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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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/