As all these sexually abusive men in positions of power get pushed from behind the curtain, for awhile I’ve been telling myself my voice is not needed. I open my mouth and I’ll be talking over somebody who deserves to be heard. I’ve never been sexually harassed. I’m a cis, white, straight, male, more or less elite East coast liberal. My job is to listen and learn. And I’ve been listening, and it’s been harrowing, and I’ve learned. But the more I hear, the more I want to do more than just listen. The assholes keep piling up until it begins to look like the ones who haven’t been shoved out into the light all ugly and slobbering and leaking pus just haven’t been shoved out yet. It looks like yes, actually, all men. And there’s something to that. Part of the culture of masculinity––not all of it––encourages abusive behavior, sanctions it more or less tacitly, dresses it up in humor or boyish exuberance to handwave it away. It’s a tradition, deeply written into our rituals and belief systems. It employs shame and violence and the threat of violence to self-perpetuate. It is, in large degree, still, unquestioned. I begin to feel it may be the job of every man who is sickened and cringing on behalf of his sex right now to do something about that.
So here I am going to try to trace the process by which I clawed my way up out of the toxic aspects of the culture of masculinity. To the extent that I have.
To be clear: I’m doing this for myself. To make me better. Acting like I have the moral authority to advise anybody else how not to make these mistakes would, I’m afraid, fall under the auspices of the same system that tells certain men it’s okay to grab ’em by the pussy.
The easy answer is that I have three younger sisters, a mother, seven aunts, eight girl cousins, three nieces and counting, all of whom I love and respect and admire, none of whom I’ve ever thought of as sex objects, who taught me how to care about women as people. And I had good male role models, like my dad, who encouraged me to be respectful of women and demonstrated what that looked like by example.
But I had bad role models too. And I made mistakes. Lots of them. I have thought of women as sex objects. I’ve treated them that way, to my lasting shame. This is not a simple thing. If it were, I have to imagine a lot more fathers would have taught their sons not to do even the low-grade, unprosecutable, stupid, degrading, insulting awfulness like catcalling women out the windows of their pickup trucks, let alone kinds of things currently getting assholes run through the wringer of public opinion, like dangling advancement in front of less-senior co-workers as incentive for sexual favors while maybe also dangling worse things in front of them.
So the mistakes then.
How do I do this?
Do I talk about the waterlogged Hustler my best friend scrounged from his older brother when we were eleven and we kept hidden under a rock in the woods until it disintegrated in the rain, how it introduced us explicitly to female anatomy if not to the mechanics never mind the emotional content of the act of love? Do I tell you how I actually found out what parts fit where, from the Physician’s Desk Reference, to which I was directed by my dad in lieu of The Talk? I love my dad. He’s a great, good man, and he’s taught me a lot about how to live. But what he taught me about love––which is a lot, thought it included absolutely nothing about sex––he taught me by example. Would you like to guess how long it took me to understand how to do the emotional component of the act of love? I’m thirty-eight. I think I’m starting to feel halfway confident about it now.
I did not learn, I’m sorry to say, how to love, how to fuck, tenderly and with consideration and solicitude and generosity and kindness, how not to expect or demand or try to take what I wasn’t entitled to (which is anything) by being taught. Love is complicated. Learning by example––and by trial and error––takes a long fucking time, and it can lead down a lot of wrong paths, especially if for examples you’ve got TV and film and video games and books to try and crib from in more volume than actual human relationships. Because for real people these are taboo topics in some ways––and not just the parts about sex. Especially if any of the actual human relationships you’ve got for examples have been influenced by that long, self-perpetuating tradition of masculine emotional detachment and privilege and entitlement and presumed physical and intellectual superiority.
“It’s okay to cry,” a kid in my boy scout troop told me once, incredibly unconvincingly, after he spent half an hour poking me in the back with a knife until I hyperventilated. I always figured the adults put him up to the apology. I always hoped he learned something from it. I learned something: not the right thing, but the useful thing, the thing that would allow me to function in a society of men. I learned it was not okay to cry.
Tough it out. Shake it off. These were strategies my dad offered me as ways to suffer through pain. They worked, eventually, and I was relieved, until the numbing consequences became apparent in things like sexual performance issues and inability to process hurt. But for a long time I was not tough, and I was shown no examples of how to be otherwise and maintain much self-respect. So I didn’t have a lot of self-respect.
When I was thirteen, my family had a foreign exchange student. She was smarter than me, she spoke three languages, she was braver, she’d come all the way across an ocean to live apart from her family, she was beautiful, she was living in my house. I judged her unattainable. I thought so much worse of myself than I thought of her, and thereby fulfilled that prophecy even if it wouldn’t have self-fulfilled anyway, which it would have. We had a ridiculously small pool in the backyard where my sisters and I played an exuberant version of Marco Polo. They encouraged her to join us, and it came my turn to be Marco. After the fact, I used my closed eyes as an excuse to claim that I had touched her breasts “accidentally”. I hadn’t. Groping her did nothing for me sexually––it didn’t titillate or satisfy me. It just made me despise myself. I begged her forgiveness, she gave it, but we both knew it wasn’t an accident. I never did anything like it again. What made me do it at all? Did I need to experiment on another human being in order to find out how awful it would feel? I don’t remember what gave me the idea, if it was Hustler or something some friend had bragged about or what. Frankly, looking for an explanation outside of myself feels like a cheat. I can’t lay the fault on the culture of masculinity. I’m not going to pretend getting poked in the back by some little shit whose dad probably hit him made me need to grope a girl I admired. And I’m not going to blame my dad for failing to sufficiently instruct me how not to be an asshole. It’s my fault. I own it.
I guess I hope talking about it makes some difference for somebody else.
After that, I looked for ways to experiment without hurting anyone.
In my all-male D&D group in high school––encouraged at least somewhat by the source material but also not needing much––boy did we experiment with women as objects. Imaginary women, thank god. Imaginary pliable women with ripped bodices, imaginary powerful women with swordsmanship skills almost the match of our own. It was juvenile, it was hormone-driven and gross. It never went as far as rape as we’d have thought of it then, but our definition wasn’t broad enough. And yet I feel like this was a lot better way to proceed through a lot of pretty potentially fucked-up scenarios without actual consequences for actual women. I personally feel it helped me to treat real women better. Though I can’t say so for everybody I played with. There was a pretty unsubtle element of homoeroticism to all this––fictional women as proxies––that I was very aware of even at the time but not remotely able to process, let alone help anybody else do the same. Then an actual girl showed up to join us, and we had no idea what to do with ourselves; the group completely fell apart. So maybe none of us learned anything after all.
For awhile I frequented role-playing chatrooms, wherein I pretended to be a more or less romance cover brooding heartthrob and I think maybe seduced some lonely older women into my private chatroom. A few of them figured out I was by no means of legal age and made me realize how predatory I was being. I was grateful not to have done far worse, I was grateful that the consequences were limited to this incredibly shallow emotional scope in which I could play out scenarios. Anonymity let me say things I could never have said to anyone’s face, and they worked, and yet I did not then go on to say any of those things to anyone’s face. Because even anonymously, it was not without consequences. I hurt people, I got hurt.
I was and am shy, socially awkward, and I think that has both helped and hindered me. It stopped me being a bigger asshole than I could have been; it kept me from making more mistakes earlier and learning from them.
I have asked a real girl in person on a date only once in my life. It didn’t go well.
My first girlfriend was firmly of the opinion that sex was a tool of the patriarchy. We had one fairly in-depth intellectual conversation about this and one that was brief and final. In the first she made her interpretation abundantly clear; I initiated the second anyway. She characterized it as pressuring her for sex. Having nothing to compare it to, I took her word for it and was again ashamed. She broke up with me over it. I still think she wasn’t wrong to do so. But later, a mutual (girl) friend who’d heard both our stories told me I was just being a typical teenage boy and she’d been asking too much. I still don’t know what to think about that. I would have liked to be better than a typical teenage boy. But I don’t get to revisit that, I don’t get to go back and ask, I just get to go forward and try not to make anything like that mistake again.
I spent two years trying to figure out how to be supportive of my future wife while she earned a women’s studies degree. I told people during and after this time that I must have learned some feminism by osmosis; I think I did, just not anything like enough. Part of why I proposed towards the end of that period was in some kind of muddled traditionalist reaction against the alternative lifestyles the wonderfully diverse social context of her degree program had exposed me to. I saw how it was okay for all these other forms of relationships to exist––but if I’d been ready to embrace them as they deserved, my reaction wouldn’t have been to reach for traditional marriage. We’ve been together twenty years, married for half that. I have been given the chance to revisit that decision with her, and to choose it again and again, for which I am immensely grateful.
Honestly, it’s only a few years since I turned a corner regarding my self-concept and my impact on other people in the world and have begun deeply and in earnest trying to understand the lasting repercussions of these mistakes, and more like them, and to make something of it. All the learning from mistakes I did before then strikes me as having taken place in some kind of fugue state, half-consciously reeling from one to another, driven by fear of getting things wrong rather than desire to get things right.
What changed? The women I love. Constantly, through all these years, they got better, stronger, they found the strength to be more vocal. I don’t know how they did it. Together, I gather. In spite of odds and obstacles. And assholes like myself.
One thing that hasn’t changed is my willingness to listen. I’ve been doing it all my life, through all these stupid mistakes, and it’s colored my reactions every time. I’ve gotten better at it. But it’s something nobody had to convince me of: that women are worth listening to. I might go so far as to call it my saving grace in all this. Because it wasn’t just my dad; there really were no men around telling me, or even trying to show me, any of these places I might go wrong. My dad, my grandfathers, my uncles, my friends. The vast majority of them, I think, are not assholes. I’m sure they all made mistakes somewhere in the ballpark of these I have litanied above––but they didn’t share. I guess they didn’t think it was their job––which is fair. I guess they felt the cumulative pressure of all the men they knew and had been raised by that these kinds of things weren’t appropriate to talk about.
That’s the pressure I’m trying to break. Is it helping?
I’m a new father. I can’t blame my dad or my uncles or grandfathers for not wanting to talk to me about all this. But I can want better for my son. I have a chance to do better. I’m going to teach him the golden rule. I’m going to teach him not to bite or pull hair or hit people. I hope everyone already does that. Eventually, I’m going to actually talk to him about romantic love and sex. And I’ll try to teach him some subtler lessons. I don’t expect him to get them all at once. I expect I’ll try to tell him and show him these things over and over, for years, decades, until he gets them or I die. And maybe I’ll get to do the same for my nephews, my cousins’ kids. If I’m incredibly lucky I’ll be given a chance to do a little part of this work for people my own age, maybe even older. I’ve been trying with my dad. Just this past thanksgiving I found myself trying with one of my cousins. He resisted. It’s not easy, but I’m going to keep at it. It seems important.
Listen to women. Believe them. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes––just try not to make these ones I made, which I’ll tell you about over and over until you get the lesson. Don’t transfer cruelty; don’t absorb it and then spill it out again later on people who don’t deserve it. Don’t just try to swallow it all either. Don’t go numb. Open up. Share. There is not actually any material benefit to acting tough; it may look like it protects you from mockery or ostracization, but you actually didn’t want or need to impress those assholes anyway. The people you really want to impress in the end, the people with the capacity to love you, will in fact be impressed by the opposite.
That’s how it worked for me, anyway.