Friday, March 01, 2019

Men and #MeToo

Presented to the Unitarian Universalists of Lakewood Ranch on February 24, 2019. A previous version was given at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois.  

READINGS

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren is a Pulitzer-prize-winning novel published in 1946. In this segment, which would have taken place some time in the 1920s, the narrator, Jack Burden, describes his high-school romance with the woman who becomes the love of his life, Anne Stanton.
Sometimes, when I stopped the car she wouldn't even open her eyes until I had leaned over to kiss her, and I might have to kiss her enough to stop her breath.

Or again, she would wait till just the instant before the kiss, then open her eyes wide, all at once, and say, "Boo!" and laugh. Then she'd be all knees and sharp elbows and little short laughs and giggles and serpentine evasions and strategy worthy of a jujitsu expert when I tried to capture her for a kiss.

It was remarkable then how that little seat of a roadster gave as much room for deployment and maneuver as the classic plains of Flanders and a creature who could lie in your clutch as lissome as willow and soft as silk and cuddly as a kitten could suddenly develop that appalling number of cunning, needle-pointed elbows and astute knees.
I read that to you to point out what's not in it. It apparently never occurs to Jack (either at the time or years later when he's telling the story) that maybe some nights Anne just doesn't want a to be kissed. That's not a possibility he thinks he needs to account for.

David Wong is also a novelist and writes for the website Cracked.com. The second reading is from an essay he wrote in 2016 in the wake of Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape. It’s called: "7 Reasons So Many Guys Don't Understand Sexual Consent".

Here's the first lesson I got on sexual consent. I was six years old. My hero and lifelong role model, Han Solo, approaches a woman who has told him at every opportunity that she's not interested. Han comes up from behind and presses his body against hers. She's a strong woman, a fighter, so she physically shoves him off.

Undeterred, Han moves back in, grabs her hands, and starts rubbing them. She says, "Stop that," and looks nervous. When he doesn't stop, she clearly says it again. He still doesn't stop. Romantic music plays … and he kisses her. Note: Her head is pressed up against a metal wall and all of this occurs in a sealed spacecraft floating in the cold vacuum of outer space. Even if she wanted to leave, she couldn't.

The result of this encounter is that she falls in love with this man.

I'd estimate that 95 percent of the action movie cool guy role models of my youth molested women into loving them at least once. James Bond did it in ... every movie, I think. In Goldfinger (1964), he rapes Pussy Galore in a barn, which causes her to abandon her life of crime and join his side.

In The Mask Of Zorro (1998), a woman tries to kill Antonio Banderas, and in response, he strips her naked with his blade and forces a kiss. As a result, they fall in love.

Let's be clear: During my formative years, I was absolutely taught that rape was wrong, many times. But "rape" was defined as a man with a ski mask in an alley forcing himself on a stranger under the threat of violence.

If someone had come in and told teenage me that "groping" a woman or forcing kisses was a form of sexual assault, I'd have been very, very confused. You just called most of the action heroes of my childhood serial rapists! "And what if it makes her fall in love with him?"

I never, in any of my public school years, had a lesson saying you needed to wait for verbal consent before touching a woman. I saw the quarterback of the football team slap girls on the butt. I saw guys reach around and grab girls' boobs as a prank. I saw mistletoe hung over doorways and was told if you and a girl stood under it, she had to kiss you. One time when we were playing volleyball at the beach, Dr. Dre ran up and unhooked a girl's bikini top.
Wong goes on to say that he never did anything like that himself. At the time, though,
 he didn’t experience that as his gentlemanly virtue, but rather as his lack of boldness and virility. He just never felt cool enough to act like James Bond.

He goes on:
Have I mentioned that yet how much shame I felt at the time for not being a "real man”?

The point of this isn't to defend [insert subject of most recent scandal here], but to prevent people from insisting that guys like him are rare, incomprehensible monsters.

They're not.

Ridding guys of toxic attitudes toward women is a monumental task. I've spent two solid decades trying to deprogram myself, to get on board with something that, in retrospect, should be patently obvious to any decent person.

SERMON

Seeing differently. I sometimes wonder what kind of a slave-owner I would have been.

I know that sounds weird, because by now we're so far removed from the era of slavery that the evil of it seems obvious. So it's hard to imagine that we wouldn’t have seen it at the time. If we had owned slaves, of course we'd have freed them and become crusaders for abolition. What else could we possibly have done?

But among the people who really did own slaves, comparatively few saw the evil of it. So I have to wonder: Would I have seen it?

Picture me growing up in an old Virginia family that has owned slaves for generations. I've been surrounded by slaves all my life. And then, when I go off to college my parents give me Ezekiel as a manservant - to carry my bags, take care of my clothes, start the fire on cold mornings, and do all those other things enslaved people do.

And I develop this strangely bifurcated relationship with Ezekiel. On the one hand, he is my closest companion. I spend more time with him than with anyone else, and he probably knows me better than my white friends do. But on the other hand, he is a piece of my property, a legally inferior being. Does that seem wrong to me, or not?

One reason it might not is that I've been taught all the self-serving myths of my slave-owning culture: that Africans wouldn't know what to do with freedom, that they're childlike and need us to watch out for them, that they were lucky to be brought here and introduced to Christian civilization.

And rather than the wrongness of slavery in general, I've been taught that there are good and bad masters. Some are cruel, and of course that is wrong. But my family, I am sure, treats our slaves well. Not like human beings exactly, but like prized cattle. They are valuable, and we respect that. So we are good masters.

Would I see through those myths? Would I understand that Ezekiel is a human being like I am, and that his life means as much to him as mine does to me? Would I set him free and start making my own fires in the morning? Or not?

And even a decade or two after Emancipation, how do I look back on those days? Do I still think of myself as a good master because I never had Ezekiel whipped? Or do I see my memories through new eyes now? Do I recall all the times when I discounted his point of view, or ignored his discomfort or humiliation?

I'd like to think that at least now I would feel some guilt or shame. But maybe I wouldn't have. A lot of masters never did.

I’ve gone off on this long tangent to make a point: When you are surrounded by people who see the world in a particular way, it is hard to see it differently. It is genuinely difficult to be significantly wiser or better than the culture of your time and place.

How men have reacted to #MeToo scandals. One reason to doubt that I would have been better then is that in my lifetime I have been part of a group that has mistreated another group. We had our own self-serving mythology that explained and justified that mistreatment. And for a very long time I did not see through it.

I’m talking about the sexual harassment of women by men, the kind that has been described in such volume under the #MeToo hashtag.

One thing I find discouraging is that no matter how many times a new high-profile accusation restarts the national conversation, the reaction of men never seems to change. We keep sorting ourselves into the same categories and saying the same things.

The accused usually admit nothing. And rather than express regret, they portray themselves as the “real” victims. They rage about the false accusations that are destroying their lives.

Invariably, quite a few men rally around them. Whenever there's a new scandal, they think: "Oh, that poor man" - as if being called a rapist or abuser or harasser is even more horrible than being raped or abused or harassed. They worry that if the public starts believing these women, then none of us will be safe from false accusations. So what-if-she-is-lying is a possibility that they imagine in great detail and with deep empathy. What-if-she-is-telling-the-truth, not so much.

Another cohort of men think of themselves as sympathetic to women. They believe the accusers and denounce the crimes. But their highest priority is to draw a bright red line between good men like themselves and the small number of bad men who do these things.

When women widen their outrage to encompass men in general or start talking about a "rape culture", these men feel wronged. (They have aired their grievances under the #NotAllMen hashtag.) And like any privileged class, they believe that their own offended sensibilities should go to the front of the line. So we can talk about sexual harassment, but only after everyone acknowledges that it has nothing to do with me.

In the public discussion surrounding the Brett Kavanaugh hearings last September, I heard yet another point of view, one I hadn't noticed before: a what-if-he-did view. Kavanaugh had been 17 or 18 when he was supposed to have assaulted Christine Blasey Ford. It was a long time ago. He's a different man now. So why does it matter?

Interestingly, that argument didn't go over so well among 17 and 18-year-olds, who like to believe that their actions really do matter. But men Kavanaugh's age and older - men like me - ate it up. To my generation, I think, the attractive idea wasn't just that people change, it was that the early 1980s was a different time. Men using force against women wasn't taken as seriously then. It's almost as if we didn't know it was wrong.

What I rarely hear from men, and what I would like to hear more often, is not just that rape and assault and harassment are wrong, but also that the men who do these things are not (as the reading put it) “rare, incomprehensible monsters”. Their crimes do not come out of nowhere. They come out of a way of thought, a way of viewing men and women, that is widespread in our culture. What separates these men from most of the rest of us, I believe, is not a difference of kind, but rather a difference of degree.

I realize that's a sweeping accusation. In order to justify it, I will need to claim my own piece of the problem, and explain a little about how I was raised to think about men and women.

The self-serving mythology of my generation. Much like slave-owners in the Old South, men of my generation had a self-justifying mythology with just enough truth in it that if we  didn't want to see through it we didn't have to. (I won't try to speak for younger men, but I believe that a lot of these notions are still kicking around.)

The mythology goes like this: Society doesn't allow women to admit that they want sex, but they secretly do. So when a man suggests sex, a woman is socially obligated to say no, even if she doesn't really mean it.

It follows, then, that a man shouldn't take that first no for an answer. Or the second. Or maybe the third. If you make a grab for a woman and she pushes you away, you make another grab just to see if she's serious.

Again and again, we were told that this works. Force that first kiss on a woman, and even if she's a strong character like Princess Leia, she may decide that she likes it. Force works. Persistence works. Stalking works. Refusing to take no for an answer is how you show a woman that you're really interested. So you should never give up, no matter what she says or does.

And women, we were told, like it that way. Older, more experienced men assured us of that, and sometimes they even put those words into the mouth of some female character. In Oklahoma, Ado Annie, the girl who can't say no, sings:
Other girls are coy and hard to catch,
But other girls ain't having any fun.
Every time I lose a wrastling match
I have the funny feeling that I won.
Now, of course, those lyrics were written by a man, Oscar Hammerstein. But Oscar didn't invent that point of view either. It's been around for literally thousands of years.

As best I can determine, the original how-to-pick-up-girls manual was The Art of Love, written by the Roman poet Ovid in the year 2. He says:
Though you call it force: it’s force that pleases girls. What delights is often to have given what they wanted, against their will. She who is taken in love’s sudden onslaught is pleased, and finds wickedness is a tribute. And she who might have been forced, and escapes unscathed, will be saddened, though her face pretends delight.
So go ahead and use force, guys. Women like it, even if they can’t admit it. Everyone says so. Or at least men say so, and they're the ones whose words get remembered.

Of course we all knew that some men push it too far, just as slave owners knew that some masters were cruel. But like slave owners, we concluded just that there were some bad individuals, not that the whole system - and our own participation in it - was wrong.

The Game. What results from that mythology and that justification is a view of male/female interaction as basically a game: Men are supposed to try to get away with things, and women are supposed to try to stop them. So if you're a man and you get away with something, well then, points to you. You scored.

That mindset filtered all the way down to age groups that didn't have any clear idea what sex was. Little boys would bedevil little girls in all sorts of ways, just to see what they could get away with. If you managed to see a girl's underwear, points to you. If you managed to sneak into the girls bathroom, points to you. It was all part of the game. Of course, we never asked the girls whether they wanted to play this game. That didn't seem important.

David Wong described how that game continued into high school: Force a girl to kiss you -- points to you. Unhook her bikini top on the beach -- points to you. And if you're not accumulating those kinds of points, then shame on you. You should be more like James Bond or Han Solo.

So it's a game.

But what are games, really? A game is a simpler world that we descend into for a time, a world with fewer options and clearer goals. Inside a game, we voluntarily give up the full complexity of human life and become players, or even just tokens. To play chess is to agree, for a period of time, to become the white pieces or the black pieces. In Monopoly, for a few hours you put aside your complicated life and become the Top Hat or the Race Car or the Little Dog.

Inside the game, our choices are confined to the ones the rules allow, and our motives are shaped by the definition of winning. Along the way, we may act out combat or greed or cruelty, depending on what kind of game we're in.

Sometimes, escaping into a game may be just what we need. Our real lives can be so paralyzingly complicated, and our accomplishments so ambiguous and uncertain. At the end of most days, it seems ridiculous to ask, "Did I win?" I don't know. I did things. Things happened. Maybe some of them will turn out well eventually. Who can say?

What a relief it can be, then, to sink into a simpler world, to be a player, to make simple decisions and see immediate consequences. In a matter of minutes or maybe an hour or two,  it's over: you win, you lose. Next game.

And that can be fine, as long as the games eventually end and you reclaim your full humanity. But there can be times when the very depth that makes human existence rich and fascinating can start to feel like a burden. And then it can be tempting to turn large chunks of life into a game. We can get lost in those games, and start to imagine that our game character is who we really are.

So, for example, you can get lost in the game of materialism, and start thinking that you are what you own. You can get lost in the game of corporate advancement or social climbing, and think that you are your job title or your position in the community. In playing the game, you haven't just taken a break from being your highest self, you've lost track of it completely.

Imagining Kavanaugh. When we first heard Dr. Ford's accusations against Brett Kavanaugh, that he and a friend had pushed her into a side bedroom, held her down and started trying to take off her clothes, I think most people thought: "How could he do something like that?" And they concluded either that he didn't and she was lying, or that he did and he must be some kind of monster.

But I found it disturbingly easy to imagine how he could have done it. He could have been lost in the Game of Men and Women. He was trying to get away with something, and she was trying to stop him, like men and women do. In his mind at that moment, they might not have been complete human beings, souls of infinite worth. Maybe they were just players.

And yes, putting a hand over her mouth to stop her from screaming was cruel and vicious. But I also might cruelly force the Top Hat into bankruptcy, or viciously destroy black's king-side defense. If it was all happening in the game, he might have lost track not just of her humanity, but of his own also.

You might deduce from that speculation that I identify with Brett Kavanaugh. And you'd be right, I do. But I take that identification somewhere different than his defenders do. It's not that I believe I should feel sympathy towards Kavanaugh. But that I should feel shame about myself.

The missing piece. Male shame has been the missing piece of the #MeToo phenomenon. When the #MeToo hashtag went viral in 2017, what was shocking about it wasn't any particular story of some man harassing or assaulting some woman. It was that almost every woman seemed to have a story to tell.

What was eye-opening to men was to look around and realize that the women in their own lives - their friends and wives and mothers and sisters and daughters - had stories to tell. But very few men took the next step, and recognized that this can't just be the work of a few bad men. It has to be some large percentage of the male population.

And what we definitely did not do in response was to tell our own stories. Women by the tens of thousands had opened up memories that not only raised anger they still weren’t sure what to do with, but that also made them feel vulnerable and dirty and ashamed. And men for the most part responded by shutting down, by saying "Not all men. Not me. There's a bright red line and I have lived my life on the right side of it."

What if we hadn't done that? What if we had found our courage and told our own difficult stories, the ones that make us feel dirty and ashamed and vulnerable - not because we were victims but because we were in the wrong? It's not too late. I think we should.

Confessions. The unfortunate thing about advocating those sorts of confessions is that you're then kind of obligated to get it started. So here I go.

Like David Wong, I never thought I was cool enough to go the full James Bond, so I don't have any stories of rape or attempted rape to tell. But I don’t believe that puts some bright red line between me and the bad guys. If I had been cooler, if, say, I had come from a well-to-do family and been a football player at an elite high school, like Brett Kavanaugh, who can say what I would have felt entitled to do?

I will tell you a couple of the stories I do have, stories I’m not proud of.

The first one was from when I was maybe 13, I don't remember exactly. My parents took me along when they visited their friends, who had a girl who was maybe 7. As usually happened, the adults stayed upstairs and the kids were banished to the basement. I probably resented that, so I decided to tease the girl by playing an I'm-gonna-get-you sort of game. The form of the game was "I'm going to pull down your pants." Like all I'm-gonna-get-you games, it involved a certain amount of chasing and wrestling. She resisted, and I let her win, so no pants were actually pulled down.

But what was I thinking? What would I think if I heard that story about a boy today? And worse, how did she experience that? I doubt she enjoyed it. Did she soon forget about it, or does it maybe still bother her from time to time? I have no idea.

In high school, I liked to make girls jump. If I saw a girl lost in a book or concentrating on some kind of work, I would sneak up behind her and startle her, either by making a noise, or, if I was really daring that day, poking her in some ticklish spot. Then she'd jump, and I thought that was funny. If any other boys were around, they'd think it was funny too. So: points to me. Some girls I did this to many times.

At the time, it didn't seem like a big deal to me. But now I wonder what it meant to my victims, how it changed their experience to know that they couldn't sink too deeply into concentration or lose track of what was behind them. To what extent did I contribute to their impression that school - or the world - was just not a safe place?

But I didn't think about that then, because it was a game to me and we were all just players. I never asked the girls if they wanted to play my game, and none of them ever told me that they enjoyed it. But somehow that didn't matter, even though, as David Wong says, the fact that it mattered should have been patently obvious to any decent person.

Game over. So what's the point of making confessions like that? Why do I wish more men would do it? First, because, as long as men are holding back our own guilty secrets -- even if they happened a long time ago and may seem small compared to crimes like rape -- we are not going to be the allies that women need us to be.

Instead, whenever public attention turns to male misbehavior, some part of us is going to freeze up and hope somebody changes the subject. Rather than listen and respond with empathy, we’re going to want to defend that bright red line between ourselves and the bad guys.

But even more importantly, like the stories women have told, widespread male confessions would show the problem of harassment and abuse in its proper scale. Yes, a few men behave in spectacularly horrible ways. And justice does require that the Bill Cosbys and Harvey Weinsteins face public rejection and legal punishment. But that alone won’t solve the underlying problem.

As a culture, we have consistently treated women like players in a game that they never signed up for. By doing that, we have failed to recognize their sovereignty over their own bodies. And in far too many situations we have failed to grant them their full humanity.

That game is the problem that needs to be solved. It has gone on far too long. Men in general (and not just a few bad men) have kept it going through our lifetimes and taught the next generation how to play.

So it's far past time that we take responsibility for that game and join women in demanding that it stop.

1 comment:

John Magoun said...

Brilliant. I've had the same inarticulate reaction to #MeToo that I did stuff as a boy and younger man that didn't cross the 'red line' but that reflected that idea that sexual conquest was a game where the guy was rewarded for aggression in the face of resistance. My crimes were minor - but as I look back on them, they were crimes of aggression all the same. I wouldn't do that now - but I did it then. I don't know how it might happen, but for men to acknowledge, as publicly as women have acknowledged the 'iffy' or 'grey area' or 'it was confusing' times they were sexually assaulted, would be a giant step towards a new social standard of sexual conduct.