By Maria Behan
Like some of you, I was a little cynical about social media’s #MeToo campaign highlighting just how many women have experienced sexual harassment—or worse. If you don’t already know that’s a pretty universal experience, you must be living on a space station (though come to think of it, I bet there’s sexual harassment there, too). And you definitely aren’t a woman.
Despite my cynicism, each time I saw a #MeToo tweet or post, something inside of me stirred. Part of it was a sense of sisterhood and solidarity. Part was a feeling of joyous wonder, because a huge crack seems to be opening in the patriarchy that has oppressed women for millennia. And that crack may go deeper than the stucco that hides the hatred and fear that’s at patriarchy’s core. That crack may come to undermine its very foundation.
I’ve also been struck by posts and comments on the #MeToo revelations from some men, thoughtful types who are examining their own history and consciences and urging their male peers to do the same. Those expressions brought out mixed feelings in me, too. My prevailing reaction was, “Bless you, but good guys like you are not the problem. Rather than excoriate yourself, save your energy for helping women fight the Donald Trumps and Harvey Weinsteins of the world.”
The less noble undercurrent of feeling I had was a bit confused, but it went something like, “This is kind of a turn-off, you hand-wringing snowflake.” Mixed with a little, “Are you just saying this stuff to get laid?”
I cop to the fact that those may be unfair and unworthy sentiments, but since this is clearly a moment of airing awkward truths, I’ll share them. Especially because it’s evidence of how the patriarchy gets into the heads of people of all genders and political persuasions, warping our thoughts and making us all at least a little bit crazy.
Et Tu, Brute?
Since the early days of the #MeToo campaign, our focus has shifted from the more familiar ground of thinking about how many women have been harassed to something that we as a society seem to be finding even more challenging: confronting just how many men have been doing the harassing. And the revelations have been jaw-dropping.
History (not to mention generation after generation of priests) has taught us that holy-roller types tend to be covering up a tendency for sexual predation. Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore—with his 5,280-pound Ten Commandments monument and wife who sports crucifixes as earrings—is basically wearing a neon sign that flashes “Ask Me About My Perversion.” The only thing that surprises me about the accusations against this holiest of holy rollers is that the victims he’s alleged to have sexually harassed and assaulted are women and girls. In the admittedly skewed sample we have from the U.S. government, Republicans tend to go after men (remember Senator Larry Craig’s “wide stance” in the restroom stall?), while Democrats tend to target women (see JFK and Bill Clinton).
For feminists who appreciate our male allies, the recent naming and shaming of liberal icons has been both outraging and disheartening. Apparently, allies can be enemies, too. Just look at that photo showing Senator Al Franken, a champion of women’s rights, grinning like an idiot while he mimes feeling up a sleeping woman. Or consider some of the left-leaning celebrities who’ve recently been charged with sexual predation. First there was Louis C.K., the supposed sensitive sad-sack, admitting that he’d asked woman after woman if they wanted to see his dick—then whipping it out and…er…doing things with it. Then we heard tales that Jeffrey Tambor, whose sympathetic portrayal of a transgender woman in Transparent has been a cultural game-changer, harassed trans women on set. A different kind of revolting is the thought of avuncular talk-show host Charlie Rose putting his “crusty paw” (a term coined by female staffers on his show) on the shoulders, legs, and breasts of women decades younger than him.
I don’t know what will happen to the careers of these men in the long term. If history is a guide, they may actually be rewarded for their actions, at least financially. When Roger Ailes was ousted from Fox News for sexually harassing female staff, he got more than $40 million. The same network paid Papa Bear Bill O’Reilly $25 million when it showed him the door for similar reasons. Those kinds of payouts stink to high heaven. I am hopeful that in the new era we seem to be entering, they may stop. Especially if networks like PBS and Netflix know that we’re watching closely.
It isn’t just male politicians and celebrities who seem to think they’re entitled to do just about anything to women (and sometimes, to men). It’s businessmen who masturbate in front of hotel maids. It’s frat boys hosting “cattle call” parties where they try to get freshmen women drunk and take advantage of them. It’s field supervisors who demand sexual favors from immigrant women picking fruit. It’s the Manhattan construction workers whose catcalls blighted my walk to work on far too many mornings when I was in my 20s. (I learned never to wear white, since that seemed to elicit the most frenzied and obscene onslaughts of verbal abuse. I’m not sure if the color simply made me more conspicuous among the women hoping to tiptoe unmolested past the construction site, or if the connotation of purity turns men’s thoughts to defilement.)
Given the myriad forms sexual predation can take, I’m starting to wonder if some of the earnest men posting about supporting women on Twitter and Facebook may actually have good reason for their public soul-searching. After all, in a male society that’s structured like a wolf pack, even the beta males will bare their teeth occasionally.
Something about being a man increases the likelihood of sexual predation, but I don’t think it’s a defect on the Y chromosome. I think it’s a defect of our cultural conditioning—and patriarchy cuts across many, but not all, cultures. Part of the reason for that may be that in a patriarchal society, men are generally expected, even now, to be the ones to initiate romantic and sexual relations. If you’re a man pursuing a woman for a date, a hook-up, or a relationship, I can imagine that there could conceivably be challenges involved in staying on the right side of predation.
My response to men who’ve wondered about making women uncomfortable is that they can still count themselves as one of the “good guys” if a woman they’ve approached in the past thinks something along the lines of “There’s that guy who has a crush on me” when they run into each other. If she thinks, “I hope that guy doesn’t do that thing again”—whatever that thing may be—it’s likely he crossed the line.
I suggest three simple guidelines: 1) Men shouldn’t touch or kiss a woman without her permission. 2) After one or at max, two tries, stop asking. 3) No, she doesn’t want to see your dick—not in person, not on her phone screen.
The Bitch Is Back
The fact that men pretty much have a monopoly on sexual predation makes Donald Trump’s “I moved on her like a bitch” remark on the Access Hollywood tape one of the most puzzling and nonsensical things the Pussygrabber-in-Chief has ever said. And let’s face it, that’s a high hurdle.
It’s not just moronic Neanderthals like Trump who wield that misogynistic term like an imprecise club. It’s also supposedly clever liberals, such as comedian and talk-show host Bill Maher, whose preferred slur for Trump is “whiny little bitch.”
Why is that for certain kinds of swaggering (or overcompensating) men, phrases like “bitch” and “pussy” are the ultimate insult? Because underlying that potty talk is an even dirtier reality: They view being a woman as the lowest possible fate. So it follows that if they want to insult another man, they’ll equate him with a woman—or part thereof.
Well you know what? We bitches are not going to take it anymore. Just as civilized people everywhere have abandoned language that maligns racial, ethnic, or religious groups, it’s time we move beyond language that maligns women. This is our “Women’s lives matter” moment.
Not that men’s lives don’t matter—or that gay, trans, and straight men can’t be harassed and assaulted. But just like we use the phrase “Black lives matter” to express outrage that up until now, they haven’t mattered enough; this is the moment to say that women’s lives matter. That our days of being demeaned—and ashamed about being demeaned—are over.
Women’s shame at being victimized is giving way to outrage, and that’s a world-tilting shift. As we move on, the #MeToo movement is gong to need a new hashtag. Maybe we can go with something along the lines of France’s #BalanceTonPorc (“Squeal on Your Pig”) campaign. As one of the women who has come forward to accuse Uncle Charlie Rose put it, we’re currently in “a fierce moment of cultural reckoning.”
A week or two ago, I was at a party when a lame guy made an even lamer sexist joke, then looked around nervously when instead of laughing it off, everyone around him pretty much froze. “You don’t get it,” I said, keeping my voice even as I leaned in with body language that was ever so slightly aggressive. “We’re not taking that shit any more.” Man, did that feel good.
I feel more hopeful about the likelihood of casting off misogyny, and the blinders we have about gender issues, than I ever have in my lifetime. We’re actually figuring some things out about ourselves. Including how warped and warping gender roles can be—still.
Pardon the expression, but we’re dealing with seminal issues here, so the going will be tough at times. And with each step forward, there’s always a risk of missteps. Some worry about seeming too exacting, or accusatory, or paranoid. There’s also a fear of backlash. A few have termed the recent outcry against sexual predation a “witch hunt”—forgetting that women were the victims, not the perpetrators, of those hunts.
Even the language we use to talk about sexual predation is thorny. As Rachel Malik wrote in an excellent blog post, “The ‘trouble’ with words like assault or harassment is that they don’t seem to belong in everyday discourse, they sound technical, perhaps a little alien. And from here it’s a short step to seeing this type of language as unnatural: the unwelcome entry of officialdom into the private world—too much red tape and political correctness gone mad.” Malik goes on to say that the way around that is to move beyond the jargon by telling personal stories and speaking our own truths.
We must do that—as well as listen to each other. Recent discussions about intersectionality in the feminist movement have helped me see, and start to get a grip on, my own white privilege in a visceral way. The process has been uncomfortable at times, but it’s also been enlightening and moving. It’s also brought me closer to people from groups that in the past may have felt a little “other” to me.
The current exposure of just how prevalent sexual predation is across all social sectors may do similar things for men. Besides making some offenders think twice before speaking or acting out, it may turn non-offenders into actual agents of change. Both would be huge steps forward. And maybe it’s too much to hope for, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if in the future, men and women didn’t feel quite so alien to each other?
As we examine what’s going on in our societies and our souls, we should remember that patriarchy doesn’t just warp men, it warps women, too. (Consider how I’m ever so slightly turned off by men who publicly scour their souls for gender-based guilt.) And patriarchy is damn hard to escape, since it rears its oh-so-ugly head (even uglier than the one Louis C.K. likes to flash around) in everything from our self-image to our relationships to our porn.
We’re in unchartered waters now, and current shifts can be disorienting. We must examine our own assumptions and call each other out, but we also must be compassionate and when it’s warranted, forgiving. Since it isn’t just you or me who’s been warped by patriarchy. It’s all of us. (But especially Louis C.K.)
For more great Wild Word essays see:
On Speaking Our #MeToo Truths by Annie Mark-Westfall
Why Young Irish Women Are Marching for Choice by Lorna O’Hara
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.