don’t support women in this struggle? What other commitments are you making with this statement to actually work toward change? How does this statement square with other positions you have held in the past and how will it inform your behavior henceforward? If you are not a public figure, but feel the need for a public statement, what role do you see for yourself in the struggle to change the culture and bring women fully into their rightful place as human beings and members of society? Why should your opinion be considered valuable or important?
After you’ve addressed these questions, wait a moment longer. Let women speak. Let them say what they think about your answers, perhaps give them the opportunity to ask for your input or give you permission to speak. Address their concerns, rather than assume you know what they want or need from you. Be careful that you aren’t mansplaining or talking over, or interrupting.
When I was younger I was a feminist because I knew that it was right. Now I’m a feminist because I can begin to see where I was wrong. I’m not a feminist in spite of my past or out of guilt about my past. I’m a feminist because looking at my past has helped me to see that the struggle is not just a women’s struggle, it is also mine. Men cannot fix this for women. We can, however, follow their lead and become part of fixing it for us all.

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