So it’s a tough time to be a guy in this world, yes? Our “brand,” as it were, has become rather tarnished of late, not that it was ever all that lofty to begin with. After all, the other half of the population—the distaff portion, the XXs, our “better” halves—have been hip for quite a few millennia now to the mess we keep making of things, the brutal competition for food and land and the upper hand in every argument. Our romance with war.
They’ve worked around us as best they could, even with the stark disadvantage of their smaller stature that has proved decisive when the distribution of power has been determined by purely physical means. But this uneven distribution has consigned them to live in a sort of hell of our making, shunted off to the sidelines as men went about shaping the world in their own image.
This includes men’s notions of the God above who thunders and blusters and roars in all those masculine tones most religions ascribe to the divine.
Men have written the books and the rules, drawn the maps and the boundaries, voyaged across the seas to claim their bounty—some of which included the women they found on distant shores, now become their property.
This “right” to the very body and being of those physically weaker or less cunning has been a dominant thread in the history of our species. It has swept up men victims, too, in the awful maw of slavery and slaughter, but fate has reserved a special kind of horror for subjected women, given the baseline realities of their sexually driven procreation and male instinct to engage in that activity by any means possible.
The primal, stripped down equation of the animal kingdom we are very much a part of:
Males take, and females submit, suffering mostly in silence.
(Although many animals do engage in elaborate courting rituals that are about wooing rather than seizing. Or to put that another way: Consider the peacock…)
So here we are, in 2017, still dealing—or perhaps more to the point—finally dealing—with the long dark shadow that the taking-submitting equation has cast on our history, our herstory.
And if you’re Harvey Weinstein or Roy Moore, Dustin Hoffman or Al Franken, Louis CK or Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose or John Conyers, Kevin Spacey or Mark Halperin, Loren Stein or Leon Wieseltier, Mario Batali or Donald Trump, your world is quaking, and the hounds of heaven are rearing up in righteous indignation, just beginning to extract their due, their long postponed and repressed, #MeToo.
Also: those men, guilty as they are or may be—are most certainly two other things: the tip of a gargantuan iceberg, and stand-ins for all the rest of us XYs who have either behaved similarly or, at the very least, benefited in untold ways from our physical, culturally sanctioned privilege and potential to do so.
I caught a segment of a talk radio show on NPR a few weeks ago dealing with domestic violence in which a panelist said, “Violence is a learned behavior. Men or boys are not born being violent. Since violence is learned, it can be unlearned.”
I was so astounded at this claim that I wasn’t certain I heard it correctly, so I tracked the segment down later and sure enough, I had.
It struck me immediately that the speaker had it backwards—that we are indeed born with violent, aggressive propensities—men much more than women, it seems, for which testosterone gets much of the blame—and that we “unlearn” it only with good training from parents, along with the strictures and shaping we derive from our culture.
This process is also known as becoming “civilized,” and it serves as a potent brake on the unbridled passions that lie coiled at the base of our being.
It doesn’t mean we are all born naturally and equally violent, but only for the potential to be so. It is within us. In some of us more than others; genetic endowments vary. Then our upbringing and culture add their say.
But the sheer weight of history tells us that violence and aggression are a part of us. It springs from our lower, unmediated natures, the most primitive means of trying to get what we want—food, water, sex—or as a response to our frustration in being denied those prizes. And it persists in humans (well, male humans, mostly) to such a startling, far-reaching degree that most scientists studying such matters marvel at the contrast of how rare intra-species violence is in the “animal kingdom” (where we reign supreme) compared to human society.
No other species kills nor rapes its own as wantonly, cruelly and with such sadistic calculation as humans do. The life-affirming arts are not the only place, unfortunately, where humans’ vast imaginative powers are put to use.
Aggression also has gender-based distinctions in the sex act itself, with the thrusting required of a male to penetrate the hosting female, followed by the motility of the sperm in swimming avidly to attach itself to the waiting immobile egg.
Clearly, at the most base biological level of procreation, the male of the species is programmed to reach, impose, exert, penetrate and acquire. A few hundred thousand years later, we remain too often in the shadow of this biology, driven by those impulses in their barest, most primitive form.
It feels important to point out, however, that Weinstein & Co. reached, imposed, etc.—not because they didn’t know better as primitive creatures beholden to their biology. They did it because they could. Because they were famous and powerful and they thought themselves beyond the normal strictures that regulate our unfettered desires.
When I was first finding my way (“stumbling” is more like it) through sexual experience in my youth, I remember encountering an occasional “No” and even an annoyed “Stop that!” a time or two. So I did. However caught up in passion I was, it would simply never have occurred to me to force the issue in any way. Who would do that?
Though my parents never once talked to me about sex, there was plenty enough of it in the air and even in high school physiology class in my formative years through the ‘60s. So information wasn’t a problem. More critical to my formation was my parents’ own comportment in treating all people with kindness and respect, which couldn’t help but bleed into my sex life. It is all part of the same fabric, in the end.
I don’t expect any medals for that; it’s just part of trying to be a decent human being. It’s about the quaint notion of “manners.”
Lordy, what would these men’s mamas say?
A woman friend sardonically pointed out to me the other day, though, that there’s at least one silver lining for men in all this upheaval: the stories of Weinstein et al are lowering the bar to such depths that males may soon be hailed as heroes simply because they’ve never raped or assaulted anyone.
Sex is a glorious activity for many reasons, not the least of them being how it sweeps up both our baseline animal natures and the farther reaches of spiritual communion, making of those a oneness of fully absorbed, exposed, tender and tendered love. It doesn’t deny the primitive want and need of the animal, but neither does it limit its expression to that. (Well, maybe sometimes, in wam-bam nooners…)
When it becomes debased by coercion and threats, fear and manipulation, sex becomes a variant of conquest and war. It is seizing territory and enslaving its inhabitants, to be used as you will, for your own selfish, self-enclosed ends.
I depart, however, from the common expression that sexual assault isn’t about sex, but only power. It is indeed about sex—the power to have it whenever you want, by force, the other person be damned, their needs and desires and very humanity denied.
As in all such crimes, though, the dehumanizing of victims negates most of all the humanity of the perpetrators. And it closes all parties off to any shred of the joy that sex is designed to provide as perhaps our most noble birthright.
In this way, sexual assault does great injury to the human project, keeping half the population looking anxiously over its shoulder and the other half tainted as possible perps. Now, the great Me, Too Tidal Wave of 2017 carries within it, let us hope, some potent, sobering seeds of reckoning and transformation.
Truly, we seem to be at a watershed, the dam of shame and fear that for so long held back protests and accountability finally giving way. What males do to examine and talk about and temper their behavior now—and what females do in being silent about it no more—will go a long way toward determining whether we are doomed to live with these same dynamics for several hundred thousand more years, or find a new way fit for a better, more fulfilled and fulfilling human being than we have thus far managed to become.
“I give myself to you in sweet surrender,” sang Johnny Hartman, accompanied achingly here by John Coltrane. Now these guys knew the woo…
Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. See more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Muddied daffodil by Andrew Hidas: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/
Actaeon statue photo at the Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina, by Don Sniegowski:
Ape by Anthony Anastas: https://www.flickr.com/photos/136259016@N06/
In my younger days, I was pretty much the poster child for “american primitive”. I loved my aggressive instincts and revealed in the testosterone fueled bath that was adolescence. As you have outlined in this essay, people who are civilized learn to “bend toward justice” and become, well, people… Many obviously do not, preferring to maintain the haze of the teenage mind in their relationships with the opposite sex. It is funny that men can learn to write, to eat without grossing out an entire table, not fart in public, cease mooning out of car windows, but cannot seem to let go of the opportunistic, predatory urge in male-female relationships. Why that be?
Moon, I can’t help marveling at your typo above: that intended “reveling” instead becoming “revealing.” Oh, how appropriate that is! Sometimes perfect typos manage to say more than one intended…
As for your final rhetorical question, I hope these reflections gave you at least some food for thought toward answering it. Or at least pondering it further in a productive way. Thanks for this!
THANK YOU for this expressive, timely and sorely needed address of this painful topic.; it is greatly appreciated. Knowing that many men are sickened and disheartened along with us is encouraging.
My feelings on this topic are as simple and as complicated as anyone’s. The abiding sense I now have is that the public exposure of this pervasive, insidious issue is just the tip of the iceberg. By that I mean that sexual predation, exploitation and harassment are the obvious manifestations of much deeper and knotty underlying issues.
Every time MeToo has come up in any group I’ve been in, every woman I know has a personal story to share, from bleak and nasty to outright horrifying. We never forgot. We also remember being passed over, prized for being pretty, sweet, accommodating and passive. Waiting to be noticed. The world has changed a lot. We are now doctors, lawyers, dentists, construction workers, company presidents. The world has obviously NOT changed, as well. Some of our earlier passivity and travails might make for funny anecdotes if our daughters weren’t still fighting many of the the same battles, if it wasn’t so obvious that so many of our sons (they all are someone’s son, someone’s brother, somebody’s dad) are struggling, unhealthy, dangerous.
So many men feel entitled to “take” and so many women feel powerless. There are a million reasons; reasons that make up the cultural sea we swim in, the air we breathe. Better than it was for our mothers, yes, yes, and yet. As you stated, men are rewarded for being aggressive and decisive, women for being compliant. It so often has tipped over into entitlement on one side and silence on the other.
The underlying issues underneath that iceberg are so pervasive as to seem invisible. Many of us have known about that submerged iceberg for years and now as an entire culture we finally seem to be looking harder. That iceberg shows up in the media, at the workplace, television, movies, on the sports field, in packaging: its everywhere. We see it each and every day, from the unchallenged sexist remark to little girls going to beauty pageants and cheer-leading camps as they learn to attract and support the athletes instead of being one. We see it in our political process and the economic choices and policies made by our government. We see it in insurance claims. We see it in the incessant pressure that comes from judging women by their appearance and all the industry and commerce that capitalizes on that standard by promoting insecurity in the pursuit of a distorted feminine ideal. I read today that, as a result of this growing awareness, some women are finally beginning to re-think the agony and mobile dysfunction of wearing stiletto high heels. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/16/fashion/the-end-of-high-heels.html?_r=0 Seems like a no-brainer to me, but its also more than obvious that being sexy sells (and thus that accompanying voice in our ears: what are you if you are not attractive?) A useful yardstick might be for women to think of how men approach the triangle of fashion, comfort and utility when making clothing choices. Restricted movement and pain? Yeah, right.
And whatever do young boys and girls think in 2017 as the daily news is ever more frightening, confusing and disgusting. Can they trust anyone? Can they trust themselves as they attempt to navigate the impulses and confusion wrought by raging hormones? How can they take pleasure and pride in being young and beautiful without feeling that attractiveness is their only currency, conquest their only medal? How do we help them?
Its right that we call out these predators, and equally important that we find a healthy way forward.
The healthy way forward begins with talking about it, beginning to REALLY wake up to the pervasive and destructive nature of sexual exploitation, and imagining and demanding a different way of being. Thank you to the brave women who have stepped up and spoken out. Thank you as well, Andrew, as you join the ranks of reflective and intelligent authors who admit that this is real and encourage us to keep going, to work toward a more respectful and healthy world.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes to that, too, Angela, and to that other point you made as well. And also the others….
I’m just going to let this stand as the eloquent testament & plea that it is, for which I thank you very much.
Personally this #MeToo movement has been one of great awareness, sadness, and frustration. I can honestly say that before it started I was completely unaware of the daily plight that so many women have to endure. From one day to the next my Facebook feed was filled with women proclaiming their #MeToo moment. It saddened me to my core because I couldn’t help but think that because of my ignorance, I was some how in some way responsible for their pain. Because I never stopped long enough to pay attention to the struggles of the women around me, I helped perpetuate a system in which they were so many times the victim. Instantly I was reminded of a quote from A. Phillip Randolph that couldn’t be more true for this topic and so many others, “If you are comfortable with my oppression, then you are my oppressor”.
As man after man gets exposed of their wrong doings I can’t help but get frustrated that this system we created has gone on for this long. I asked my wife and many other women, “how could this be happening everywhere and nobody said anything”? No matter who I asked, they shared the same answer. “Nobody says anything because of the fear of what will happen”. This is the part of the equation that we need to immediately fix. The male aggression as you stated is something that’s been there for generations. Don’t get me wrong, we must address it, but because it’s so deeply embedded in our society, it will be slow to change. We need to change our standards, teach our future generations what’s appropriate behavior and so on. However while we fix this root cause, we must immediately create an environment where women feel safe. Safe to speak their minds, safe to point out their abusers, safe to simply come to work and do their jobs or go to school and learn.
By far the biggest frustration in this entire chain of events has been seeing the two sides of the political spectrum and how they have dealt with it. One side calls for people’s resignations, the other side turns a blind eye because they need a vote. In some cases even going as far as justifying their insanely disgusting actions. We have people who have admitted on audio and in books of predatory behavior and they are still fully supported and glorified. It is that behavior that unfortunately proves that this will be a long drawn out multi generational shift. It’s incredibly frustrating because in no way should this be drawn out for any longer then it already has been.
Having a wife “in the business” as they say, has brought me a greater sense of awareness. Her stories are abundant and sadly are proof that this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many more that will be exposed and hopefully knocked off of their predatory perches. Wouldn’t it be great if we were brave enough as a country to start from the top.
Thank you, Ryan. Lots to think about there. I’ve kept looping back in this blog over its entire five years to the notion that history, culture, minds and consciousness evolve slowly, jaggedly, a step forward here, a sidestep there, then half a step backwards, retrenchment, a tiny lurch forward, and so on and on, And that justice and freedom can be fragile things, worthy and needful of our attention and protection. Perhaps the current administration’s one gift to us amidst all its bombast is this realization that democracy isn’t a given and that things can fall apart, so the mobilization around that has been intense, widespread and sustained. The #MeToo Movement has only added further fuel to all those fires.
Something tells me all these women—not only those stepping forward to say “Me Too,” but all the others who are supporting them, watching, fully energized, will not be backing down and going back to the way things were. There’s too much out in the open now, too much consciousness raised among both genders on just how serious and unacceptable the oppression of women has been. As disturbing as these times are, the cause is righteous, and the conflict seems to he heading toward real, systemic change. Never easy, never in a straight line, but it still strikes me as enormously productive and hopeful for the future. We’re getting there—inch by inch…
One final thought: I try to keep remembering that a woman was elected president last year by nearly 3 million votes. No small thing, that…
“One final thought: I try to keep remembering that a woman was elected president last year by nearly 3 million votes. No small thing, that…”
Thats a Great point!
A great big thank you to Angela for her wise thoughts. Time is short during the holidays and we are grateful she took the time and effort to explain what so many of us feel.
I especially liked this part:
“We see it in the incessant pressure that comes from judging women by their appearance and all the industry and commerce that capitalizes on that standard by promoting insecurity in the pursuit of a distorted feminine ideal. I read today that, as a result of this growing awareness, some women are finally beginning to re-think the agony and mobile dysfunction of wearing stiletto high heels….”
Shoes you can’t run in, clothes so short or tight you find it hard to bend over, giant expensive handbags to haul around. Too often, the stylish woman is just an encumbered lady-child. And that’s what is seen as sexy to men and attractive to women?? Heaven help us.
Treating young women as fodder is nothing new, and should make the predators and everyone around them ashamed. It makes me so angry, in fact, I can’t write about it any more. Harassers, beware: we’re not cute when we’re angry.