There was the man giving 16-year-old me a ride on a motorcycle. There was the 30-something woman who used to drive teenage me to my addiction support group. The male newspaper editor who stopped commissioning my articles. The male mentor. The married landlady. The female magazine editor. All groping, pressuring, harassing, abusing.
Most importantly, there was the girlfriend of a friend of my mother’s who took 14-year-old me to an abandoned shed and took my virginity, leaving me isolated and lost and silenced because she was part of the network of adults who were supposed to be my supports.
Our culture does not do enough to teach boys to think there might be anything wrong with these things. I didn’t understand for years, until a therapist gently explained power dynamics to me, that I had been raped. But did I want it? I did. “Then, it wasn’t rape,” people have told me. A 14-year-old boy having an adolescent physiological reaction is not the same as being in the position to offer informed consent.
Over the years, the message I received was that my experiences didn’t qualify me to participate in the conversation about sexual harassment and abuse. Or at least, if I wanted to participate, I would have to accept the mantle, as a privileged white, cisgender man, of potential abuser. It has been easier to participate as an ally and keep quiet about my own experiences.
There was a thought, also, that a man speaking out about abuse somehow blurred the conversation about the abuse women suffered. Similarly, even I wondered whether the actor Anthony Rapp should have remained silent about his accusation against Kevin Spacey. I wondered if it would fuel homophobia. But isn’t finding reasons for why survivors should remain silent part of the problem?
Now, as a self-identified feminist man who has survived abuse, I wonder how and if I should participate in the #MeToo conversation. It is true that I cannot know what it is like to be a woman in this misogynist society. As many abuses as I have suffered, I don’t, like so many women, suffer them day in and day out. So I took pause when, as I was thinking of writing this column, a woman friend texted me, “The conversation is not about sexual abuse, it is about misogyny.” Another wrote: “Why turn what should be an awareness raising thing for groups that are consistently oppressed back to you?”
It is important, first, to say that predators like Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, and all the not-famous others should be rooted out, removed from positions of power, and punished. As a society, we must take up this moment to refuse such behavior, and we must all put pressures on the centers of power to make it so. Women, to be sure, are in far more danger from the system of patriarchy than men.
Men have been called upon to admit complicity in sexual harassment and abuse of power.
That said, isn’t it then important to continue the conversation and include, at least to some extent, all who are oppressed by our society’s systems of injustice, including men? If there is to be a meaningful conversation about how to get men to behave better, might it need to include questions of what it is like to be a man and, maybe more importantly, a young boy?
In the #MeToo campaign, men have been called upon to admit complicity in sexual harassment and abuse of power. But what about the other ways men and boys are bound up in this terrible mess? A culture where men like me are not able to discuss with legitimacy and empathy the abuses they have suffered – let alone their day-to-day feelings – becomes a system where men abuse others because they can’t even name abuse in their own lives. There is much research showing that unacknowledged abuse often transforms into insensitivity to the abuse of others.
Within social media, men are allowed stereotypically masculine expressiveness: “Trump is an asshole.” Yet we are not allowed to say, “I feel hurt by the #MeToo conversation. I don’t understand the anger that is coming my way” – a less masculine exposition. That men cannot sensitively explore and vulnerably participate is a reinforcement of the type of maleness that supports the culture of misogyny.
For my own part, when I feel pressure not to discuss the abuses I have suffered, the conversation can feel too painful to meaningfully participate. A wish to retreat rises up amid a lot of other feelings, such as the deep sadness at hearing what has happened to so many of my women friends and the fear for what could happen to my own daughter. But my feelings of wanting to participate – while feeling that I am not welcome to do so – tells me something about what it is like for other men who would like to contribute but are less accustomed to the invective.
Ultimately, here is what I would most like to contribute to the #MeToo conversation: It isn’t the expression of maleness but the suppression of maleness that is the problem. If, that is to say, maleness is the expression of the fullness of what men have inside them, then the fact that we are taught to suppress so much leads to expressing only that which overpowers us – like fear, anger, and aggression.
Boys are taught not to cry, not to discuss feelings, to be invulnerable protectors.
We have to take big risks to participate in this conversation in any role other than empowered perpetrators and accept that we may not be supported in expressing our experiences as disempowered victims. Meanwhile, boys are taught not to cry, not to discuss feelings, to be invulnerable protectors, to like violent sports, never to say we are lonely, not to cuddle other boys – all of which would be natural parts of maleness if they weren’t suppressed.
Recently, I have heard mothers saying that they will take a hard line with their boy children about issues related to #MeToo. What concerns me is the possibility that the “good” parts of the boys will be shamed into hiding. How can we bring the fullness of maleness into the light – promote its goodness instead of only detesting its badness. It worries me that telling boys not to express themselves and to retreat further into themselves is the opposite of what’s needed. They need instead to learn to safely express and heal what troubles them.
Of course, abuse of women is not an appropriate response to the pressures faced by men and boys. But in what ways do these pressures contribute to the cycle of abuse and can they really be ameliorated in an “us versus them” style conversation? I don’t think so. The fix requires us to realize that our culture is diseased and that we are all tainted. There is only “us.”
Without nuance, we are stuck with “women are good” and “men are bad” or “men are abusers” and “women are victims,” still stuck within a system of oppression and violence. That is easy and simple and good for slogan writers, but it lacks the truth of where humanity resides.
I’m not asking that men have equal time in this conversation. Men speak too loudly and too much, for sure. But think of the important conversations we can have if men are encouraged to speak authentically and vulnerably. “Men? What is going on that some of you act this way?” Listening to the answers, maybe we would find more solutions.