Al Franken and the Monster Myth

I take no pleasure in Al Franken’s departure from the Senate, but my greatest sorrow is for what he did--that photo of him “pretending” to grope a sleeping woman revolts me, and I believe Ms. Tweeden’s report that he stuck his tongue, unwanted, into her mouth. Although I will miss his smart and progressive voice in Congress, I am confident that there are other Minnesotans (including women) who can serve his state well. I am also hopeful that recent events are revealing what I have long called “the Monster Myth”--the false notion that only evil, awful, men engage in sexual misconduct.

We are in the initial stages of a new national experiment in treating women as credible rather than crazy, and ought to budget ample time and space so that women’s justified rage and grief--whether long suppressed or newly triggered--can be expressed. We should also recognize that lacking experience in holding men accountable for the ways in which they subordinate women makes doing so scary and difficult. But we have to do it— it is long past time that we stop protecting men from the harmful consequences of their sexually abusive conduct. I hope that we can all remember that just as women have never been “ruined” by being sexually violated, neither will men be “ruined” by being made to answer for their behavior.

In the current tidal wave of #metoo stories unleashed by reporting on Harvey Weinstein, we are finally hearing the primal screams triggered by the shock of being groped, masturbated at, or worse. Many are now learning that wherever sexual violation lands on the spectrum from forced kiss to rape, sorrow and rage are its wake. And we are being buffeted by more than just the emotions of survivors: as men from every community are revealed as harassers, gropers, or rapists, we are collectively experiencing the heartbreak that comes from learning that perpetrators are men we care about.

Before, it was easy for people without a lived experience of sexual violation to think that only monsters engage in such behavior. It is still difficult for people to accept that sexual violation doesn’t require monstrous intent. But it has always been regular men behind most sexual misconduct. As survivors learn the hard way, no amount of public virtue, no political affiliation, no profession, no capacity for appropriate conduct, magically prevents men from engaging in unwanted sexual contact. Not all men, but a significant minority of otherwise normal men, routinely engage in conduct that sexually humiliates and demeans. Many offenders don’t even consciously realize that what they are doing is unwelcome, let alone discriminatory, objectifying, and harmful.

For years, decades, eons, there have been women who have complained about the sexual mistreatment that is routinely inflicted on them (and vulnerable others) by men: the evidence that rape and harassment are common and frequently engaged in by men who neither look like or think of themselves as abusers is manifest. But clinging to the myth that only monsters engage in sexual predation, to women’s great detriment, our society has usually added insult to the injury of rape and harassment by subjecting most accusers to hostile disbelief.

The emotions, and consequences, now being unleashed are powerful. It is shocking to see influential men fired, criminally investigated, publicly shamed. It’s more familiar to watch women branded as liars (hello, Roy Moore and Jeremy Piven). I am sure many men are terrified right now—both those who can (or should) recall stepping over lines they shouldn’t have crossed, and the majority who’ve always preferred their sexual interactions animated by mutual desire and respect. But as the earthquakes upsetting the prestige and capital of many men continue, survivors have more than anger to guide us through the rubble.

Having listened to survivors for the better part of thirty years, what I’ve learned is that most wish for justice rather than revenge. Whether in an account detailing the humiliation of an unwanted fondling, or the terror of a rape, there is one sentence I have heard more than any other: “I don’t want to ruin his life.” Survivors ache for consequences that acknowledge the harm they suffered, and that prevent its repetition, but the overwhelming majority knew their groper, or harasser, or rapist, as something else before he became that. Whether he was boss, co-worker, classmate, acquaintance, or boyfriend, he was trusted before he abused, and his humanity remains visible even after his violation. It is easy to say “rapists should be jailed” and “harassers should lose their jobs” but it is another thing altogether to say a man you know should lose his liberty, or his livelihood.

Our culture’s failure to recognize that abusers are mostly complex humans also capable of good makes it terrifying for victims to speak up when the men who violate them don’t come garbed as monsters; it complicates our capacity to hold otherwise good men accountable. The mental torture Democrats now know because of Al Franken is not unlike the misery Republicans are feeling thanks to Roy Moore; it is similar to the heartache being experienced by fans of Louis C.K., Woody Allen, Glenn Thrush, Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, Bill O’Reilly, John Conyers, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer. All of it has something in common with the agony of survivors: it hurts profoundly to be violated by a man you know can do better; it is hard to punish someone for whom you care.

Fortunately, survivor demands are reasonable and rooted in the simple desire to live free from sexual terror: men must recognize and oppose what has been routine, tell the truth, seek to make amends, and stop sexually degrading women and other people made vulnerable by race, class, sexual orientation, social status or age. While we ought to exclude from positions of high prestige and power those men whose conduct is incompatible with the respect everyone deserves, victims aren’t actually calling for each offender to lose his job or go to jail; most agree that a rape is worse than a grope; few want one-size-fits-all penalties; many—especially in communities of color—know the criminal justice system is not the answer.

The unearthed rage of victims is palpable, and reckoning with unpleasant truths is agonizing. But the great wisdom held by survivors and their allies is that most of those wreaking sexual havoc aren’t monsters—they are just men who are eminently capable of better. While our collective anger may be terrifying, we can attend to what survivors have long known, and remember that vengeance is neither the answer nor their demand. Women deserve more dignity than we’ve yet been granted, and all men--even those with unclean hands--are members of our collective community. It is novel and scary to watch Al Franken and other prominent men get a crash course in the many ways that sexual misconduct can derail career and wellbeing, but every victim I’ve known has found in herself (or himself) the strength they have needed to craft their lives anew. I am confident that Al Franken will likewise survive, and I believe that his wisdom and talents--like that of every man--still have a role to play in the hard work of re-crafting our social norms and practices so that sexually demeaning behavior truly becomes a thing of the past.

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