MEN! STOP THINKING UP EXCUSES AND LISTEN:
Harassment narratives are an opportunity to become better men.
I’ve always had a rather romanticised understanding of how men should relate to women. I came of age with Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. I learned a quaint form of chivalry in which women were defended and cared for by men.
Now feminists would point out that this view is no less patriarchal. After all, this perspective is not one in which women are equal partners with men. From this archaic perspective, women are the wards, almost vassals, of men. The chivalrous relationship between men and women is still one of possessive protection, not mutuality. It’s still demeaning and disempowering. True enough.
But I was a teenager, not yet exposed to feminist thought, let alone the sociological imagination. I grew up in a sexist cultural context with strict, masculine social structures. I accepted patriarchal constructs of gender without question. In short, I was a normal, male heterosexual teenager. Throw in some traditional Italian ethnic values, television, Playboy Magazine, MTV and you have everything you need to know about my formative understanding of gender. The only variation on this theme was my embrace of what I might call the Burroughs Romanticism of gendered relationships.
Yet this small variation seems to have been a more significant departure from the norm than I thought. Most of the peers signing my Senior Year Yearbook were young women. One of these young women wrote:
The last of the perfect gentlemen. There should be more like you in this world. Always polite–treating females like ladies-mannerly, yes that’s the word. A personality like yours is really appreciated among the perverted jerks that seem to multiply with time. Gosh, I sound vicious. But, that is the opinion that I have of you…
This statement always stuck with me. Indeed, it’s the only comment written in my yearbook that I remember. I was not particularly close to this young woman. She was not within my social circle of friends. We never really had any long, meaningful conversations. Our interactions were limited to working together in class and short, parting interactions in the lunchroom or between classes. Yet she felt it was important to express this opinion about me. Why?
I remember her as a very pretty girl, and also very sweet. I never heard a negative thing from her in my limited interactions. Were her few positive interactions with me so out of the ordinary that it merited a paragraph in my yearbook? Apparently so. And that’s a shame because I can’t imagine why anyone would treat her with anything less than respect.
Obviously, I’m very proud of this little bit of recognition. I’m not writing this to pat my own back, but to help make a larger, sociological point. She asked that I “don’t ever change.” But people do change, sometimes over the long haul, sometimes situationally. People are complex.
A few years later, I’d say about seven, I was working in a very masculine setting. I was working with teenage boys in a wilderness facility. There were few female peers. The few female counselors were defined by their gender in this very male-oriented and “masculinist” setting. They were “female counselors.” The men were just counselors. We valued these women and the roles they played with young men who often had serious issues with female peers, women and especially authority figures. But we were in the business of teaching delinquent boys how to be morally upright men, and that task carried the weight of hundreds of years of patriarchal culture.
One day, a couple of my male peers, myself and a female counselor were riding back to the camp on a bus after dropping the kids off for their periodic home visit. The conversation became rather bawdy and the sexual innuendos were flying freely. The male participants in the conversation were clearly having a good time, but the female participant, who was the focus of much of this innuendo, was mostly quiet. When the bus stopped she was the first one off, clearly agitated.
I caught up with her later and asked her what was wrong. I was concerned that our “joking” might have gone too far. She looked me in the eye, clearly trying to steady herself, and informed me that the comments made her feel uncomfortable and devalued.
Maybe what we, the males, were doing was not merely “joking.” We were devaluing her in order to demonstrate, or to rienforce our own power and privilege. She was excluded from the interaction. In many ways, the interaction took place at her expense.
It didn’t take long for me to consider what she said and evaluate my own behavior. My response was short and though this is probably not an exact quote, I said, “you are right. That’s not what I wanted and I’m sorry. I’ll never do that again.” And I’d like to think I kept true to that word. I’d like to think that I never participated in such exclusionary and exploitative discourse again. Whether or not that’s true will be the subject of analysis in just a moment.
My response contrasts with that from one of the other male participants who, when confronted, invalidated her feelings by saying she could not take a joke. He also brought up past flirtation on her part to discredit her position. In other words, he offered the typical, male response. He attacked and justified his actions. He braced himself against the patriarchal social construct.
What he should have done was listened, evaluated her claim honestly and apologized, because he, and I, were wrong. We failed in the most basic moral tenet of respecting another’s humanity. If she wasn’t “taking” the joke, it was because we weren’t giving one. If what we were doing was joking, we all would have been laughing. That wasn’t the case.
My male peer and I had the same things going for us. We had a woman who was willing to confront us on our bad behavior and educate us as to how this behavior affected her. All we had to do was listen. And, as trained counselors, listening and validating another’s emotions was literally our job description. The only advantage that I had was my then nascent experience with a sociological understanding of interaction, including the influence of patriarchy and gender–I think I may have been a semester or two into my graduate studies.
You see, here’s the most challenging aspect of the #metoo movement and the courageous stories that are being shared all over the country, most noticeably about very powerful men. The male privilege that comes with patriarchy is so embedded in our culture that it is impossible for any man in this society, no matter how well-meaning, to say that they have never exploited their position at the expense of a woman (I know, I know, Kevin Spacey, it’s the same dynamic regardless of the victim). The best any of us can say is that we don’t think we’ve done so, and if we did, it was never our intent to exploit or to dehumanize. But intent is irrelevant. Exploitation is inherent in the structure. It’s impossible to think that the power and status vouched to all men by virtue of being born in a patriarchal society is never exploited.
This is especially true among men in positions of power and authority. Take a look at John Oliver confronting Dustin Hoffman earlier this month. For me, it’s more interesting to watch Robert DeNiro. Here is, arguably, the most talented actor of his generation absolutely struggling to control his affect. Is he thinking back on his own interactions with women? He’s clearly uncomfortable.
Listen to Mr. Hoffman himself, to his credit offering a pretty acute evaluation based on his experiences playing Tootsie. I’m sure Mr. Hoffman really believes he was just joking around with a colleague on set between takes. It was no big deal. It’s what actors do. And, besides, it was forty years ago. Why didn’t she say something then…
…and there you’ve lost it, Dustin. Here’s what John Oliver is trying to say. Shut up. Stop making excuses. Take a deep breath and say, unequivocally and without the assistance of your lawyers and agents or whoever else was advising you on how to handle this and say, “she’s right. I was wrong. I’m deeply sorry for my actions and I will do everything I can to be a better man for it.” And actually mean it. That’s all…be a man about it!
Well, at least he’s not Harvey Weinstein or Roy Moore. Dustin Hoffman or Al Franken didn’t do anything like that.
No? Any man who has exploited his position at the expense of a woman has, in fact, done something just like Franken, or Hoffman or Weinstein or Mr. “LockerRoomTalk” in the Oval Office. Arguing in terms of degree and trying to define the equivalencies is desperate justification at best.
Matt Damon recently received some pointed criticism for trying to define these behaviors in terms of a “spectrum.” He had a point. Perhaps it is simplistic to equate a Dustin Hoffman with a Harvey Weinstein. Interactions do take place along a spectrum and we don’t want to be hyperbolic about offensive behavior or understate very real sexual assault and rape by equating the two. But what Damon identifies as a spectrum women are correctly describing as having the same frequency. It’s all exploitation. It’s all hurtful. Demeaning. Dehumanizing. Destructive to women’s identities. Judging an act of destruction in terms of its force is only one narrow analysis. After all, a million little cuts can just as effectively bleed its victim as one great slice.
A million little cuts is an apt description. Sexualized exploitation is a constant factor in women’s lives. Whenever I cover this topic in my high school and college courses, every woman, regardless of age, race, body type, has a story. She may be exposed to dehumanizing discourse one day, devalued by her boss the next, and groped the next. I have my students write autobiographies at the beginning of my Principles of Sociology class. It’s sickening how many women experience sexual assault and rape–and that’s just the number willing to write about their experience in a college assignment. What Damon describes as a spectrum of behaviors is rather a constant doppler in women’s lives. For women, there’s no clear indicator that the man on the bus with her is just pandering in locker room talk…but is otherwise a perfectly nice guy. If he can devalue her on one end of the spectrum, what guarantee does she have that he won’t dehumanize her on the other? He may even destroy her.
That’s what women are saying. These behaviors are destructive to their very identities, and there’s no equivocating over a little destruction here and a lot of destruction there. It all goes to the same place, the very heart of the woman so victimized.
So it’s time for men to shut up and listen.
So as not to be ironic in saying this, here’s Minnie Driver quoted in Rolling Stone.
How about: it’s all fucking wrong and it’s all bad, and until you start seeing it under one umbrella it’s not your job to compartmentalize or judge what is worse and what is not…Let women do the speaking up right now. The time right now is for men just to listen and not have an opinion about it for once.
And women all over the country, quite possibly outraged by the ascension of the Groper in Chief to the highest office in the country, are coming forward with their stories. Taking down Harvey Weinstein seems to be the catalyst for a national, cultural lesson in patriarchy and male privilege.
At this point, men have four valid, useful responses to the stories of exploitation and harassment that they are hearing. First, shut up and listen. Secondly, accept what you are being told as valid. Thirdly, apologize for any part you have played in this sorry saga and promise to never act in such a way ever again. Finally, mean it. Change how you interact with women regardless of your relative social status. Teach your sons to treat everyone with basic human dignity, and teach your daughters to accept nothing less. That’s the only way to change the constructs that shape our lives to the detriment of everyone involved, men, women or any gendered variation.
Women, you have the most important responsibility–I know, I know…as usual. You have to keep telling your stories. Keep confronting us. It’s the only way we are ever going to learn. I had the good fortune of being confronted for devaluing behavior. I’d like to think I’m a better man for it.
The good news is that Matt Damon has a point. Most of us are not Harvey Weinsteins. We’re not predatory. We’re just stupid. We love and respect and admire women, but our understanding of what that means has been distorted by five thousand years of patriarchal conditioning. It’s a form of social schizophrenia, where what we know to be true is in conflict with how reality has been socially constructed. So we all end up as some variation of Dustin Hoffman, walking around, thinking that we respect women but not knowing exactly what that means.
The only cure is for women to keep telling their stories, and for men to stop upholding the dominant constructs and listen to what women have to say. Letting go of our patriarchal male privilege will mean better, deeper, more meaningful relationships with the women in our lives, whether they are peers, co-workers, wives, lovers or daughters.