“How do women still go out with guys, when you realize there is no bigger threat to women than men?”
– Louis C.K.
When the first Harvey Weinstein harassment allegations came out, I glanced at the New York Times headline and thought about the relationship between men and power — the distorting, ugly, corrupting influence the two have had on one another. The misery they have wrought together.
This was the wrong thought to lead with. I should have skipped straight to the victims. Empathy ought to have come first. It should always come first in these situations.
When I slowed down to read the rapidly-expanding allegations, and began to understand their width and their breadth, the rejection of the word “no,” the leering, crude sliminess of the accused, I was horrified. I also felt a twinge of relief — realizing how expansive the chasm between the mogul and a more standard-issue shitty male behavior was.
This man is evil in ways I don’t recognize. Thank God.
Though… more and more it seems that chasm isn’t as big as I long for it to be. Not nearly. Maybe it’s like comparing rabid wolves with regular wolves — both scary as hell for anyone walking a country road at night.
Still, as the Hollywood stars began their fall to earth, there was a piece of me — a small, cringing piece of many men, I believe — that wondered “How far will this extend?” What crevices will the sun’s glare reach? Will a boorish line of some rock star echo a drunken sentence I uttered after last call? Will some behavior called out in a Tweet bear similarities to a joke I once laughed at?
In other words:
Since the #MeToo movement began, men have tried to inoculate themselves with calls of #NotMe. This longing to distance ourselves from the horrible actions of our brethren is natural, but it’s also impossible. This is exactly how it should be. No man can be immunized from this scourge. This is us. Us at our worst; us as produced by millennia of patterned behavior; us as shaped by the American cult of “manliness”; but us, nonetheless.
We are witnessing the crumbling of the patriarchy. It rotted on the vine and needs to be stomped into mulch. By nature of our gender and the structure of our society, we have been guilty of propping this failed institution up — either explicitly or implicitly. Now it’s time to be part of the rebuilding effort, and step one in that process is accountability.
I’m sorry. These seem to be the two words that no powerful man can bring himself to say once outed for sexual harassment or assault. Weinstein didn’t say them. Kevin Spacey didn’t either. Even Louis C.K. — who seemed to understand the need for complete remorsefulness better than most — didn’t say those two words. This is interesting because men clearly want forgiveness. We want our bad behavior to be absolved and washed clean. We want the slate scrubbed. And yet… just about every apology thus far has had a limping, deflecting tone.
That’s not to say that there’s no context to pair with the scores of accusations rolling in. There are societal and cultural factors to why men in America show such historic disregard for female agency and autonomy. But understanding this context is basic. Everyone knows it and everyone lives under it. I haven’t met a woman yet who’s clamoring for more context from dudes. They want genuine, “I’m sorry”-level contrition. And more than that, systemic change.
It’s not the job of men to add qualifiers to these stories. Talk of “different eras” is wasted. It’s the job of men to focus on the shifting the culture, without delay. Even slowing down enough to say “the world I was raised in” is egregious.
It was power that made Harvey Weinstein gross. Power that bloomed into entitlement — fed by money and fertilized by “yes men.” When comedians mock his pulpy complexion, the point has snuck past them. What makes Harvey Weinstein vile is how he used his influence to pressure women into having sex with him. How he let his ego grow so inflated as to excuse rape and how his money blinded fellow men to his behavior. How he bent others to his will, using movie industry favors like a nightstick.
Weinstein’s appearance has a neutral value on his actions. He is gross without the acne scars and boiled-ham complexion; He is gross in his soul. And he is one of us. The worst of us, perhaps, but his privilege is simply a garish cartoon version of the male privilege that comes standard with a penis. It leaps across continents and generations (often mingling with religion), but rears its head in uniquely ugly ways here in the United States — the land where “boys will be boys” and “Did you do her?” and “you’re a fag” have coalesced to make toxic masculinity and standard issue masculinity first cousins.
That’s not meant to say, “We are all Harvey or Louie or Kevin, or Al Franken, or the sex-crime-boasting President of the United States…” but the men who don’t feel like there are times when they might have behaved better or been better allies are rare and separated by miles of chauvinist wasteland. And even that minority of men is, in my reckoning, full of shit. We all could have been better at one point or another.
Self-reflection is fundamental to being a conscious human in 2017. To be on the right side of things we must admit how we have failed — even the best of us — if for no other reason than that we claim to be shocked at the constantly emerging stories of sexual predation. How surprised can we really be? Every new headline is simply a thread of anecdotal evidence cosigning a vast tapestry of statistics that’s been available to the public for decades.
Our surprise is borne out of a willful ignorance to the issues women have been talking about forever.
The reckoning may have burned hot this month, but it’s not ending anytime soon. More names will emerge from the darkness. Then we’ll begin to investigate the stories hiding in plain sight. Are we ready to have hard conversations about Bill Clinton and the potential that his wife helped insulate him from rape allegations? Will we conveniently look past the rampant hebephilia of our beloved David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Jimmy Page, and Steven Tyler, even though that’s logically incongruent in light of how we talk about Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey? How many more gushing biopics will soft-pedal Tupac’s sex conviction?
It’s imperative that men not grow exhausted by any of this. It is the largest-scale corrective action undertaken since the Civil Rights era and it is overdue. We have to show up and keep showing up for the difficult conversations. Because progress requires ownership from men. From flawed men. Men who recognize that their sexual ethics haven’t been impeccable, but who want to get it right.
In the throes of this upheaval, we’ve outed ourselves as all too ready to talk about comebacks, couched as “healing.” We wonder about forgiveness before the bleeding has been staunched. The whole topic arrives early for its call time, waiting in the wings, popping it’s knuckles, ready to make a big pitch:
Weinstein is completely done, sure, but in five years, let’s say Louis C.K. is able to… maybe there’s a way back…
Not now. Now is the time for men to listen. To bear witness. To look inside ourselves and to ask one another those cringey, achingly-difficult questions about our own behavior. Even if we are hyper-aware now, we have to investigate ourselves at 18 and 20 and 22. We have to view our behaviors from a woman’s perspective. We have to admit that our own perceptions about physical encounters might be skewed. Even something we thought was okay may not have been.
Laws about sex have legal boundaries, but we can’t just gift ourselves the luxury of forgetfulness. Some wounds lasts longer than the statute of limitations.
There are many things that men should have always understood about how to respect sexual partners. But the fact is, statistics prove, unequivocally that many men didn’t. Men you know. Men you liked. That’s awful, it’s maddening, but… it’s where we’re at. We have to examine our lives, even if that means dredging up a past where we weren’t at our best. Where we didn’t “get it.”
Now isn’t the time for us to play the game of distancing “the good ones” from the fallen. Women know our machinations — how we stand aside from the true villains with Facebook posts and clever tweets and self-flagellating think pieces. If we aren’t the bad guys, we’re their neighbors. If we aren’t in the locker rooms where the president talks like a predator, we’re certainly in the ones where women are turned into a crude collection of body parts. There is hard work to be done; a lack of introspection in favor of #NotMe self-glorification is just another way of dodging it.
Support victim-based and prevention-based causes. Talk to other men about their behavior. Wrestle with the shades of gray. Come to a better understanding of how consent works. Say, “I’m sorry.” Also, make plenty of time to shut up and listen to women’s stories. Read work of female writers tackling these subjects. Listen and listen and listen more.
We need to show up. Not because we are the sons of mothers or the brothers of sisters or the fathers of daughters. But because we are humans. The blinders have been torn away and there’s no escaping the sun’s glare. It’s time for us to blink our eyes and step into the light.