(Author’s note: Except where noted, all thoughts and ideas in this post are mine and have been synthesized over the years through my interest and reading on the topic of gender and sexuality. The bulk of the source texts are included in a bibliography at the end of this essay. There are also links to relevant podcasts, websites and movies. Throughout the essay I link to various sites and articles that are relevant to the statements being made. A great deal of what I’ve written has been said by others, but it bears repeating since we haven’t seemed to learn anything yet.)
This autumn has been fascinating regarding the surge in social awareness of sexual harassment and sexual assault, as well as its deep, far reaching impacts not only on the lives and careers of women, but on the awareness and consciousness of men who had previously been unaware or willfully blind to the prevalence of it in women’s lives.
In my various social media feeds, I’ve seen a number of women who have shared the #metoo hashtag. Some have also shared their stories of sexual harassment or assault. Most, however, have not shared their stories, and I think that speaks more to the way society reacts to and treats women who call out the harassers and victimizers than to these women’s courage or veracity. Women don’t owe us their horror stories, after all. Even in this current, more sensitive climate exposing inappropriate behavior by men, especially popular or powerful men, will often lead to these women blamed for somehow “enticing” the assault by the way they acted or dressed.
A few men have joined in with their own stories of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of other men and some women (yeah, it happens). Although less frequent, the sexual harassment and assault of men (usually by other men) should be kept in mind the further I get into this essay. Men can be victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault. However, the more common male hashtags in response to #metoo wave have been hash tags meant to pledge to do better by speaking up when they witness sexual harassment, or hashtags meant to confess guilt at having been silent in the face of sexual harassment, or even for having engaged in such behavior.
It’s good to see this social media confession spree; however, amid all these confessions by women who’ve been harassed and assaulted, and these confessions by men who are feeling ashamed for having ignored harassment, I also tend to see a lot of men express their shock or surprise that so many women they know have been sexually harassed, or assaulted.
I can’t say that I’m really all that shocked, or surprised by the number. I don’t write that to give the impression that I’m somehow wiser than most. The truth is that for over a year or more, I’ve been following the Tumblr “When Women Refuse,” which posts stories from the news as well as personal stories submitted by readers about sexual harassment and violence that they’ve experienced. Reading the blog is a harrowing and gut-wrenching experience. It has lead me to believe that, long before Trump was elected or Weinstein, Roy Moore, Al Franken, and Charlie Rose were exposed, that almost every woman I know could probably submit a story. Maybe it would be nothing more than a story about a boy who yanked her ponytail on the playground in fifth grade after she refused to hold his hand, something most might think of as minor – that is if we don’t dismiss it as a meaningless display of “boys-will-be-boys” behavior. Either way, it is still a girl being punished by a boy for not accepting his advances. That pony-tail yank can sometimes, without rational adult intervention (more on this later), turn to snapping a girl’s bra strap, which then can metastasize into something more serious later in life. All it takes is a little bit of empathy and imagination to see that if it happens once, it happens many times.
For most of my life, post-puberty, my closest friends have been women. That’s been the case even in spite of my own failures to avoid certain sexist behaviors. I remember the light bulb revelation sometime when I was in high school or college that rape wasn’t about sex, but that it was about power and violence (yes, a young woman friend clued me in on this matter). The unfortunate thing was that despite that shift in understanding, I still didn’t (and perhaps still don’t) understand the “why” of sexual harassment and sexual assault. If it were just about power and violence wouldn’t a simple beating or a murder suffice to meet the perpetrator’s need to display his power, or enact his violence? Why does this particular type of violence involve, or, even, perhaps, require, the outward performance of acts that can be interpreted as sex?
I suspect there’s a lot more to it than what is generally speculated about on in the media. This essay isn’t an attempt to fill that gap, but instead an attempt to point to some of what I think are the root causes of men harassing and assaulting women. A lot of these thoughts are my own, synthesized from a great deal of personal introspection and a fair bit of reading. A bibliography has been provided at the end of the essay; however, I only quote directly from one book.
Professor Sam Keen published Fire In The Belly: On Being a Man in 1992, and, in some ways, it seems almost to have been a good twenty-five years ahead of the times. In the early 90s it was eclipsed in popularity by Robert Bly’s Iron John, and the drum pounding nature retreats that Bly’s “masculine” fairy tales encouraged. Keen’s thoughtful philosophical work was also eclipsed in public notice by the simultaneous rise of groups like the Promise Keepers, which promoted Biblical manhood (read: traditional male gender role with increased benevolent sexism), and then mutated by the so-called “men’s rights” activists who seem to have only paid attention to Keen’s idea of the power of mythological “WOMAN” to control men’s lives, and then promptly forgot that Keen clearly and directly stated he was speaking of an idealized, metaphorical, and mythological “WOMAN” (hence the all-caps and quotes formatting which I’m borrowing). That mythic “WOMAN” only exists in men’s imaginations, and it leads these men’s rights douches to decide that somehow, Patriarchy really means real-life women secretly control and manipulate men and society if geared for women’s benefit.
If anything, that short breakdown should make it clear that men are, indeed, searching for something to help clarify and understand their role in society, even if they’re getting it wrong (sexual harassment and sexual assault are just one of the symptoms of any patriarchal system, and they get worse the more toxic the system gets). Part of why so many men are getting it wrong, of course, will be clearer later in this essay, but until then, let’s return to Keen and his philosophy.
Keen’s book was important to my inevitable, albeit slow and still incomplete, maturity into manhood. I’ve returned to it occasionally over the years to read passages, but I’ve never treated it the way some men treat certain business books, or the Bible, as, well, a bible. Some of the criticism leveled at Keen’s book back in the day was that it seemed too much like a personal philosophy than a piece of researched scholarly work – as if Keen hadn’t, indeed, intended it to be a personal philosophy and therefore, somehow, missed the mark at explaining or elucidating any incontrovertible fact about manhood and providing the tools to fix it. As Keen felt, I too feel that the broad, social construction that is manhood can’t be altered by some joint, collective, uniform approach. It has to start from a very personal space because with men, we have, in a way, amputated them from their personhood and reclaiming that is needed before men can band together in a group to affect change, otherwise the same problems will arise again.
In the same vein as Keen, I have been more interested developing my own philosophy of manhood. Then, once I have something that makes sense for me, I’ll share it as a kind of guide rather than a rule book. This personal philosophy approach should make sense if we keep two things in mind: 1) masculinity, in the past, may have touted the “self-made-man” ideal, but the truth is manhood is predominantly about conformity and uniformity, and 2) that conformity has lead us to this toxic, barren version of manhood in America and the only way to break it is for each man to go on a personal journey and bring back talismans that others can use to guide them on their own journeys. Think of this as a Knights of the Round Table approach. When the Knights set out to find the Grail in order to heal King Arthur and save Camelot, the story says that each knight entered the dark forest at the place of his own choosing. It might seem ironic, but think about it this way: our current patriarchal system tells us we should be self-made men, independent, rugged individualists, and so on, but part of the reason sexual harassment and assault are so prevalent is because modern American manhood demands uniformity, conformity, and silence. Each man thinks of himself as unique, separate from all other men, and yet he’s adhering to a vague and shifting ideology of manhood that relies on the approval and acceptance of other men. The Knights in the Arthurian legends actually do the opposite. They each obey a clear, set, and well-defined code, which requires them to each follow their own separate path with the expectation that what they learn or discover will be brought back to the Round Table and shared.
I’ll try to discuss that more at the end of the essay.
Now, in light of current events (mass shootings, revelations of “male feminist” failures, and sexual harassment accusations in politics and media), I recently went back to Fire in The Belly because I remember Keen having some thoughts on why men commit sexual assault on women that none of the hashtags and pledges ever seemed to get at, which is that root cause. Instead, most posts and comments go for the simple and obvious “men need to stop doing this and change.” Yes, of course, men need to change, and they need to stop feeling so entitled to a woman’s body that they sexually harass women, or commit sexual assault, but to do more than treat the symptom, we need to think about WHY men feel that way and HOW they can change it.
And by WE I mean men especially and principally, but also women since women make up 51% of the population and help raise and indoctrinate into the patriarchal system those boys who grow up to be men who harass and rape.
Now, I remember trying to convey the gist of Keen’s book to friends back when I was an undergrad, and the ideas were new to me. I generally failed to get the point across. One of the problems with those early conversations was that I, and my audience, made several argumentative mistakes that none of us seemed capable of overcoming. First, we failed to acknowledge that there is a distortion between the world as we wish it to be and the world as it is. There are a host of unwritten rules, expectations, and myths that make up our society, and which inform and, in fact, build that distortion between the idealized world and the real world that we often can’t penetrate enough to see clearly.
So, as an example, in our idealized world, rape should be a universally bad thing that rarely occurs and rapists are bad people who look the part. Also in our idealized world, rapists are punished. In reality, rape is common, and rapists go unpunished or are lightly punished, and most people refuse to see that those nice clean-cut, “all-American” boys from the well-to-do families that go to church every Sunday are exactly the kind of boys who harass women and commit sexual assault. Creating the distortion between those two points are all these unspoken patriarchal constructs that are in place to defend and justify the male aggressor’s behavior (she was “asking for it” because of the way she was dressed, because she drank too much, because men can’t control themselves around immoral or immodest women, etc.), which also serve to terrorize women with the constant fear of rape.
Here’s another example: in our idealized world, war would occur rarely, have clear lines between good guys and bad guys, be swift and decisive and not involve or overly affect non-combatants. In reality, war is common, almost our perpetual human condition, and the lines between good and evil are blurry, manufactured, propagandized, and often false. War involves the whole population, and is often waged on civilians. Also, even though most militaries are now gender mixed with men and women volunteering and serving together in all combat roles (the US Military opened all combat roles to women in 2015), the unspoken constructs that make up the distortion between those two poles tell us that men are the designated warriors, and that they must be ready and willing at all times to fight, kill, and die on behalf of their country and to “protect the women and children.”
It’s this second example that will start us off because, like Keen, I think our constant state of war, among other things, has a rather significant bearing on the first example. However, before we get too far into the weeds of it, let’s make sure we have some ground rules and boundaries in place. I want to make sure we understand that we’re going to spend a great deal of time discussing those unspoken, received myths of Patriarchal manhood and the expectations and ideas that get fed to boys and young men and how those ideas, whether they come to us pure and clearly understood, or mutated, warped, misinterpreted, unexamined, and perhaps even misunderstood, affect how men act in the real world.
I also want to make it clear that this is not a defense of those boys and men who sexually harass and assault women, but an exploration of the possible motivations for committing those acts. As a person with a solidly developed sense of empathy who has come to believe women who say they have been harassed, assaulted or raped by the men they accuse, it’s equally important for me to try to explain to myself and understand how another man who, at least externally, resembles me can act with such a lack of empathy and compassion toward women. In other words, I’m trying to figure out why men do this without landing on the notion that it is somehow due to an innate, inbred, unavoidable animalistic evilness within us, which would then paint all men as barely controlled and unredeemable beasts.
So, first, let’s see if we can establish a few “known-knowns” to keep the speculations and theories proposed below firmly couched in their appropriate field of view, and, hopefully, also help us avoid a slew of personal exceptions that might be proposed as an attempt to negate the general experience. Which is to say men, in general feel certain pressures to compete, to be aggressive, and to be able to fight, even if someone’s little brother doesn’t specifically feel pressured to fight with other boys. Or, to paraphrase a Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert joke, we haven’t solved the problem of world hunger just because you had a sandwich today. So, just because your father/brother/husband is a non-competitive pacifist doesn’t mean the social pressures and patriarchal mythologies I’m going to talk about are imaginary or obsolete – nor does that mean that your father/brother/husband hasn’t felt some version of these social pressures to be a certain type of “man.”
So, our “known-knowns”
- The imagined fear of something and the fear we feel when that something actually occurs will always be unequal, but until the thing we fear occurs, that rationalization is irrelevant.
- Most, if not all, of the speculations to follow with be gender normative and heterosexual.
- This essay is not about comparative misery, one-ups-manship, or “men’s expectations are worse than women’s” whininess. Feminism has acknowledged that patriarchy damages men as well. This essay is presented as a thought process, looking at the ways patriarchy’s damaging expectations of men ultimately affect women.
- Keep “Dual inheritance theory” or “gene-culture co-evolution” in mind. In short, it is that genetic and cultural evolution interact. We have arrived at this toxic version of manhood over hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years. It will take more than a generation or two to fully change course.
- Sexual harassment and sexual assault disproportionately affect to women, but men are also sexually harassed and assaulted. According to RAINN someone experiences sexual violence every 98 seconds, and only 6 out of every 1,000 rapists will see jail time.
- The United States has the largest military budget in the world. We are a nation of WAR and we are armed to the teeth, so even if a man has never been in the military, our society has trained him to be a combatant, and provided the motivation to view the world around him as constantly dangerous.
- As stated above, the US Military only began allowing women to serve in all combat roles in 2015.
- Despite that, yes, women have been warriors and soldiers. Recent archeological evidence has proven a number of Viking warriors were women; however, women are generally NOT a society’s designated warriors. The designated warriors have been men. It’s part of the Patriarchal system, it was also a coldly logical choice: on average, men are larger, stronger and, from an evolutionary standpoint, less individually valuable to society. Men in a patriarchy are actually most valuable as a collective, a team, a unit. To put it bluntly men are most valuable to society at war as expendable canon fodder.
- America ended military conscription and transitioned to an all volunteer force in 1973, so, it’s only been forty-four years since American men were relieved of the actual threat of conscription.
- Despite that, men are still the only members of American society required to register for Selective Service, which means that if a draft is reinstated, ONLY men will be involuntarily conscripted into military service. Also, men who knowingly fail to register, even now in peace time, face jail sentences.
- Just as sexual harassment and assault make women feel that their bodies are not their own, conscription and military service also means a man’s body is not his own. It belongs to the state if and when the state deems it necessary to put his body to use defending the state’s political and militaristic ends. But, even in civilian settings, men often willingly take physically dangerous jobs to support themselves and their families. Here’s a Washington Post article from 2015 on the deadliest jobs in America.
- War wounded always outnumber war dead and the number of sexual assault survivors outnumber those who die from sexual assault. It is the aftermath of surviving these things that is more fearful than dying. Both war wounded and sexual assault survivors suffer deep emotional trauma. It is a pointless endeavor to try to quantify which is physically more traumatic to the victim.
- War victimizes everyone, men, women, and children, but the first victims are the raw recruits we train to kill.
- The training to kill starts early, in fact it starts the first time we tell a boy to suppress his pain, to be strong and fearless when he feels weak and fearful. It starts when we are slower to react to a boy’s distress than to his sister’s distress, and when we dismiss intemperate behavior in boys that we repress in girls (see this Newsweek article, or this article from the APA on how dads treat sons and daughter differently, or this piece about mothers treating sons and daughters differently).
- In other words: a society that tells boys to ignore their own pain, trains them to ignore other people’s pain, and a society that trains boys for violence will be a violent society.
Now that we’ve got the Known-Knowns out of the way, here is a passage from Fire In The Belly that might be the best place to start:
Short of some theory that attributes violence to the innate sinfulness of men, the only way we can make sense of this propensity to brutalize women is by looking for the factors that cause men to be violent. We must assume, as they say about computers, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Violence in, violence out. Men are violent because of the systematic violence done to their bodies and spirits. Being hurt they become hurters. In the overall picture male violence toward women is far less than male violence against other males. […] What we have refused to acknowledge is that these outrages are a structural part of a warfare system that victimizes both men and women. […]
[…] In the old war code, warriors were expendable but women and children were to be protected behind the shield. Granted, the sanctity of innocence was violated as often as it was respected in warfare. The point is: no one even suggested that men’s lives have a claim to the sanctity and protection afforded, in theory, to women and children. It is wrong to kill women and children but men are legitimate candidates for systematic slaughter – cannon fodder [Keen, p. 46 (underlined emphasis is mine)].
America has been an independent nation for 241+ years, and we’ve been at war over 90% of the time. Here’s an article from a few years ago breaking it down. We’ve now been engaged in some form of military action 224 years out of 241. Here’s a list. Keen wrote those words above after the first Gulf War (August 1990 to January 1991). At that time, the US hadn’t engaged in any protracted combat with massive troop deployments since Vietnam. When I quoted that passage to people before, I often got incredulous looks, and doubtful “I don’t know, man” comments. Now, after the War in Iraq and the ongoing war in Afghanistan I wonder if those same people would feel the same way. I wonder if any of the people I went to college with have children who are veterans of those wars.
It feels true to me that the Patriarchal war system leads to sexual harassment and sexual assault. So, to me, it seems that failing to talk about the emotional trauma done to boys under the guise of making them into men, we continue to perpetuate that emotional trauma out toward the world. Now, let’s be clear: I am not suggesting that we be lenient with boys and men who commit these kind of crimes (harassment, assault, rape) or feel sorry for them because they were told not to cry as children. That’s the “boys-will-be-boys” route we’re already on. In fact, the first step to curbing our rape culture, which reveals itself every time a woman is sexually harassed – and fulfills itself when she is, at last, assaulted – is to begin appropriately pushing boys and men who commit these acts (we will get into a longer discussion of the misuse of sexual offender registries later). But, we should all know that punishment is not always the best solution since it is not often an effective deterrent (see this piece on the ineffectiveness of the death penalty to deter violent crime). We must begin to address the source, the root cause, as if it were any other kind of disease. Punishment alone only treats the symptoms, it doesn’t solve the problem.
We have to do some hard work to change what it means to be a man. We have to start to change how we raise boys, and we have to be patient (and we can only be patient if we have fair punishment, i.e., Brock Turner should have served more time in jail, and Donald Trump shouldn’t be President).
So, what does it mean to be a man these days?
From an early age we’re told vaguely to “be a man,” but what we’re not really told how to accomplish that. I believe it meant something different to my father at different stages in his life than it means to me at similar stages in my life (some of which I have not experienced, such as being a husband and father). My father never sat me down and gave me a specific guide on how to be a man. Most of my concepts of manhood came from attempting to interpret my father’s implied directions and his behavior, followed by observing other men such as my uncles (a construction worker, a mechanic, an insurance salesman, and a doctor), my grandfathers (one a kind of jack-of-all-trades, the other a minister), my teachers, and my coaches. After that, I looked to the men in the books I read and the movies and TV shows I watched, both real men and fictional men, and paid attention to what girls and women said they wanted or liked, especially my mother. And then, worst of all, I took cues from the boys around me who were cobbling together their own concept and interpretation of “being a man” in the same fashion I was. There is a passage from William Kennedy’s novel Quinn’s Book that always comes to mind when I think about how boys learn to be men, and it reads: “Women handed their wisdom on to each other, but boys were supposed to discover the secrets of life from watching dogs fuck.”
Because the pattern is common, perhaps even more so for boys without present fathers, it’s common for men to have absorbed wildly disparate (and perhaps even conflicting) models of manhood; however, each model holds to certain categories by which all men measure themselves: War. Work. Sex. Or to put it more simply and crudely; Fighting. Laboring. Fucking.
Some of what comes next will, and should, seem obvious.
War, at it’s most reduced, is a competition. Despite the old adage that there are no winners in war, the fact is, for most of recorded history, the “survivors” – especially those labelled the “victors” – were the stronger and more skilled fighters. Survivors who weren’t labelled “victors” but instead the “defeated” were merely lucky, or worse, seen as cowards – especially if you take the Spartans adage, “come home with your shield or on it,” to be a measure of soldierly duty and courage. Win or die trying. And so, there is, even in our current view of manhood, the accepted knowledge that to gain skill and merit as a “warrior” is to be seen as a “man,” and so we must win battles whether real or metaphorical. Outside of the high stakes conditions of actual combat, the practice field for warriors is, of course, the practice fields and competition arenas of sport, so, war and sport is where we’ll start.
Despite today’s fairness rules in youth team sports, despite “participation trophies,” despite coaches touting the non-competitive aspects of sport like teamwork, companionship and “character building,” sport is still understood to be a competition of strength and dominance – just like combat. In fact, those ideas of teamwork, companionship, and character touted as the benefits of youth team sports – especially team sports like football – are the very aspects later pushed as the militaristic values of a good soldier.
They aren’t bad values by any means. They’re also important to building a functional, just, open, and peaceful society. However, when a society is geared toward war, as our patriarchal, American military industrial society is, then those values can easily become a source of toxicity. Teamwork, companionship, and, character are often interpreted and enforced as conformity, obedience, and silence – and the degree to which men conform, obey, and remain silent about the ways that their conformity and obedience are enforced then becomes the measure of their supposed “character,” or “honor” even as those words completely lose their meaning in the real world.
We see this warped sense of “honor” when cops close ranks around an officer who shoots an unarmed civilian, and why whistle blowers, even in the corporate world, often face retaliation for breaking the code of silence. If you’d like a good example of this in a less secretive environment, but one directly relevant, take a look at the Richie Incognito bullying scandal in the NFL from a few years ago. Incognito was supposedly directed by coaches to “toughen up” fellow player Jonathan Martin, and he attempted to do so by using racial slurs and death threats, including threats directed at Martin’s family. It seems to echo, in a way, the treatment of Private Pyle in the movie Full Metal Jacket. In both situations, a man has been determined by other men to have fallen short of the masculine ideal. So, a leader, along with the man’s teammates, apply force and violence to toughen up the supposedly ‘weaker’ male. Other players had to have witnessed Incognito’s attacks on Martin, just as Pyle’s fellow recruits witnessed the abuse heaped on Pyle by the Drill Sergeant, and later by his fellow recruits. In Full Metal Jacket, you get to see the moral dilemma in the Joker character during the scene where the platoon beats Pyle with bars of soap wrapped in towels. At first, Joker appears reluctant to do it (he’s the last man in line), but eventually he unleashes a series of blows that seem, because of his initial reluctance, to be even more vicious than the others.
And just like in Full Metal Jacket, no one in the Incognito case, including other victims, came forward to stop it. In the Incognito case, nothing happened until after it was exposed by ESPN. In our fictional example from Full Metal Jacket, no one reported the violence done to Pyle until he snapped violently and killed the Drill Sergeant and then himself.
Male conformity to the “team” (whether it is in sport, or the military) is the primary measure of men in a militaristic society, and it is almost always enforced with violence, whether physical or verbal, actual or implied. Reason, logic, or rational persuasion is not considered to be that useful, especially in a militaristic situation where a soldier’s obedience and conformity to command is often seen as the very thing that will allow the team succeed, or the platoon to survive. It should be easy to see how that silent conformity to a violent system can bleed out into the general population, especially when we fetishize military service as making one automatically heroic, and idolize football players.
The problem with fetishizing military service, is that we also begin to fetishize those easy to warp and easy to misinterpret values of the soldier. We then begin to apply them where they shouldn’t be applied – at least not with the same force or with the same goals. In non-military situations, such as civilian law enforcement, if we adopt militaristic versions of those values of duty, honor, courage (teamwork, companionship, character – or, rather, obedience, conformity, and silence), then someone has to be cast as an enemy – someone with whom we do combat. “Criminals” is a rather vague enemy, especially when, in reality, overall crime rates are dropping, and it’s always been hard to tell criminals from civilians.
Now, we could get into the influence of for-profit prisons on aggressive policing and the resulting incarceration rates, but these are, ultimately, deeper symptoms of the problem that is the unfettered adulation of capitalism and privatization that seeks to turn every aspect of the human experience into a profit center. But that’s a bit off-track, and more suited to the section on Work.
So, let’s roll this back a bit and ask what the common denominator is. I think it’s this: when confronted with a problem (terrorism, crime, drugs, etc.) the patriarchal American solution is violence – to “go to war” against it. When a society goes to war against something, whether literally or figuratively, there has to be, inevitably, an enemy. And, in order to effectively target that enemy, the soldier (or the cop) has to operate with a certain lack of empathy, or at least a very narrow sense of empathy that is confined and directed only to those seen to be on the same team.
Now, in a patriarchal society geared toward war and ready to fight, it’s the males who have been designated as the warriors and so they – the warriors – have to be socialized to employ violence. The first step to weaponize a male is to cripple his sense of empathy so that he will have the kind of detachment needed to enact violence – a warrior cannot see his enemy as wholly human. The second step is then to encourage his aggression through sports, and games. The US Army has even developed a first person shooter video game billed as providing a “virtual soldier experience” called – what else – America’s Army. Our tax dollars pay for it and it’s distributed for free. The Marines have one, too, called “Close Combat: First to Fight.”
Neurologists have pointed out a number of broad, generalized, and fundamental differences between male and female brains, but remember, these differences are not the source of our problem. If they were, we would be arguing exactly that sexual harassment and sexual assault arise from an innate male sinfulness, rather than a socially acquired dysfunction. Boys and girls brains may be structured differently, function differently, and process emotions differently, but it doesn’t mean boys are incapable of the same kind of emotional and empathetic depth as girls. A boy has to be broken down and rebuilt as a weapon throughout his life in order to acquire that balance between a civilized, socially integrated and functional civilian while still being empathetically stunted enough that he can kill another human being when that society asks it of him.
If you’re interested in how the military takes young men and makes them killers, head to the library and read On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. Don’t buy it, though. The dude makes enough money off his Killology seminars. Grossman is one of the leading proponents of the “warrior cop” mentality, which leads to the kind of trouble we saw in Ferguson, MO. Here’s a Washington Post article about the course he gives to cops. By becoming an expert at understanding how to get people (especially young men) to kill, he has become the chief pusher of a hyper violent subculture in police forces across the country.
Another thing we train boys to do from childhood is to suppress or deny their softer, or more gentle emotions. Suppressing one’s emotions is especially useful if a society is breeding men for violence. If showing certain emotions is unmanly, or “girly,” then men often react to those emotions with anger, and violence, in order to deflect and reassert their manliness. It conditions them to solve problems with aggression, which is necessary only on battlefields.
That was a long walk, but to put it simply, America prioritizes war (point 4 above), which means we prioritize soldiers, and the primary function of a soldier is to enact violence. Also, despite our military now allowing women in all combat roles, men are still the majority of soldiers (here’s an article on the number of women in service in 2013 showing women made up only 14% of our 1.4 million member military), and guess where there’s a lot of sexual assault: the military.
I want to point again to #5 above. Prior to 2015, women were allowed into aerial combat rolls only in 1992, and before that, women were allowed to serve in the military, but only in non-combat roles. If they did see combat it was incidental to their primary roles. Now, what I find interesting about that 2015 article from Aviation Week, was the quote from General Merrill McPeak: “Personally, I am not eager to increase exposure of our women to additional risk.” There’s a paternal protectiveness to that statement that women will recognize right away (and see as ironic considering the stats on sexual assault among women in the military at the hands of their fellow soldiers). But, remember, we’re dealing with that distortion that hangs between the real world and the world that’s in our heads
Now, let’s take a step back and reset for a moment.
In the real world, sexual harassment and sexual assault strip women of a sense of ownership of their own bodies. What is violently ironic about that is that in our patriarchal war system, a man’s duty is to protect women from being violated in that way. This is one of the many, many reasons why sexual harassment and sexual assault are such betrayals. What then makes that betrayal deeper is that the patriarchal war system can’t really punish the man for violating his obligation to protect because that would rattle loose the narrative we are being asked to buy into, which is that men are supposed to protect women (or at least “our own women” – and yes, you should hear overtones of racism in that). So, if a woman is harassed or assaulted society blames the victim for tempting or enflaming the man. He would have protected her if she hadn’t lead him on, if she hadn’t worn that dress, if she hadn’t drank too much, if only she’d been nice, etc..
In the real world, men and women serve together in the military, but in our patriarchal war model men are the ones raised with the expectation to voluntarily surrender ownership of their bodies – perhaps even their lives – to the state, and to protect the sanctity of those women whose domestic output is essential to that society’s survival. Then, on top of that, we automatically elevate men who put on uniforms to hero status while looking askance at men who take on helping jobs (especially if it’s a low paying job – more on this when we get to WORK).
Think about the subtle difference between women and men when it comes to this idea of body ownership: in a patriarchy, a girl’s body belongs to her father, and then to her husband, and women are told that these men will protect and honor her. Of course, in the real world, these men often don’t protect and honor them, and then random, individual men (seeming to function as a collective) seek to claim ownership of her body with cat calls, or worse (here a link to an episode of the Modern Love Podcast called “My Body Doesn’t Belong to You”). It’s easy to see how this treatment of women is a violation, that it’s disrespectful, humiliating, and inappropriate. But, in our patriarchal system, a man’s body is expected to be a shield and a weapon, and he is expected to sacrifice it to protect and defend his family, his home, his country. His ownership of his body is only an illusion generated by the fact that a patriarchy places him at the top of the hierarchy, which means that the only men who truly own their own bodies are those rich enough to pay some other, poorer man to fight and die for them.
Remember point #3 about this not being a comparative misery contest (and keep point #1 in your back pocket). I’m not suggesting that men’s sense of a lack of ownership of their bodies is worse or more severe than women’s. With an all volunteer military, and no draft currently in place, men who don’t serve in the military, or even in law enforcement, can indeed skate through life never feeling their body ownership stripped from them the way women do unless they, too, are sexually harassed or assaulted. But remember, those men do still feel pressure to put their bodies between danger and their families (again, not saying women don’t feel that, too, but society doesn’t expect a woman to die protecting her husband – maybe her children, but not her husband because its his job to die protecting her – which should be acknowledged as wildly ironic since a large percentage of murdered women are killed by domestic partners).
The point is simply this: we socialize girls with the notion that they will be protected and defended, basically that their body, even if it doesn’t “belong to them” is a valuable, sanctified and sacred thing (and then, yes, we violate that promise – repeatedly), but we socialize boys to be competitors and soldiers – warriors carrying weapons and shields into battle – which comes with no expectation of body autonomy or security and, certainly, as Keen pointed out, no sense of sanctity. A shield and a weapon are tools that belong to the tribe or the collective (as is the uterus, of course), and the purpose of those holding the shields and weapons is to fight, endure pain and suffering, and possibly die en-masse to protect, ostensibly, women (those whose uterus is ridiculously seen as belonging to the society). Men are valuable to a society only in the way ammunition is valuable to a soldier – it’s there to be used, spent, expended, consumed – loaded into the chamber and fired at the enemy.
In return for men’s mere willingness to suffer through war, to be treated like cannon fodder, they hope to be rewarded by those women whom they have promised to protect with their lives. That fantasy expectation, the reward for willingly offering themselves as a potential battlefield sacrifices, is what is at play when men react to a women’s rejection of their advances. You see, in order for anyone to be willing to risk life and permanent injury, they have to feel a sense of ownership within that society, and that sense of ownership includes owning the society’s most valuable resource, which is women – without whom a society could not survive into the future (someone has to gestate babies – and yeah, you should be sensing echoes of the religious right’s anti-choice stance there because a lack of cannon fodder for their holy wars is what they fear and the only way to ensure their own babies don’t die in war is to have a lot of poor dark babies willing to die for a promise that they’ll be able to get out of poverty by fighting). Ownership, of course, leads to a sense of entitlement, and that sense of entitlement leads to anger and violence when those men, whom society has cut off from any sense of empathy and trained to solve their problems with anger and violence, are told “No.”
Further bolstering that sense of entitlement, and of women being seen as reward for obedient sacrifice and service to the state or the tribe, is the sense of women as rightful compensation for having met the expectation that men be “good providers.”
That takes us to our Patriarchal Work system.
Work, like fighting, is another form of male competition, albeit a bit more civilized and abstract. And the rewards for working hard, for “footing the bill,” are the status symbols of a house, car, wife, etc.
When I was growing up in the 70s and early 80s it was still fairly common for married women to be stay-at-home mothers, although is was changing – and rapidly – as Reagan’s tax cuts began to undermine the middle class. My father supported the family on his own until 1982 or 83 working as a parole officer – a state employee – and my mother only went back to work after my sister entered the first grade. However, my father was still the primary breadwinner, and would remain so until their divorce. I once found an old pay stub from 1978 that showed he was able to support a family of four, own a home, and a car, on about $800 a month – or roughly $10,000 a year. By the time my parents divorced, they were, combined, making somewhere between $50k to $60K a year. They owned a home, two cars, and where helping me pay for college. That was 1995-ish. By 2017, I have to make $50K+ a year just to support myself and pay my student loans. I’ve never been married, have no children, and rent an apartment. I work with men younger than I am who are married, have kids and wives who stay at home in houses they own.
They’re younger than I am, but they feel like dinosaurs to me.
By the outward status symbols of our society, those men are more successful, they’re more viable mates, and generally better at the manly rights-of-passage than I am. We could discuss differing priorities between those men and me, or we could discuss our differing approaches to education – they went to college to gain a set of skills they could use to earn a large enough income (conforming to the social order), while I went to school to learn about writing and literature, philosophy and psychology, history and sociology (a life of the mind). But the real difference is, again, that liminal space where our patriarchal underpinnings distort our perception of the real world. Those young men squeezed themselves into the American manhood template as best they could whether they’re fully comfortable there or not (they all seem to have the same haircut even); however, I have tried (and often failed) to sidestep typical, patriarchal gender normative behavior and, consequently, it’s probably why I’m where I am today: still a bachelor and trying to be a writer of novels, while some men my age (46!) are already grandfathers.
Was that their dream when we were 16? To be a grandparent before 50? Who knows. It wasn’t mine.
Real world history is heavy laden, with stories of women’s dreams and aspirations being thwarted by patriarchal limitations. It’s not very often that our society shows us boys’ dreams being thwarted by the patriarchal system. In fact, if a boy grows up to be anything, really, whether it’s what he wanted to do when he was ten or something he stumbled into out of desperation, his path through life quickly gets absorbed into the patriarchal narrative to reaffirm the boy’s success as a man. In other words, if a boy at the age of 7 says he wants to be a major league center fielder, and does in fact grow up to be a major league centerfielder, then the patriarchal narrative of male merit has worked. But the boy who at 7 wants to be major league center fielder and instead ends up being a business systems analyst working 60 hours a week in a gray cubicle is also given a masculine success narrative – even if deep within himself he feels like a failure for not becoming the centerfielder. The decisions and the pressures that redirected him from centerfield to the cubicle farm will have certainly affected his psyche, his sense of personal authority, his sense of self-possession, and his sense of entitlement, especially since, the world at large will see him as a success and tell him he’s a success no matter what he feels. Society is telling him he’s doing manhood right, but judging from an article linked below, he’s done so by embracing work he sees as spiritually meaningless.
As a set of examples to both reinforce this generalization and show an exception (and to get us thinking about the effects) here’s a story about two men. One is a friend, the other used to be a friend. In high school, both young men wanted to be actors, and both were quite talented. Neither ended up going to college. Both of them instead got their girlfriends knocked up and got married either while in high school or just after (we’ll talk about sex as a measure of manhood later). One gave up his acting dreams and settled into a work-a-day job, is still married to the high school girl and has other kids after the first one (judging from Facebook pictures). The other took a gamble after a divorce from his child’s mother and then remarrying. He moved to New York to pursue acting because the example he wanted to set for his child was that of never giving up on one’s dreams. Now, here’s a seemingly non-sequitur question: which man do you think has a better perception of women?
This piece from the NY Times is on the differences in pay and job satisfaction between men and women. The bulk of the article points out that, for both genders, higher job satisfaction comes with higher pay, even though women are paid less. It points out that the overall pay gap, in general, can be explained by differences in career choices between men and women, but that, of course, does NOT explain the pay gap that exists in identical careers (that difference, of course, is sexism). What really caught my attention was the next to last paragraph, which stated that women were more likely to find their jobs, even when the pay is lower, to be more meaningful than men found their jobs to be.
I stumbled across that piece while trying to find an article I read a while back that was specifically about that kind of meaningful work issue. Sadly, I couldn’t find it, but the gist I remember pulling from it was basically what the last two paragraphs in the NY Times piece hint at: because the patriarchy has, historically, limited women’s roles to being isolated at home with kids, doing unpaid and unappreciated work, when women do enter the workforce, they tend (but of course not always) to get jobs that they find personally meaningful rather than simply lucrative.
Despite the real world fact that both husband and wife have to work these days, and despite the real world fact that most people (especially now) are working jobs simply to pay the rent, work, at least for certain white women, is still seen through our patriarchal system as a choice (as long as she has married the right man), and so women tend to pick work that feels more meaningful to them – at least when the opportunity appears. Men, because the patriarchal ideal (aided especially by religion in this case) tells them that they must be the primary breadwinners, the head of household, and that if they aren’t they’re failing as men, will often pick jobs based on the job’s lucrativeness over its meaningfulness. In fact, the only meaning a job has for most men seems to be derived from the money earned instead of the task performed, and whatever that man had once dreamed of being as a boy before he was subsumed into the patriarchy has been relegated to hobby, fond memory, or worse, source of resentment directed at anyone who seems to have gotten what they wanted. I wonder if any studies of domestic violence have considered the notion that one of the many sources of spousal abuse could arise from the husband feeling that he never got to do what he dreamed of doing because he felt he had to cast it aside to be provider and protector for his wife who, again, because of his perception being distorted by patriarchy, thinks has gotten exactly what she wanted (a good provider – the “man in the grey flannel suit” – and a brood of ungrateful kids). And so, dammit, if he’s unhappy with his life, she’s going to suffer, too.
Bear in mind, I’m not suggesting that women get to always follow their dreams. There are plenty of women who wanted to become singers or lawyers but ended up becoming nurses, or teachers, small business owners, or even stay-at-home-moms; however, when, even today, women struggle against the patriarchal assumption that all they want from life is to marry and have children, having any kind of career is a form of rebellion and therefore meaningful. So, despite the frustration women often express about unequal pay and the pressures of work and family balances (the need to be all and do all in the family and still get no respect), the fact that society doesn’t entirely recoil at career women in the same way it once did is a victory for Feminism. However, our cultural illusion, the patriarchal ideal we often don’t see laying over the real world, still portrays women who work as having made a choice to work rather than being required to work. Men are told it’s a requirement to work and their only choice in the matter is choosing what job they will try to acquire.
I bet there’s not a single professional athlete who wishes he’d become a lawyer, or a trash collector, but they’re outliers, not the norm. The norm for men is to find a job they can do, preferably one that pays well enough to support himself and a family, and then climb the promotional ladder until it’s time to retire, or until he dies, whichever comes first. Even though that is hard to do for most American men, it’s still possible – if he’s born into the right social class, doesn’t have massive student loan debt, and so on.
Work itself is banal. The expectation to work, at least in the real world, is becoming gender neutral. However, in the world as it is warped and distorted by those unspoken patriarchal expectations, work (at least when that “work” isn’t “fighting”) is the thing that most defines and categorizes men in our society, and the amount of money men earn sets their status and value to society and, in some cases, to women – or so we’re lead to believe by the patriarchal work system. So, despite the growing number of stay-at-home dads, despite the decline in the number of men who attend and graduate from college (nearly a requirement now for most high earning jobs that would allow men to support a non-working wife and their children) men still very often feel reduced to the size of their bank accounts. What they do and what they make becomes who they are whether they feel it has any meaning or not.
Go watch the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” through the lens of patriarchal work demands on men, through the lens of my story about the two would-be actors, and of men not finding meaningfulness in their work. Maybe it’s not a big loss that George Bailey never got to travel the world. In fact, the effectiveness of the movie relies on George’s dream being seen a ‘trivial” by the audience because if his dream had been to be a surgeon or a lawyer instead of a banker the story would feel a whole lot more shaky. The point is that this movie lays a patriarchal, masculine success narrative over a series of disappointments: trip to Europe thwarted by his father’s death, honeymoon thwarted by The Great Depression, solvency of the Building and Loan thwarted by Uncle Billy’s pride and thoughtlessness, which leads George to consider suicide because Mr. Potter (the only believable character to me, and, sadly, the most evil) points out George is worth more dead than alive. And even that is thwarted by a do-gooding angel who eventually gets his wings by manipulating George into staying alive. It’s only dumb luck that the town comes to his aid with the money to save the Building and Loan (money they’d already entrusted to him and Uncle Billy handed over to Mr. Potter – who kept it!). At the end, George is, basically, right back where he started before Uncle Billy gave away the money and “meaning” to his life has been retrofitted. In real life, George Bailey would either be dead, or he’d be out of business under those conditions, not signing Auld Lang Syne.
Wendell Jamieson summed up the movie this way in a 2008 N.Y. Times piece titled “Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life” when he wrote: “It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife.” That could just as easily describe life in a patriarchal system for men trapped in jobs they find meaningless and unrewarding. Then being cut off from empathy and emotional insight, they lack the vocabulary to express that despair and unhappiness. In cases like that, one of the ways they can give voice to that unhappiness, in addition to verbally or physically abusing those close to them, is to take refuge in the one activity society says they can take pleasure in: sex – or maybe even sexual manipulation (why does George force Mary to hide naked behind a bush?).
Now, let’s take a step back and reset. First, in the war system, our society attempts to cut men off from their emotions so that they will be able to fight and kill for the society when needed. We then require them to work, and the work system tells them that they must, through their work, be able to support a wife and family in order to be seen as “real” men. Then, in a capitalist system, we present work as competition – something we have already well trained boys to do. Smash together the violent competition of combat, whether on the battlefield or the sports field, and the aggressive economic competition of capitalism and our whole society begins to take on a feel similar to that of Charlie Sheen on a coke bender ranting about winning – and for that to be acceptable to society in general and men in particular, there has to be both praise and reward for all of this competition, sacrifice, and “winning,” otherwise the toll of meaningless work will send them all off a bridge. But what do men win by turning themselves into weapons to defeat rivals and tools to earn money regardless of what they might actually wish to do or be?
Well, they win a woman, of course. The more attractive the better because she is then an outward symbol of his ability to protect, his capacity to provide, and, of course, his dominance over other men. This particular dynamic is why women are frequently seen as property by men. Women in general, but more specifically, high status women, become something to acquire like a car, a house, a private jet, a yacht. It’s why rich white men regularly get divorced and marry a string of younger and more superficially beautiful women – and why they are called “Trophy Wives.”
In a work system that, especially after World War II and before Second Wave Feminism, aggressively excluded women from the public sphere and, even today, is still somewhat hostile to their presence outside of the “nurturing” careers, becoming a “trophy wife” might have seemed like a viable path to some semblance of financial security for women (it worked for Melania). The problem is that in our patriarchal, capitalist system, it makes a woman’s most marketable asset her body, rather than her intellect or any talent she has, and turns her into an object little different from a watch, or a car. That commodification of women tells men that, whether she is a madonna or a whore, every woman – every single one – in some fashion, has a price tag. Whether it’s a $50 for a blow job delivered from the passenger seat of a car parked in a dark alley, or a furtive 30 second blow job from a bored wife half the man’s age in the $5 million dollar home she’s been provided, for men enmeshed in the perpetual competition that is modern American Manhood, you get the woman (and blow job) you can afford.
This means that high status men and low status men sexually harass and sexually assault women for reasons that are different sides of the same entitled, patriarchal coin. The high status man who sexually harasses and assaults a woman is viewing her in the same way he might view any object he possesses or wishes to possess, which is that he can do with that object as he pleases as long as he’s willing to pay for her, her silence, if needed, or the damage he does. He believes he’s earned that right via his wealth and power. For the low status man, sexual harassment and sexual assault are exactly what we might assume them to be, threatening reminders of his patriarchal entitlement – he’s still a man after all, and she’s not. The low status man knows he can’t afford the woman he harasses or assaults, and so he’s stealing his sexual privilege back, or to put it another way, the patriarchal society has been telling him his whole life that he should be ready to sacrifice his body and possibly his life to protect women, and that he must work when he’d rather lounge about, but even if he does all of that and earns a woman, well, there’s has to have been some wishful thinking going on (perpetuated by the media) that will inevitably be thwarted and, out of those thwarted expectations comes a desire – perhaps not even fully understood – to remind those high status attractive women passing by on the street that however valuable they might think they are, he’s still a man, and she’s really nothing more than an object to be possessed and used by men.
Our patriarchal, war focused, capitalist society has so warped reality that women have become commodities, not people. Men are to take up arms to defend hearth and home (home being the domestic realm of women), and they are to go out in the world and labor, whether they find personal fulfillment or meaning in that labor or not, so that they can provide that hearth and home to a woman, which is his reward for all of this fighting and working, he is told. All of it is fantasy because, in the real world, the boy may dream of one day owning a Ferrari, or being married to a perfectly thin super hot model-like woman, but chances are he’s going to end up with a Toyota and a normal human woman. And yes, it’s dehumanizing to compare women and cars – but that’s the point I’m trying to make here: the system dehumanizes women by first dehumanizing boys through our socially restricting boys full emotional potential, and so we shouldn’t be that surprised when a man, having been trained his whole life to think that empathy is a weakness and emotions (except for anger) are for girls, doesn’t see the humanity in those around him and thinks he’s owed a smile or a fuck. Those are, after all, his rewards for dutifully fulfilling the requirements and obligations of American manhood.
And I’ve not even gotten to the actual sex part yet.
The final measure of a man in a patriarchal society is sex – or, rather more accurately, sexual conquest. Remember, in a war based, capitalist society, the total measure of male success is his willingness to compete, the desire and ability to achieve victory, and his dominance of anything and anyone that stands against him. And so, when it comes to sex, it’s actually possible for a man to never commit sexual harassment or assault, to be loyally monogamous, but still have a life devoid of any real intimacy with a woman because in this system, again, women are seen as little more than high priced masturbatory aids with heartbeats (for the ultimate WTF extension of that concept, take a look at the sexbot trend. Here are men so emotionally crippled by the system that they pick an actual object in the shape of a woman. There also is an interesting piece from Slate about Japan’s “herbivores,” young men who are avoiding the western ideal of manhood that Japan adopted after WWII and before their economy collapsed in the 1990s. Think of it as an interesting counterpoint, despite the social handwringing over population growth that the author (some of the interviewees) focuses on).
So, since we’re operating off known-known #2 (heteronormative), and it takes two to have sex, let’s start with the woman (ladies first….so patriarchal). In the real world, women are just as horny and interested in sex as men, and, in truth, might be more interested in it, that is if the research written about in books like Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, and What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Bergner, continue to go the route the current evidence points down (women, after all, have a clitoris – an organ specifically dedicated to sexual pleasure – the penis is no less of an anatomical marvel, but it’s still a multi-purpose tool). In fact, if we look at the blur put onto the real world by our patriarchal underpinnings, then the research reported on and discussed in those two books – particularly when it comes to sex (at least healthy consenting sex) – suggests that we are in total denial and disarray about the reality of sex.
The research in the books mentioned, points to women responding to more widely varied and subtle sexual stimuli than men. Women are also more sexually fluid and flexible while men tend to be one-trick ponies, generally. Bisexual men do exist, of course, but the norm is for men to pick one thing and stick to it (whether they’re gay or straight), which is, possibly, one of the reasons men have more documented fetishes in the psychological literature than do women (another reason being that women’s sexuality – the truth of it anyway – is repressed by society. If you’re interested in female perversions and fetishes, read Female Perversions by Louise Kaplan).
However, our patriarchal system says women aren’t that interested in sex, aren’t “normally” promiscuous, and that they’re primary motivating interest is in finding a monogamous, domestic relationship that produces children, while men are raised to believe they must be the sexual and romantic instigators, that they’re prone to promiscuity (when research suggests they’re not), and so men should always turned on, and always looking to score.
And when does one “score?” During a competition, of course, and against an opponent who doesn’t want him to score.
In our warped patriarchal world, any woman who enjoys sex for its own sake, seeks it out, demands it, knows what she likes, and knows how to ask for it, is seen as threatening to the (male) social order. Whereas men, in this warped patriarchal system, are seen as “normal” – or normal-ish – even if they present themselves to the world as little more than a walking erection with a side-gig at an advertising firm. In our patriarchal system, male sexual behavior is mostly normalized (even its deviant forms like harassment and assault), while female sexual behavior is curtailed and confined to acceptable and safe arenas, i.e. the fantasy, kabuki theatre-esque, stunt-sex world of porn, or the church ordained, dutiful, procreative marriage. In fact, it might even be safe to say that male sexual behavior is hyper-normalized, and that we operate on the assumption that males after puberty will always welcome sex, and so if a male were to come forward to say he’d been sexually harassed or assaulted by a woman our response would be to laugh, or ask him if he was gay. Even when a female teacher has inappropriate sexual relations with an underaged male student, and gets convicted in a court, the male response often includes a lot of the old nudge-nudge wink-wink types of “Yeah it’s “illegal,” but I wish I’d been sexually “assaulted” by Mrs. X when I was in high school” jokes. In fact a number of the articles about these incidents don’t uniformly use the terms “sexual assault” or even “rape” when talking about these adult women and their teen boy victims, they use softer terms. One article was titled “Married Science Teacher, 22, Arrested for Sex Romp with Teen Boy Student” (my emphasis, but yeah Fox News). Sex romp. . . that sounds fun, doesn’t it? We’d all like to go on a (consensual) sex romp wouldn’t we? But that wouldn’t be how an article would be titled anywhere about a male teacher being sexually involved with an underaged female student.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we have some kind of 1-to-1 double standard here. It’s more subtle than that and maybe more complex. The difference between the female teacher/male student and male teacher/female student situation is all about how we view male and female sexual agency and desire. It’s about how we have completely infantilized and repressed female sexuality under the guise of purity and virtue, creating for women the nearly impossible to navigate line between madonna and whore, but how we’ve created for boys a hyper sexualized environment where having sex is a measure of their masculinity and where we both encourage them to pursue sex and take none of the responsibility for it, essentially telling them they are barely contained monsters kept in check only by female virtue.
We also tell these boys that female virtue will save them, and civilize them. The patriarchal view of women as either saintly mother, or debased whore is supposed to channel the patriarchal emphasis on male sexual conquest in appropriate directions – namely at the sacrificial “whore” – the woman who has no virtue to sully (because she likes sex for itself and women aren’t supposed to like sex for sex’s sake). The problem is that in the real world this whole madonna/whore thing is total rubbish and so men – again – crippled by society’s amputation of their empathy and the stunting of their emotional depth, are then further misled by Hollywood’s male fantasy dominated representations of sexual encounters and porn’s kabuki theatre unreality. Basically, they lack the ability to recognize women’s real interest or real lack of interest in sex, which means they inappropriately test the waters – to understate the whole issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault entirely.
America’s particular dynamic of sexual repression and delusion is especially strong because, as Dan Savage often says in The Savage Lovecast, we, unfortunately, got the Puritans during the European expansion into the New World. The Puritans, and other sects of Calvinist decent, were opposed to sex outside of marriage, and especially the idea of sex for anything other than procreation, and although one can point to researchers looking into the letters written between Puritan men and their wives to argue that the Puritans weren’t actually “anti-sex,” we should all be horribly familiar by now with the extreme amount of misinterpretation and deviation that occurs between church doctrine and church practice, as well as humanity’s willingness to shape their religious dogma into a means of controlling other people. So, the Puritans may have been, according to researchers like Francis Bremer (see this NY Post Article), passionate and attentive lovers with their spouses, their restriction of sex to marriage and procreation has been filtered through their spiritual descendant’s fear and insecurities about sexuality (particularly a fear of women’s sexuality) and then squeezed through whale bone corsets of the Victorian era’s prudishness to land us here, where we are consistently confronted with men who have no language to talk about sexual desire except what they learn in locker rooms and from porn, and who hold a sense of human sexuality that is 180 degrees opposite of reality. It’s a society where we’re so misinformed about and afraid of sex that it’s almost expected that anyone who rails against homosexuality, slutty women, abortion, birth control, premarital sex, porn, and children being molested in bathrooms by trans-men is sneaking off to do meth with a male hooker, bang a dude in his office, or traffic in children.
Now, we’re not here to go down the hypocritical preacher/politician route, but it is important to remember that we as a society have a problem with sex that goes much deeper than simply men behaving badly to women, and those deeper problems can complicate and distract us from the problems of sexual harassment and sexual assault (see the Kevin Spacey incident where after being accused of sexually assaulting a young co-star, he tried to deflect some of the blame onto his having been in the closet at the time – essentially trying to blame his gayness for his inappropriate behavior).
So, here we are, a sexually repressed society that also leads the world in the production of porn; a society that tries to push abstinence until marriage and the “naturalness” of monogamy, then uses overt sexual cues arising from our latent, repressed knowledge that sexual variety drives all of us, to sell everything from beer to cars, but plays it coy when advertising drugs for erectile dysfunction (WTF is up with the separate bathtubs, Cialis?); a society that tells women the protect their chastity, but pats boys on the back for successfully convincing as many women as he can to “give it up.”
I can’t count the number of times when I was growing up that I heard one of these old nuggets: “boys/men think about sex every seven minutes.” Or: “All boys ever think about is sex.” If those statements were true, how the fuck have I ever gotten anything done? In my youth, during the 80s in western Kansas, you were gay if you masturbated, which meant the only option was to find a girl to fuck. Fucking made you a man, and the more you fucked the more of a man you were – a stud. But, women weren’t supposed to want sex and so the dilemma began, which, of course, patriarchy attempts to give us a solution to – and a shitty one at that.
In that kind of environment, women, just like our opposition on the sporting field or battlefield, have to be “persuaded” to have sex, won over, conquered. We men have to have a sales pitch, and we aren’t supposed to take no for an answer. And, even though it’s the woman’s job to say no, to play coy, it’s our job as “men” to get her to give it up to us – often by any means necessary: lie (yes, I love you, respect you, want to marry you), cheat (I’ll just put the tip in), or steal (sexual assault, rape). In this toxic environment of a patriarchal, war centered, capitalistic system, a woman who says no too bluntly isn’t showing her proper appreciation for the actual or potential (that’s important to keep in mind – the “potential”) sacrifice the man is willing to make in order to provide and protect the valuable commodity that the woman represents, but if she says yes too quickly then she’s not valuable enough and so it’s perfectly ok to take advantage of her.
Or to adjust the focus a bit: we’ve crippled a boy’s ability to show and feel empathy, we’ve pushed him to embrace violence and aggression, limited his field of emotional expression to a few things like anger, rage, determination, then told him to push aside fear, gentleness, and softness as signs of weakness (read femininity). We then tell him the measure of his success as a man is to work a job, not for his own pleasure or satisfaction, not for any deeper meaning, but specifically to provide material comfort and security to a woman and the offspring she desires from him, and then we complicate that whole arrangement by also telling him the other measure of his manhood is the repeated and frequent use of his cock, which means his wife then has to turn into a Michelle Duggar-like baby factory, or he has to fuck women not his wife, which society says is bad, but really only if he gets caught.
That set-up will almost inevitably lead to a society where cat calls on the street, and “twenty-minutes of action” behind a dumpster in an alley with an unconscious, and un-consenting woman are common occurrences that are met with shrugs or light prison sentences, and where someone can rationalize an abuse of power by telling themselves that they did, at least, ask first.
Punishing violators, shaming inappropriate behavior, intervening when we witness sexual harassment or assault, and talking with other men about the things they can do to avoid being a violator, or how to thwart violators – are all necessary things. But, they aren’t exactly solutions to the systemic problem. In fact, focusing on punishment, on punitive actions, and things that might best be described as “late-stage actions” will inevitably lead to the criminalization of, well, puberty, which is already beginning to show in the current misapplication of the sex offender registries.
Take a listen to Episode 4, of Jon Ronson’s Butterfly Effect podcast where he talks to a lawyer who specializes in defending children (!) who have been put on the sex offender registry. One child the lawyer mentioned committed his “offense” at the age of six and was in the juvenile detention system until the age of 17. He then had to register as a sex offender once he was released – all because he was hanging out with a few older kids who decided to play a game where they would turn off the lights, take of their clothes, put them back on, then turn on the lights to see if they’d dressed themselves properly. The boy’s crime was that he didn’t put his clothes back on. A girl in the group who’d participated in the game, saw him naked and reported it to her mom who went to the police. By that standard, if I’d pulled my “I’m a robot” stunt today, I’d be on the sex offender registry. Thankfully, in the 70’s, parents weren’t so fragile and panicky, and they just called my mom to tell her what I’d done and trusted her to handle me (she did). Another child the lawyer mentioned was 14, and he took a dick-pic and sent it to a 14 year old classmate he was “dating.” That boy was convicted of possessing and distributing child pornography (as the owner and distributor of his own naked image), and put on the sex offender registry. What I also found interesting about the stories Ronson and the lawyer discussed were the judges who handled down these sentences. They often based their harsh sentences on the faulty notion that if they didn’t punish these early acts of “sexual misconduct,” the child would grow up to be a serial sex offender. Also, it’s not just boys being put on the sex offender registry. There are also a number of teen girls on the sex offender registry for sending nude selfies to their boyfriends and getting convicted of possessing and distributing “child pornography.” One girl mentioned in the New Yorker piece I link to is on the registry for de–pantsing a boy on the playground, which should have all of us who are over a certain age thinking about all the people we went to school with who could be on the registry for that.
It’s almost as if we are treating these young boys (and sometimes girls) the way we want to treat adult men when they do aggressive things tinted with sex, but if these boy can get to adulthood without flashing their junk at the wrong time, we then ignore such behavior until we can’t. In effect our patriarchal system is protecting adult men by shifting the punishment to young boys under the guise of prevention. And punishing children in the legal system for behavior that we lightly punish, or don’t punish, adults for doing is attacking a symptom, and not preventing anything.
Stopping sexual harassment and sexual assault is very important, and strongly sentencing people who commit sexual offenses is necessary, but the cases the lawyer mentions in The Butterfly Effect don’t really have the same feel as, say, a district attorney repeatedly coming on to teenaged girls in a mall, do they? Stripping naked in mixed company, sending unwanted dick-pics, or de-pantsing someone could certainly fall under the sexual harassment umbrella, especially if performed by adults, but shouldn’t also degree and frequency play a factor? I know that sounds like I’m staging a defense of certain categories of sexual harassment (like cat calls are OK, or flashing is rude but harmless (they’re not)), and if I were talking about behavior that is exclusive to adults then some kind of punishment – even if just widely spread social shame or even police citations like those handed out for jaywalking, or failing to signal a turn, or speeding – might be appropriate, but do all inappropriate acts involving inappropriate sexual advances, nudity, or the suggestion of sexual activity need to land people (especially kids) on a sex offender registry? We’re taking a huge risk if we fully criminalize behavior that, although unsettling, inappropriate, misguided, and offensive – especially when a man has personal or profession power over a woman – isn’t exactly a crime worthy of a prison sentences and life-long banishment to a sex offender registry, if we don’t also address the source – the root cause – of the behavior.
We need to remember that although men represent the majority of harassers, and women the majority of victims, there are male victims and female perpetrators. As Dan Savage frequently says, sex is older and more powerful than we are. It will, inevitably, make fools of us all at one point or another, and even though sexual harassment and sexual assault are about power, sex plays a part in those things. Shall we punish equally all foolish behavior that has sexual overtones? Or shall we scale punishment based on frequency and degree while also attempting to address the root social cause such as the way we raise boys to think of sex as a measure of their manhood and a competition?
We’re in this problem because of society’s warped puritanical, and patriarchal views regarding sex. In our society, women and girls are denied their own sexual agency, but expected to be responsible for keeping boy’s sexual desires in check. They’re told they have to preserve their “sexual purity” and the purity of the boys, all while these girl’s are being hyper sexualized by the media (notice the recent and justified outrage by people over the inappropriate labelling of Millie Bobby Brown as “sexy” when she is only 13 years old), and in the case of child beauty pageants, by their own parents. It’s confusing as hell for women and girls: their job is to be sexy but not appear to like sex, at least not too much, and certainly not to instigate it lest they be called a whore. But not only is that message confusing to women and girls, it’s confusing to men and especially boys who have not completely figured out the list of things not to do. We’ve made men emotional cripples and then told them they’re slaves to their dicks, which can only be kept in check if a girl dresses and behaves correctly and doesn’t distract them. In that environment, a hyper sexualized world and a boy who is amputated from his empathy, emotionally crippled, and absolved of responsibility for his sexual desires, anything a girl does can then become an invitation (see known-known #5 about the RAINN stats).
That dynamic is a perfect example of patriarchal male privilege and that’s the root cause we need to address.
Doctors don’t cure a disease by treating the symptoms. The virus, the cancer, the microbe that causes the symptoms has to be attacked. Sure, treating the symptoms is necessary to give the doctor the time and space to deliver the ultimate cure, but treating the symptoms is pointless if the a cure isn’t delivered at all. If all we do is tighten and strengthen the laws to punish repeated sexual harassment and sexual assault, and direct them most severely at boys in puberty and younger while still giving men like Brock Turner a weak slap on the wrist (6 months? really?), we are not only failing to truly change men’s behavior, we’re failing women because harassment, assault, and rape will still happen.
I suppose by now you can tell my answer is to smash the patriarchy, right? But how? This isn’t something just for Feminists to do. Men have to be the prime movers on this because that is the only way to break down the brotherhood of silence that surrounds men.
I’ve heard some lament the lack of some kind of honor code among men, an accountability system revived from the past. That kind of retrograde approach is so off-base I’m not sure where to start to rebuke it, except to point back to the section above on the war system. “Honor” such as it is, has never vanished or dissipated. Every man who is not guilty of sexual harassment or sexual assault has acted with honor and has done so because he has empathy, and not because he fears social pressure from other bros, or that he’ll violate some code of honor. Looking to the herd – especially for men – is a mistake because what has happened to get us here is a result of the herd policing and enforcing an honor code it no longer talks about and assumes everyone just knows. We’re can’t return to that or it’ll mutate again. “Honor” however it was defined in the past, is part of the arbitrary infrastructure of patriarchy, which makes it as much about posture and appearance as it is performance, or a trait to embody. It’s too vague of a term and too prone to misinterpretation in our current patriarchal war system.
There have also been suggestions that we have to expose boys to “non-sexual touch,” that if only it were OK for boys to hug each other or hold hands, and if we don’t always think a cross gender hug is a prelude to sex, then boys will begin to read signs better. Again, this is a symptom thing, and not as general as it might seem. In India, and several Arab countries, it’s common for straight men to show affection for each other by holding hands, and yet, right now, India is struggling with a gang rape problem and rampant sexual assault and victim silencing. So, how a culture views non-sexual touching, or how it sexualizes touching that shouldn’t be sexualized, or gendered, isn’t really the problem.
The problem with sexual assault and sexual harassment is our patriarchal system, and if we really want to put a stop to sexual harassment and sexual assault – to squash our rape culture – we have to get rid of the patriarchal capitalist war system. We can gnash our teeth and ponder punishments for the various symptoms we see around us, but until we stop raising boys to be empathetically and emotionally crippled, until we stop training them to be aggressive competitors and combatants, until we stop raising them to measure their masculinity and worth by their economic power, and their sexual conquests, then there are going to be boys and men who will treat women like commodities to be acquired rather than human beings with whom to have a meaningful consensual relationship.
So, where to start? Sadly, I don’t have a step-by-step, uniform guide, or easy prescription for being a better man. Keen didn’t have one either, he had what he called a “Primer for Now and Future Heroes,” which was basically an adaptation of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” It was a method, a broad set of moves he thought men should make. For example here are some of the section headings: “From Sunny Pragmatism to the Dark Wisdom of Dream Time” or “From Having the Answers to Living the Questions” or “From Artificial Toughness to Virile Fear” and “From Isolation to the Awareness of Loneliness.” Basically, it means we all have to go on a personal, internal quest first, and there’s no map for that, really. Like Keen, I feel a closeness to the work of Joseph Campbell, and not just the new age-y sounding popular nugget “follow your bliss” but the deeper mythological foundations that can, still, help us understand ourselves if we, as men, gain the emotional intelligence to read and understand them. Campbell was fond of pointing out that in the Arthurian legends, when the Knights of the Round table decided they would set out in search of the Holy Grail, they didn’t march off in a uniform line along a known or marked path. Each knight entered the dark wood at a place of his own choosing. They quested alone, for the most part, but gave aid when their paths crossed. So, find your path, men. It might not be a bad idea to read some books first, and search your inner self.
I suppose I do have one hard and fast rule you can start following today: shutting the fuck up when the women in your life complain about men is a good first step in reactivating your empathy as a man: listen, don’t react, and stop taking their general comments about men personally. When needed, apologize for the things you’ve done wrong, make amends, but do not, I repeat, DO NOT ever trot out the “not all men” argument. If a woman is complaining to you about “men” you should realize that she already sees you as an exception, or as close to an exception as she’ll find. If you roll out with the phrase “not all men do, say, or think that..” then you are, in fact, all men. Honor that trust, and then, piece by piece, habit by habit, begin to dismantle the patriarchy around you and step outside of it as a human.
Then, once you’ve got that handle on yourself, and some well developed ideas to talk about, maybe you could start a conversation with your son, if you have one, and pay attention to the ways you might be stifling his empathy and emotional expression. Start a conversation with your father, if he’s still alive, ask what he feared would happen if he didn’t stifle your empathy and emotional expression (be patient if he’s defensive). Start a conversation with your male best friend (if you have one) about the expectations you feel burdened by. Relax, actually, and stop trying to enforce a code onto yourself and other men that is any more complicated or rigid than the classic Golden Rule (you know the one, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And don’t be snarky about it – i.e. “but I’d love it if a girl grabbed my junk” because you’d recoil if it was a woman you didn’t want to grab your junk and remember, not every woman likes you). It’s going to take some time. Dual inheritance theory would suggest that we have a messy web of stuff to untangle that includes both deeply ingrained social constructs and even more deeply ingrained instinctual, genetic drives we will need to weed out and counteract.
So, if we really want to see change – permanent change – to the way men treat women, then men have to not just talk about changing their behavior or views of women, they have to want to abandon patriarchy as a system. Both men and women have to find a way to value those traits that patriarchy currently devalues (empathy, emotional awareness) and undercut the fear that embracing them is a sign of weakness or a loss of our manhood and begin to see them as sources of strength and power. When someone is in touch with the wider range of human emotions, when they can imagine and recognize the humanity in others, they’ll be less likely to abuse and mistreat those around them.
Bibliography & Other Source Material
Fire In The Belly: On Being a Man by Sam Keen
What Do Women Want: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Bergner
Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha
Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man by Susan Faludi
Misogyny: The Male Malady by David D. Gilmore
The Decline of Males by Lionel Tiger
The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private by Susan Bordo
Sex & Reason by Richard A. Posner
Sex In History by Reay Tannahill
My Enemy, My Love: Man-hating and Ambivalence in Women’s Lives by Judith Levine
Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson by Camille Paglia
Manhood: The Rise and Fall of the Penis by Mels Van Driel
Female Perversions by Louise Kaplan
A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis by David M. Friedman
The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet
Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women by Elizabeth Wurtzel
As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl by John Colapinto
The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming our Young Men by Christina Hoff Sommers
We Were Soldiers Once. . . And Young by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway
What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future Edited by Rebecca Walker
Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth by Joseph Campbell
The Hero with A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
**The Murderer Next Door: Why The Mind is Designed to Kill by David M. Buss
**On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
(** These books are problematic in one way or another: good information but either abused in practice by the author (Grossman) or plagued by faulty conclusions (Buss). Read with a hyper critical eye.)
Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network
Washington Post. Where Do Kids Learn to Undervalue Women?
Stanford Medical. How Men’s and Women’s Brains are Different
It’s a Wonderful Life