The Brood: The national conversation around sexual assault, gender inequality and power imbalances has catalyzed a lot of soul-searching. Every man is, to varying degrees, complicit in structures that oppress women. What should we, those men, do about that?
As a teenager, I would have sleepovers at a friend’s house. A sort of guys’ night of video games, movies and junk food. We emulated voices and off-color jokes from South Park, which we would binge-watch late at night. When it got really late, Comedy Central gave way to a rotating door of obscure comics, who almost invariably riffed on some sort of dating themed bit. The punchlines were usually something in the area of “this bitch, am I right?” Sometimes they would be “aren’t I dirty bastard?”
Flitting in-between these bits, often left on in the background as we talked about girls we found attractive, were advertisements for “Girls Gone Wild”. Occasionally, one of our group would try to introduce us to some disturbingly elicit videos as a sort of shock-jock joke.
From the vantage point of 2017, this version of myself, that began roughly around 2005, is wildly shameful. Not just because of the typical reservations people have about their adolescence. But because now, with our current social revolutions, I can see when, how, by what, and by who I was taught to feel entitled to sex. I can see the blasé and non-critical attitude I had about non-white, non-male perspectives.
I had my first real attempts at relationships in a stretch between 2008 and 2010. Awkward, hormonal, over-wrought, fraught with misunderstandings and bad decisions, these experiences were extremely formative, as they are for most people. But these were also the years in which my sexist ideas about gender and sex first collided with lived reality.
Obama was just elected. I kissed a girl for the first time at the back of a party. We both liked one another – but in hindsight, did she accept the kiss because of that? Or did she want to avoid potential embarrassment in front of others? Had I gone for it out of a naïve, awkward, adolescent place? Or did I somehow feel entitled to try it? After all, my friends always told me the guy was supposed to make the first move.
Later, I fall into a relationship which, at least in part, was spurred on by that strange, toxic, and learned male imperative: get laid. My friends compared the “opportunity” to “letting a cake go to waste”. I hesitated, but felt compelled by the social pressure. I bought into the, quite literally, objectifying argument. Not a good foundation to start any relationship on.
Those toxic boyhood friendships blew up suddenly and ferociously when I went to college. It was partially because I had realized the severity of their toxic ideas of masculinity. One used his social stature and temperament to bully his way to prominence. Another used his reputation as a funny man to get away with what I now recognize as sleazy, grope-y behavior. I saw how their attitudes had encouraged me to act in ways I’m not proud of. I had allowed bad behavior occur in my presence, partially out of self-preservation.
I tried to start over in college. I hung out in progressive circles. But learned behaviors die hard, especially when you are not self-aware enough to see them. During one of my jobs in progressive organizing, I spoke over a female colleague so many times that my superior called me out in front of everyone. It was shocking, embarrassing, and the right call. I go back to that moment constantly as an exercise in mindfulness. If he had not called me out, would I have unknowingly cowed her out of that space, or that job?
During this time and in the years after college, I was in and out of a relationship. In the “out” periods, I was always encouraged to go “hit” the dating scene. Men and women alike told me that it was better to “get over someone by getting under someone else”. This hook-up culture attitude was endemic. But no matter how many dates or actual hook ups I got into, it never felt good.
Had I used these women I saw to quell my own insecurities? To dampen my anxieties? The way someone might use a bottle of wine to take the edge off? Wasn’t that objectifying? Had she done the same to me? Or had she been afraid to say she wanted something more emotional because the power dynamic was skewed towards a very male understanding of dating? And what about the times where intentions were misunderstood? Like a kiss that unpleasantly surprised a girl I had assumed I was on a date with? Had I made an embarrassing mistake, or violated someone? Or both?
As Rebecca Traister has written in her recent, amazing piece, we are all in some way complicit in this architecture of abuse that we have inherited from our forebearers. Especially the men, who have been repeatedly been conditioned to not even giving a second thought to their actions.
I look back at these and other moments and wonder, like other men must be wondering, I have been a part of the problem; probably still am a part of the problem. What do I do about that? Should I reach out and apologize? Try to clear things up? Or will that re-open some discomfort that neither party wants to revisit? Should I write about it? Is saying these words out loud a healthy contribution? Or will it just come off as some “nice guy” looking for absolution? So then, what? Should I be punished, in some way? What consequences, if any, should someone like me face? Who decides?
I’ve only seen a handful of articles by men really grapple with these questions. Most notably one by Robert Lipsyte. But even in articles like his, practicable answers, the “how” part of helping to fix this systemic issue, are missing. Missing in a way they most certainly are not in articles by women, such as this one. This is going to be a decades long conversation, but its one I’m interested in having. How can we, the men, help ourselves, and the next generation of men, adopt a new framework?