October 24, 2017
Women in Manhattan seem immune to the world’s noise. I’m back in New York, parked at Patti Smith’s haunt, Dante’s on Macdougal Street in the Village. I’ve been trying to shake the weight of daily news but I just happen to be here to do an interview for CBS News. Seeing New York women, badass in black, feels like an opposite reality from the exploitation capital of Los Angeles, but I don’t doubt that most of these women (Is it okay to use the term “broads” in NYC?) have plenty of #metoo stories, as well. Isn’t this the birthplace of the catcall? Or was that Mainstreet USA?
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, one thing is clear. Okay, two things are clear if you count how right-wingers have used Weinstein mess as a sociopathic attempt to go after Hillary Clinton while pretending to care about the victims. Where were these faux feminists when the similar charges were being levied at Donald Trump and half the male personalities and leadership at Fox News? Liberals in Hollywood ran Weinstein out on a rail and the National Organization of Women is demanding his arrest. Bill O’Reilly paid out millions in settlements and is still a conservative hero. And Trump. Oh, all those women (going back at least to 1992) must all be lying.
But the other thing that is clear is that, once “Me, too” started popping up on people’s Twitter and Facebook feeds last week, this issue was not just a Hollywood casting couch story. It was an American story. I don’t think I have a woman in my life that doesn’t have a sexual harassment horror story, including my own mother. Nearly as many have rape and sexual abuse stories. If anything, thanks to social media and a hashtag, the lid has been blown off the worst kept secret in America. The disempowerment of women and girls by men and boys might be systemic, but it plays out daily on a personal and personally devastating way with no systems involved.
I have no way of knowing how much of a sea change this is. It feels huge. Just hearing conservative women say, “Me, too” is significant. My hope is all those anecdotes are being read, heard, and processed by the boys and men whose eyeballs they pop up in front of. It’s certainly impacted me. There is the anger, of course. My wife posted a story of a male friend who tried to take sexual liberty with her in Seattle. We had just started getting to know each other, but I hopped in the car and drove three hours so she didn’t have to ride back with the creep. Not a rescuer, more like a dude who doesn’t mind three hours on I-5 to help a friend. I’m far from a heroic knight. My armor is tarnished.
That’s because the other emotion has been shame. In the Weinstein stories and the “Me, too” posts I’ve heard echoes of my former self. Nothing as extreme as Harvey whipping out his schmeckel and masturbating into a potted plant or O’Reilly offering to give a sexual massage with a falafel, but there might have been a moment here and there when I assumed consent, reading the subtle signs in the dance of intimacy. There were certainly things I shouldn’t have said, that, upon reflection, were probably a bit creepy or suggestive in the wrong context. And no doubt there was the minimizing of women’s concerns and a few “Don’t be so crazy”s. The fact that I can’t remember any reflects more about the normality of that kind of behavior. Weinstein tried to frame his abuses by writing, “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.” He got a lot of shit for that (as he should), but if you were there (or even if you just watched the first season of Mad Men), you know he’s sorta right. That was the (rape) culture then, and that’s it now. But the times they are a changin’.
My late teens until about 30 when I began dating my first wife, I was pretty much a heat seeking missile. As a kid who grew up learning that sex was the end goal, once it became available, it seemed like there were few limitations. My freshman dorm was the center of a lot of young men and women unchecking their libido. There was a sense of liberation from parents and the sexually repressed Southern culture on the skids. Then the punk rock scene, then going on tour with a band who, once a video became a hit on MTV, had groupies. I’ll never forget kicking a young woman out of our hotel room in Minneapolis who screamed, “You can’t kick me out, I’ve been with Winger!” That was a more clear-headed act in a world with a lot of the opposite.
I’d like to think I was the sober, respectful guy through all that, but was I? What if there was a woman who posted “Me, too” last week and her story is about an asshole she met at a show in Asbury Park, New Jersey who was relentless until she gave in? Again, I don’t think so, but maybe.
I became single again in my late-30s and forties and still had that 20-something drive as I rejoined the world of dating, hooking up, and “Hey, do you want to stay over?” As an academic feminist, I was keenly aware of power dynamics and the unspoken reality that a lot of my fellow feminists won’t acknowledge – Every single relationship has a power dynamic at work. In patriarchal culture, there is always a power dynamic between males and females. Even two same-gender twins will have a power dynamic. Just ask the one who was born second. You cannot avoid power dynamics. Sorry HR people. The issue is how you respect those power dynamics. Do you leverage them to your advantage? Harvey Weinstein sure did. But did I? Ever? Just because there were broken hearts on both sides doesn’t mean I wasn’t a dick at some point. Often?
Founding sociologist Emile Durkheim argued in 1897 that is deviance is functional because it allows for the evolution of society. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil disobedience and criminality facilitated the national conversation about civil rights and allowed the country to evolve. We should thank him for breaking unjust laws. Weinstein is no King, but this national conversation he has caused will help us to evolve away from the normality of sexual harassment. “Hey, asshole, don’t be a Weinstein!” I can here it now (and I might have needed to hear it then).
The men who hear and read “Me, too” need to more than say, “That sucks,” or post a sad-face emoji. They need to reflect how they have participated in similar harassment and sexual aggression, perhaps without even recognizing it. And certainly how we excuse our male peers from the ease of sexual domination. A big part of (male) privilege is that the behaviors that reinforce it are often invisible to those who do it (but not to those whom it is being done to). But when the recipients of that aggression, backed by the weight of centuries of male power, are half of our species, it’s time to see it, acknowledge our part in it, and stop it. Just stop it.