Brett Kavanaugh and Bro Culture: Let’s Look in the Mirror

Sept. 28, 2018

Judge Brett Kavanaugh and I are basically the same age. He’s almost a full year younger than me and a lot more bourgeoise. But the summer of 1982, we were probably pretty similar characters. He was hanging out at the country club in Deleware, and I was hanging out in punk rock bars in London. He was drinking a lot of beer at 17 and I was trying to be vegan at 18. But we were both teenage boys surrounded by Rocky images of masculinity and the patriarchal notion that God or the gods put all the world’s women on Earth for us to enjoy.

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The difference is that I never tried to rip the clothes off of 15-year-old girls. My warped perception of male entitlement only went as far as envying the shower scene in Porky’s. I was sexually shy that summer, but he seemed to have an action plan.

Watching the testimony yesterday morning of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was gut wrenching. I have to think that millions of women (and plenty of men) were both transfixed and transported back to their own moments of violation. The trauma of sexual assault isn’t a wound that is just healed by time. We don’t expect war veterans suffering from PTSD to “just get over it,” yet there seems to be some statute of limitations on the waves of devastation caused by sexual violence. Dr. Ford was calm but fragile, as she relived her deep-rooted trauma. Kavanaugh’s hysterical testimony, full of conspiracy theories about the Clintons and “Democratic hit jobs,” would have been derided if he had been a female, but men are allowed to use their anger as a cudgel in absence of the truth. “He must be right, look how loud he is yelling.” (And aren’t judges supposed to be politically impartial. This is like giving Fox News a seat on the Supreme Court.)

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The underlying message is that the starting assumption is men are truth tellers and women are liars or patsies. Welcome to Anita Hill Redux. You haven’t come a long way, baby. And yes, maybe Ford was mistaken and Kavanaugh is innocent, but his “defense” didn’t convince a single rape victim. No matter how impressive your resume is and how many times you’ve flown on Air Force one and how much you lean on the wisdom of your daughters, good men can do bad things. His credentials don’t shield him from abusive behavior. It’s not good people vs. evil monsters, us vs. them. It’s just us.

As I recently wrote with regard to race, not only do we all internalize white supremacy, infecting each of us with a degree of racism, so to we all internalize misogyny, infecting each of us with a degree of sexism. We might not say it out loud, but we (men and women) are socialized to believe that “male” is the norm (a message delivered by your mailMAN each day), and women are, as Simone de Beauvoir called it, the second sex. I’ve written a great deal about the challenges of being a male feminist when the go-to switch in your head says women are “girls” and secondary or sexual objects. I am a racist and a sexist. Brett and I both learned these lessons long before 1982. The difference seems to be that I seek to purge the sexism within me and he has chosen to deny its existence. I half expected him to pull a Trump and claim, “I’m the least sexist person you’ll ever meet!”

Part of the gendered message we get early on is that men stick together to maintain their authority. “Bros before hos,” the frat boys chant. That male bonding was evident in the predatory behavior of teenage Kavanaugh and his wing-man Mark Judge and it is evident in the Republican men of the Senate Judiciary Committee who are desperate to give this bro a lifetime appointment on the high court. Bro culture reinforces patriarchy from the ball field to fraternity row to the senate chambers.

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But it’s easy to point to Brett Kavanaugh as the supreme douchebag of the land, who may or may not have spent Beach Week ’82 plying underage girls with grain alcohol. Whether or not he makes it on the court, he will always be known as the “rapey judge.” Kavanaugh is “them.” We need to focus on us and how our own internalized misogyny creates the rape culture that allows credentialed dicks like Kavanaugh to rise to prominence. If the rise of the alt-right is an opportunity for this country to explore the damage done by white privilege and normalized racism, the Kavanaugh hearings are an opportunity for us to confront our issues with male privilege and normalized sexism.

Brett Kavanaugh isn’t the problem. He’s a symptom of the problem. As my wife and I watched Ford’s testimony, we wondered if our daughter would be telling her own stories of sexual trauma one day, trying to convince a panel of old men about the lifelong damage created by one single act. Trump and his old boy network are fighting tooth and nail to make sure that #metoo is just a fad and the old regime stands firm, so I am desperately worried my daughter will encounter her own Brett Kavanaugh at some point.

But if we men can take a deep dive into our own sexism, our simple dismissal of women and all things feminine, we might put an end to the uproarious laughter of boys who have a girl locked in a room and see her dehumanization as sport. We might delegitimize the delegitimization of women and girls. We might keep my daughter safe by surrounding her with boys and men who see her not just as somebody’s daughter but as somebody. We might be able to undo what we have done for so long.

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Guest Essay: The Status of Women

May 31, 2018

I like to occasionally feature the work of the only actual award-winning writer in the house, my wife, Andrea. She really pulls the #metoo moment together in this essay.

The Status of Women

by Andrea Barrios

Guest Essay

To paraphrase what Walidah Imarisha stated in her Martin Luther King, Jr. speech: wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world without the triple evils: militarism, materialism and poverty? Without the militarism that has placed neighbor against neighbor in Myanmar, sparking the Rohingya refugee crisis, or the genocide the military carried out under the government’s veil in Guatemala. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where instead of valuing the vain interactions of our online personas trying to out-buy ourselves into acceptance and determine our self-worth measured by likes and followers, we valued more meaningful human connections? A world without the racism that puts up walls between human beings that would otherwise discover they have so much more in common than different. The kind of racism that makes some proclaim that “all lives matter” while they sit idle as young African Americans are shot or suffocated to death and immigrant families are torn apart. Indeed, it would be nice, and even finer if you could live in that world as a man. In a perfect world, men and women’s idea of a perfect world would be the same, but in reality, women have an additional set of visions of what makes a perfect world, and their world does not include sexism and misogyny. In the words of the man with the dream himself, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” Like Imarisha mentions, women might have never seen a world imagined without sexism and misogyny, but lucky for the world, we’ve been taking that first step all along, and will continue to climb our way out of the fiction.

I, like many other women, imagine what our daily lives would be like if those specific evils that haunt us women were to suddenly evaporate. I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where I don’t have to worry about the simple act of walking to and from class without having to clench my pepper spray in my hand, a world where I felt completely free to just walk. I wonder what it would be like to be treated with respect regardless of how I look and how my hair decides to lay that day. A world where my decisions and expressions aren’t attributed to my being a woman or my anatomy. A world where I am not infantilized in the workplace or in the classroom, after all, I’ve stored my girlhood in exchange for womanhood. This world I speak of is nothing like the world I live in, so I have learned clench my fist as I walk, I speak my mind regardless of my bad hair, and although I cannot see the top, I take the steps.

As I take the steps, the freedom I do possess seems to anger my male peers. The way I walk is too confident for their liking. The way my unyielding silence rubs against their unwelcomed compliments is taken as insult. How dare I not say thank you for being acknowledged? Who do I think I am to take up space, to sway my arms without a care. Although I’ve been taught to, I no longer want to hold myself together and shrink into myself. I am the product of all the steps taken by women who came before me. Although the women in my own family have never walked across the stage at graduation, I am here because I am just as worthy of this education, and I am just as worthy of being listened to and learned from.

It is true that we cannot build that which we cannot imagine. The artist sketches out his creation before ever laying a brushstroke on canvas. The writer’s mind collects inspirations and absorbs ideas from everyday life. We cannot build without imagining, but often, the limits of what we can imagine were often not set by us. As a woman, I have come face to face with the limits set by society time and time again. You can be a leader, but be careful not to be pushy or bossy. You can be confident, but not so much that a man might feel threatened by you. As women, we bump into those limits so often that sometimes they run so deep we start to internalize and even embrace them. There are those chains that others impose on you, and those we impose on ourselves. You might ask, but why would someone who knows they are chained not just set themselves free? The truth of the matter is that women don’t hold all the keys, or if we do, they are just a tad out of reach and stretching our arms to reach them, would mean starting a fight with a system that has very defined roles for women.

There are many women taking these blind and hopeful steps. Countless women at all levels creating a path for themselves and others towards equality. The road to equality should not be a solitary journey, although it may feel like that sometimes. In order to create real change and live a closer life to the world we all imagine, we also need men’s help. We need men who are willing to offer a hand as they pull us closer to equality. We need men who will not let other men’s shortfalls become a regular event, especially when they affect girls and women directly. We need men who are willing to defend women’s rights just as much as they defend and guard their masculinity. The only way to move from symbolic solidarity to actual change is to get in motion and to act out and defend women’s rights through action, through community, through art. Action means using any means or talent one possesses and helping women carve out the path to their better world.

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The recent events taking place in our society are lingering echoes of the change that is to come. The echoes of women sharing their #metoo stories, of women and men proclaiming that #timeisup and #neveragain. Women and men are both visualizing a world where women are equal and men are set free from the chains of toxic masculinity. The real world will push back on those ideals, because its shape is so set in stone that it takes grinding and chisels to change it little by little. Step by step. For those of us who never shared our #metoo story, for those of us who are mothers and students, for those of us who are just finding our voice, know that there are steps that have already been taken for all of us, but plenty of space for growth and representation for those men and women that are ready and willing to climb.

Incels: Just the latest chapter in the war on women

April 26, 2018

When Donald Trump told CNN that the “again” in his “Make America great again” was the early 1950s at lot of white men rejoiced. Not only was that before the Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) and the pesky civil rights movement, it was before the modern feminist movement and all this nonsense about women being human beings. “Masculinist” alt right groups like the Proud Boys emerged with their own “again” slogans, including “We venerate the housewife.”

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This week’s mass killing in Toronto by a self-described “Incel” (Involuntarily Celibate) is just the latest version of this creeping misogyny by men who can’t handle the growing empowerment of women and want to drag us back to the early 1950s (or before), to a time when men’s authority went unchallenged by hashtags and rape allegations. These men have cultivated their hate online over the last decade in discussion sites like Reddit and 4chan, safe places to express their hatred of women, feminism, as well as their fantasies about raping and murdering females.

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The backlash against female empowerment of women is nothing new. It was there in the 1920s when suffragettes fought for the right of women to vote. MAGA men claimed that women’s vote would turn the White House into the “pink house.” In the 1970s a “men’s movement” emerged to counter the women’s movement (that often characterized sexist men as “male chauvinist pigs”). In her seminal 1991 book, Backlash : The Undeclared War Against American Women, Susan Faludi describes how these men’s groups would meet in the woods trying to reclaim their “true” caveman selves while “their women” struggled for equality in a “man’s world.”

The internet has given the male supremacy movement a new safe space to dislocated men to clamor for the return to the “natural order” in which men didn’t have to worry about sexual harassment claims, being shamed for their love of porn, or the “weaker sex” busting their balls for whatever gender transgression they’ve committed this week. The Manosphere is full of the most toxic masculinity they can muster because, hey, that’s their right, and bros before hos, right fellas?

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Which brings us to Alek Minassian, the socially awkward IT guy who drove a rental van onto a Toronto sidewalk this week killing 10 people, mostly women. Before the attack, Minassian posted on his Facebook page, “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys!” (Chads and Stacys are men and women who have normal sex lives.) He also posted praise for Elliot Rodger, who went on a 2014 shooting spree at a college campus in Santa Barbara, killing six people and injuring 14 others. Rodger posted YouTube videos and a manifesto about his hatred of women who had sexually rejected him. Minassian referred to Rodger as the “supreme gentleman” on his Facebook page.

The alt right has often been derided as “losers in their mothers’ basements” waging a troll war from behind their laptops. A better description is young white men unequipped to manage the demographic changes occurring in the world. Civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, and other liberation movements feel like assaults on their “God-given” authority. The erosion of the their privileges feels like oppression to them. The shift towards a more fair and inclusive society threatens to drag them out of their castle, so it’s time to man up and end this “equality” nonsense.

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I spend way too much time with these bros in their online boys club. Some of their bitching has merit. Factory jobs have been replaced by low-wage service sector jobs. But instead of focusing their anger on the globalization of capitalism, they blame everyone else, from immigrants to feminists. In 1953, women often married the first man that asked them. Now women actually have lives of their own and these boys hate it. Shockingly, their retro views of gender get in the way of them getting any satisfaction. (Mick Jagger figured it out, but they seem incapable.) They are perpetually cock-blocked by empowered women who are in control of their own sexuality. Past generations of sexually frustrated nerds had comic books or video games to calm their blocked libidos. These guys have the internet as a platform for their frustration. Spend 15 minutes in the echo chamber of these “incels” and you’ll get where the violent rage comes is headed. It’s not their fault they can’t get laid. It’s everyone else’s fault, especially the “sluts” that won’t have sex with them.

We shouldn’t worry too much about an “incel rebellion,” but these men’s inability to navigate the changing gender landscape should be cause for great concern. In the political realm they’re determined to drag us back to 1953 (or even better, the Dark Ages, because, you know, Game of Thrones and all that “awesome raping”). But there is likely a further body count to come, adding to Santa Barbara, Toronto, and all men who kill “their” women for not submitting appropriately. If we don’t find a way to reach these boyish men with a more meaningful and loving version of masculinity, their hatred of women will turn even more frightening.

“You’re gonna need a shotgun” Raising a daughter in a rape culture

September 7, 2017

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I was speaking at a civil rights conference in Michigan this week and over lunch I was having a conversation with a jovial guy who worked in law enforcement. Since it’s always a unifying topic, we began chatting about our children. I showed him a cute pic of Cozy milking a cow at the Oregon State Fair. “You’re gonna need a shotgun,” he said.

I wish it was the first time I’d heard that line. Even before Cozy was born, when friends, family, or strangers heard we were having a girl, the calls for “better get a shotgun” came from men of all ages.

I understand that these men are trying to be cute, but it always injects two thoughts into my head; 1) I don’t want a gun, and 2) thanks for reminding me that boys and men will try to rape my daughter.

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I mean, isn’t that what that line means? If Cozy is hanging out with a boy that she likes, it’s her time, her body, her choice. Right? It’s only if said boy crosses some boundary into nonconsensual douche-baggery that hero dad is supposed to rush in with his 12-gauge Remington to rescue his damsel in distress by threatening to blow this kid’s head clean off. “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

I’m not buying it.

What patriarchal vision has a father guarding his daughter’s window, weapon loaded, to make sure sex-crazed boys don’t rob her of her precious virginity? Cozy can arm herself with the wisdom to surround herself with the type of boys who can use the front door. I’m trying not to think too much about her inevitable transition into a sexual being, but my hope is she will own it responsibly without the anxiety of a father who wants her locked in a chastity belt, or who is lying in wait, with a Winchester across his lap.

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The cute line about shotguns is more an acknowledgement of the rape culture we must raise our daughters in. I can trust that Cozy will make good choices with the boys (and/or girls) in her life and know how to shut down any unwanted advances (and accept the wanted ones). We will load her up with lines from TLC (“I don’t want no scrub.”) and bell hooks (“There can be no love without justice, asshole.”) But the harsh reality is that there will probably be boys and men than blast right though those defenses.

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Self-report studies have found that one in four women in America will be raped in their lifetime, many numerous times. The numbers are even more bleak for the more broadly defined “sexual assault.” He may not force his penis into her, but “just” grabbing her breasts may be enough to demonstrate who is boss. The same research shows that only 22% of rapes are committed by strangers, the majority are men known to the victim. This might happen in a dormitory, on a date, at a family gathering, or all of the above. It could be a boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, or thinks-he’s-a-boyfriend, or all of the above. There is no place that girls and women are safe from the potential of unwanted sexual contact; not home, not work, not school. So I know this, and it kills me that Cozy will know this, too.

We’ve tried raise a generation of girls who can defend themselves. We’ve given them guns, pepper spray, German Shepherds, and rape whistles. We’ve taught them how to walk in groups, cover their drinks in bars, and trust their guts about guys who give off rapey vibes. But we haven’t done a very good job teaching boys and men not to rape. When their presidents and faux-medieval TV heroes do it, you can understand why they might think they are entitled to women and girls’ bodies. According to a 1998 study by the National Institute of Justice, 1 in 33 men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. A recent University of North Dakota survey found that 1 in 3 college males would rape a female if they knew that would not face any consequences. Boys will be boys, right?

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If there’s any good news it’s that the rates of rape and sexual assault have been falling (along with the violent crime rate in general). Rape victims coming out of the shadows and sharing their stories have surely been a part of that decline. Every man has at least one woman in his life who has experienced this horror. Maybe boys need to hear these stories as well, from their mothers, sisters, teachers, doctors, neighbors. It makes all that Game of Thrones rape a bit less entertaining. I do know the decline in what is still an epidemic of sexual violence has nothing with dads chasing aspiring rapists off with shotguns.

So here’s how that conversation is going to go next time:

“You’re daughter’s very cute. You’re gonna need a shotgun”

“Why?”

“Because she’s going to have boys all over her.”

“What if she wants boys all over her?”

“What if she doesn’t?”

“So, you’re saying she’ll have guys harassing her and trying to rape her.”

“It happens.”

“And she won’t be able to take care of it herself?”

“She might not be. I’m just saying you might need that gun.”

“How about you teach your boy not to rape her and we spend that gun money on something else?”

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Postscript: A friend pointed out that also coded in this is that only pretty/skinny/cute girls are targets of rape, as if rape was an act of sexual attraction. All types of girls and women are rape. It’s about power, not sex.

Men Who Just Don’t Get It: Sexual harassment and my falafel with Bill O’Reilly

April 20, 2017

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You’ve gotta think it was pretty bad for TV personality Bill O’Reilly to get kicked out the misogynistic cesspool over there at Fox News. Papa Bear was booted from the right-wing network this week after reports surfaced that Fox had payed out more that $13 million in settlements to women over sexual harassment allegations. The grab-ass environment created by serial predator and Fox CEO Roger Ailes sounded like something from the first season of Mad Men. Meanwhile Fox News stalwarts Sean Hannity and Donald Trump have gone out of their way to defend these two men and attack their accusers. Is this 2017? Oh, right, making America “great again” takes us back before the time of pesky sexual harassment laws. Before those humorless feminists brought an end to the office party fun-fest.

Fox News is not unique. I don’t doubt that there are similar versions of this dynamic in almost every workplace, including CNN and MSNBC. The difference at Fox is that the powerful men doing this were pretty much the most powerful men in the room. Most workplaces have at least one dumb-ass guy who doesn’t know how to interact with women as fully functioning humans deserving of the same professional respect the old boys club gives each other. Like a character on The Office, his offensiveness is a product of living inside a boys club bubble.

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On the most basic level it’s inappropriate comments that female employees get on a regular basis. “Sit up straight, honey.” “Don’t let that donut spoil your diet.” “You should smile more.” “Your husband is a lucky man.” On the surface, it might seem pretty harmless. But the sheer volume is a reminder of the subordination women are supposed to endure and a reinforcement of the sexist trope that women are supposed to be seen and not heard. And if she says anything to interrupt the comments, she’s a bitch. “I was just being friendly.” “It was just a joke.” “Don’t get uptight.” Just go back to work, asshole.

The comments can be a set-up for the next level. If she’ll let a dirty joke slide and not “freak out” over a possibly inappropriate non-work related text, maybe it’s time for the quid pro quo. The offer she can’t refuse. “If you do this for me, I can open doors for you.” Or the converse, “If you don’t do this for me, you’re out on your sweet ass.” That’s where O’Reilly got busted. He’s a star and, according to President Trump, “when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” One too many women said “no” to Old Bill, and without Ailes there to protect him, he’s now out on his blotchy keister.

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I’ve heard so many versions of this story from women, including my own mother who filed a complaint with the EEOC in the 1980s in a pretty egregious case. She was brave to say “no more,” but lost the case because the other victims were afraid to come out of the dark. Those women wanted to keep their jobs and my mother lost hers. But in this day of texts and emails and instant messages, there’s a lot more evidence to file successful claims. These days it’s more likely there will be a settlement or maybe the harasser will be removed. (Although both Ailes and O’Reilly leave with millions of dollars in severance.)

I know I have been guilty of making inappropriate comments, thinking I was just being funny. As a feminist sociologist, I’m on guard, but I’ve made my share of mistakes. The difference is, if a female colleague, student, or even Facebook friend were to say, “Hey, I don’t think that’s appropriate,” I would immediate stop and evaluate what I said or did. That’s because I respect women and don’t want them to think I’m a douchebag. I know my male privilege could dictate that I just blow it off. “Maybe it’s that time of the month.” But I’ve learned (often from mistakes) that if you don’t have women as your allies, you’re alone in Guyland. That might have been cool when you were a teenage “bro,” but it’s no place for an adult male.

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On September 26, 2005, I made my first (and now last) appearance on The O’Reilly Factor. I was brought on as a hate crime expert to discuss death threats that had been made against New York Yankee Derek Jeter for dating a white woman. This was when Bill was being sued by former producer Andrea Mackris for sexual harassment. She recorded him saying all kinds of a wack-a-doo things while using a vibrator on himself, including this gem:

So anyway I’d be rubbing your big boobs and getting your nipples really hard, kinda kissing your neck from behind… and then I would take the other hand with the falafel thing and I’d put it on your pussy but you’d have to do it really light, just kind of a tease business….

(No wonder Donald Trump loves this guy.) Now let me say this – consenting adults are allowed do and say all kinds of freaky-deaky things. If Bill O’Reilly wants to propose rubbing Mediterranean food on a female partner’s vagina while he’s got a Magic Wand up his butt, that’s their business. I don’t judge. (And I think he meant loofah, not falafel). But Mackris contends it was unwanted. ““Tyrannical and menacing” is how the suit describes the contact by O’Reilly, who was (of course) married at the time.

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O’Reilly didn’t propose any such shenanigans with me. (Although during the over-the-phone pre-interview I mentioned that I was just finishing my falafel and was almost disinvited from the no spin-zone.) But he did make the interview all about him. I tried to talk about lingering racist anger at inter-racial couples and he went off about how gets death threats all the time and it’s just the price of fame. (Al Franken later told me that this was a complete lie and there are no documented death threats against Bill.) The interview ended with O’Reilly saying, “OK Professor, you get the last word.” And then he cut me off mid-sentence to blather more about his persecution.

Bill O’Reilly is a 67-year-old narcissist who will probably never get it. He doesn’t think he did anything wrong and the current President of the United States of America doesn’t think he did anything wrong. But there are a lot of young guys who look up to these old men as role models. Their victims will suffer without the millions of dollars Fox News paid out in hush money. And now the low-level dickwads who are telling their female co-workers to “Sit up and smile more,” have some pretty powerful icons on their side.

But times are changing. The old guard is dying and a new band of brothers is going to defend their sisters. The banishment of Bill O’Reilly should encourage all victims of sexual harassment to speak out. No one is allowed to get away with this. Not the guy who works in the pizza shop, or the law firm, or even a guy who has his own TV show. And certainly not the guy who lives in the White House. So bros, grow up. If a woman tells you, “I don’t think that’s appropriate. Please stop.” – don’t blame it on her period. Check yourself.

To report a case of sexual harassment, please visit the EEOC website: 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

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