Masculinity Isn’t Toxic. Toxic Masculinity Is

March 9, 2018

I first started writing about toxic masculinity five years ago. I presented a research paper entitled, “Two Hours Without My Game Face: Inmates Discuss Prison Visitation and Toxic Masculinity” at the annual convention of the Pacific Sociological Association in lovely Reno, Nevada. The term was new and mostly academic. In the wake of the Parkland, Florida mass shooting, suddenly everyone is talking about toxic masculinity and that’s a good thing. Toxic masculinity is about the corrosive effects of the performance of a certain type of male role. It’s not about all men. But trying to explain that gender is a performance makes some people’s heads explode.

Just like the blowback from those who don’t understand the concepts of white privilege or implicit bias (Mike Pence, I’m looking at you), the howls from the right have been predictable. “Masculinity is not toxic!” “It’s open season on men!” “Toxic masculinity is a myth!” Blah, blah, blah. Fragile masculinity at work. I hope these snowflakey blokes don’t own AR-15’s.

The work on toxic masculinity comes out of the research on the experience of men in correctional facilities, most notably by Terry A. Kupers (and later, my own work). Kupers highlights the seven characteristics of toxic masculinity:

  • Extreme competition and greed
  • Insensitivity to others
  • Strong need to dominate and control others
  • Incapacity to nurture
  • Dread of dependency
  • Readiness to resort to violence
  • Stigmatization of women, gays, and men who exhibit feminine characteristics

These characteristics are common among men who are incarcerated. The predatory environment of prison encourages men to be on-guard and ready to fight 24-7. If you are not victimizing someone, you are more likely to be victimized by others. I noticed it among my interview subjects who would put on their emotional armor before reentering the prison population where they never let their guard down or unclenched their fists, even while they slept. It’s emotionally taxing but requires an emotionless willingness to be viscously violent at a moment’s notice.

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These same characteristics are now being used to describe the hyper-masculinity of school shooters. No, their violence was not caused by violent video games, but their obsession with violent media, including video games, is a symptom of this obsession with carnage, devoid of empathy. There are a number of red flags for the boys and men who become mass shooters and all are represented by Kupers’ characteristics of toxic masculinity. Nobody has ever accused a man or boy who has shot up his workplace or school of being a “nurturing” individual.

Most boys learn some version of toxic masculinity the minute they are told not to cry “like a girl,” or throw “like a girl,” or do anything “like a girl.” The devaluing of all things feminine sets boys up on a path of increasingly alienating choices. We encourage girls to be more like boys because that is seen as a path to empowerment but it might also be a path to suppressing what females have to offer, only to have it erupt in the same wanton violence males commit. (When 50% of school shooters are female, will that be heralded as “equality”?)

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Contrastingly, any boy who even starts to “act like a girl” is castigated as a sissy. “Don’t tell me about your feelings, tell me whose ass you want to kick.” “What? You want to be a ballet dancer? Quick! Buy this boy a gun!” Given the fact that women, on average, live seven years longer than men, maybe we should encourage our boys to act more like girls. I mean, if we love them.

Fortunately, there are other masculinities besides toxic masculinity. This includes peacemaking masculinity, integral masculinity, and queer masculinity. Boys don’t have to become cartoon characters of unfeeling macho men, solving problems with their fists. The easiest example is the difference between bourgeois masculinities (“Tennis, anyone?”) and working class ones. And not all working class masculinities are brutish thugs, screaming “Stella!” (Just think of Dan Conner on the sitcom Roseanne, returning to a TV near you.)

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We men have a lot to learn from women who are more relational and less self-repressing. Women suffering from mental distress don’t go on killing sprees. Research shows that women tend to be better problem solvers, facilitating team resources as opposed to men who declare, “I got this!” and then walk off a cliff. Women listen while men are talking out of their asses. Michael Kimmel, in his vitally important book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, urges parents to, instead of raising young males as “just boys,” raise just boys; boys whose masculinity is defined by their concern for social justice.

This country is turning a corner. The #metoo movement will drive out our rapist president and his “bros before hos” alt-right henchmen. The antifeminist Proud Boys with their “We venerate the housewife” bullshit will cave in from their own toxicity. Patriarchy still has plenty of sexual harassers and school shooters to offer, but the more we can raise our boys to think and act like girls, the healthier everyone will be, especially the people who won’t be dead because they weren’t shot by some boy or man having an emotional meltdown because their dad once told them not to cry “like a girl.”

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Generation Z will turn this gunship around.

February 23, 2018

A week ago I was ready to gather my family and get the hell out of this gun-crazed country. What a difference a week makes. Teenagers across the country walking out of their schools, demanding adults finally make the changes to insure their safety. Students in the Florida state house as lawmakers refuse to ban assault weapons. Kids begging President Trump to “do anything” as he held a crib sheet reminding him to act empathetic. Children throwing their bodies on the wheel and the ground in front of the White House. High school juniors going toe to toe with Senator Marco Rubio about his NRA allegiance, fearless in their contempt. It’s enough to make an old geezer like me think there might be some light at the end of the long dark tunnel.

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A week ago it felt like America was destined for a pointless mass shooting each week as another gun-male took his pathetic anger out on more innocent civilians. Then a girl named Emma Gonzalez channeled the rage of a nation held too long under the terroristic threat of the National Rifle Association. She didn’t blink and she didn’t bow. It was the tipping point. This student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who survived the worst this country has to offer stiffened her spine and single-handedly opened the floodgates of frustration and fury and put the NRA on the back foot.

Let’s just get this out there before this becomes about the “gun debate.” The NRA doesn’t care about the Second Amendment. I doubt most of its members even really know what the Second Amendment says. The NRA cares about guns sales. They are a lobbying organization for gun manufactures who depend on utilizing any tactic to ramp up weapon purchases. “Obama is gonna take away your guns!” “Hillary wants to repeal your right to carry a weapon!” “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a lots and lots of good guys with guns!” “Buy a gun for everyone in your family! Buy three!”

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The perfect example of this push to sell more guns to a freaked-out America is this moronic call to arm the teachers. This “solution” is even coming from our idiot-in-cheif in Washington. Besides the fact that the NRA spent over $31 million to get the “billionaire” elected, I would bet half of that in cash that Trump has never even fired a gun. I’m a teacher and I’ve actually fired a gun. Lots of them. In fact, I had training with the FBI on some the weapons that are being debated right now. I feel completely comfortable firing a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun but not inside the hallways of a campus full of screaming students.

What these NRA kooks ignore is that the majority of these mass shooter gun-males are on a suicidal mission to “go out on their feet in a blaze of glory.” As long as they take out a few kids before Professor Rambo shows up, they’ve achieved their goal. The thought of a well-armed faculty is not a deterrent, it’s an incitement.

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That’s why the voices of Emma Gonzales, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Delaney Tar, and all the other Lakeland, Florida students are so powerful. They don’t have time for the latest round of pointless bullshit from our “leaders.” Their lives are literally on the line. The march they organized (within one week of the slaughter of their classmates) on March 24 is being called the “March for Our Lives” and it will be the first real expression of the collective will of the post-millennial generation, Generation Z, and it’s going to be a game changer.

This fall, the babies born in Y2K will be heading off to college. Those 18 and younger, make up the most diverse and plugged-in generation ever. Most of them can’t vote yet, but don’t think that will quell their political voice. Look at how they’ve turned the tide in one week. The NRA is now public enemy number one (no matter how loudly Wayne LaPierre screams about “SOCIALISM!”). I pity any politician that has taken NRA blood money. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) took $122,802 from the NRA and should be shamed from office in November. Let their gun money hang like an albatross around their necks.

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We social movement scholars put a lot of weight on 1968 as a watershed year. Yeah, the student uprisings and unrest facilitated the election of Richard Nixon and six more years of the Vietnam War. But it also gave us the 26th Amendment, insuring that 18, 19, and 20 year-olds would forever have meaningful political power. 2018 could be Generation Z’s 1968, hopefully without all the assassinations. This is my daughter’s generation and, if she is any barometer, their energy will drive these old men into submission.

From #metoo to #neveragain, #thetimestheyareachangin. Get ready you old people, the kids are not alright and they are not going to wait for you to get your shit together. Your old road is rapidly aging. I’m ready to lend a hand. What about you? What side of history do you want to be on? These children can’t do any worse than we have.

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Our White Supremacist President

January 16, 2018

President Trump enjoyed his Martin Luther King Day off like he enjoys most of his days on, playing golf. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, those working and those not, were left wondering, just how racist is our president?

It’s not a matter of “if” anymore. And it’s not one comment here or there about African shitholes or Haitians all having AIDS. It’s his entire life. In 1973, Trump was sued by the Nixon administration for refusing to rent his properties to black tenants. His very public campaign for the execution of the black and brown teenagers, known as the “Central Park 5,” who were later exonerated through DNA evidence, wasn’t met with an apology by Trump. Instead he doubled down on his belief in their guilt. And of course there was the bizarre “birtherism” campaign he led to “prove” America’s first black president wasn’t actually American.

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There are numerous examples of this even before his 2015 campaign declaration in which he proclaimed that Mexicans were “criminals, drug dealers, and rapists.” That was the the moment, from my little room in Mexico, I wrote the piece “Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy” that helped put this little blog on the map. It might be inappropriate to say the world has given Trump enough rope to lynch himself, but, good God, how much evidence is enough? His caricatures of Chinese businessmen? No? His Muslim ban? No? His demanding that those black “sons of bitches” in the NFL stop protesting and get back to performing? No? His proclamation that there were “fine people on both sides” of the Nazi/Anti-Nazi clashes in Charlottesville? No? How many examples do you need of him devaluing non-white people and their lived experiences with racial injustice?

I’ve been asked numerous times, including by the media, if I think Donald Trump is a racist. I always try to side-step the question. Honestly, I don’t know what in the man’s heart, other than Big Mac residue. I try to make the point that he’s just ignorant of the reality of racism in this day in age. He’s lived his life in a bourgeois bubble and the only brown noses he knows have been firmly placed in his ass. He hasn’t had to know about the persistence of racism and, like many white people, probably thinks the problem was solved at some point in the 1960s by nice negroes and the benevolent white people who took pity on them.

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But screw it. No more pussyfooting around. I’ve been doing this work long enough to know it when I see it and Trump’s obviousness about this is as big as the Stay Puft Man in Ghostbusters. He’s not only a racist, he’s a Stay Puft white supremacist. And the people that still defend him are his racist enablers. This isn’t just a sad statement of the president’s bigotry. This man has power over people’s lives. Just witness how he threatened to deport the brown children and young people in the DACA program while he threw a tantrum over his racist comments being leaked to the press. I don’t doubt that he thinks lobbing a few nukes at North Korea will help him bounce back in the “ratings.”

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The revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s saw upwards of six million members across the nation (including here in Oregon). Their main rallying point was not the “negro problem,” but immigration. They promoted  “100% Americanism” and opposed immigrants “flooding” in from non-white countries as well as Jews and Catholics arriving from Eastern and Southern Europe and Ireland. The Klan was a powerful political force in America, electing congressmen, senators, and governors (including here in Oregon). Their great victory was the Johnson-Reed Act, also known as the Immigration Act of 1924. Johnson-Reed put strict quotas on immigration from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, while encouraging immigration from Northern European countries like Norway and was on the books until it’s repeal in 1965. In a 2015 interview with Steve Bannon in Brietbart, future Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised the 1924 law as an effective immigration plan. So, to be clear, the 1920s Klan wanted less immigrants coming from “these shithole countries” and more coming from Norway. Does that sound the least bit familiar?

This isn’t just me jumping on the shithole bandwagon. Trump is a textbook racist in so many ways that future textbooks on racism will be dedicated to him. But I’d like to focus on just a few, what I call Triple D racism; denial, defensiveness, and denigration.

“I’m the least racist person there is.”

Usually, when someone says, repeatedly, that they are not something, they are. But this is more than that. People who are actually anti-racist do not say they are not racist. We grow up in a racist society and we internalize that racism. I never say I’m not racist. I oppose racism but I still have racism in me and I am actively working to purge it. Like a recovering alcoholic who never says they are not an alcoholic, I will always be a racist.

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The least racist person there is would never say they are the least racist person there is. They would say they are racist but they are working every single day to rid themselves and their world of racism. Have you ever heard Trump discuss his white privilege or his implicit biases? No, of course not. What has he done to dismantle institutional racism or even his own internalized racism? I mean besides eat a Taco Bowl on Cinco de Mayo. Anyone who believes Trump’s claim to be the least racist person is as ignorant as he is about how racism actually works.

He should spend sometime with real white allies in the struggle against white supremacy if he wants to know how to sound less racist. He’s not even a good con artist.

“So much Fake News is being reported.”

Trump is a big baby. An orange snowflake. Instead of doing the people’s work, he spends his time on Twitter whining. This is a common reaction when white people get called out on their racism. They (we) reactively go into defensive mode. “I did not say that!” “I’m a good person!” “You’re lucky to have me!” This guy doesn’t see the opportunity he has. He’s too busy circling the wagons so he can kill some injuns.

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Racism is a deeply rooted facet of our society. Each time it appears in front of us there is a learning opportunity. Remember when President Obama hosted the “beer summit” after a white cop thought black Harvard professor was breaking into his own house? That’s how you do it. Trump could have made serious points here but instead he read through some staff-written script to honor MLK and then split for the golf course.

White people, listen to me! When you are accused of being racist don’t get all defensive and shut down the dialogue. Repeat after me. I’m sorry. Please help me to see this issue the way you see it. I want to understand this complex and traumatizing issue through your eyes. Thank you for helping me to grow and be a better person.

Can you imagine Trump saying that this week? There’s a better chance he’ll release his taxes.

On the attack

Of course what Trump does best is go on the attack and hit back “ten times harder.” A year a go he was attacking civil rights icon John Lewis for failing his “crime infested” congressional district in Atlanta (which we Atlantans know is one of the nicest, most livable parts of the entire South). Now he’s going after “Dicky” Durbin for spilling the beans on his latest locker room talk. Remember when, during the debates, Hillary Clinton accused Trump of being a Russian puppet. His response was, “No, you’re the puppet.” That’s the third-grade level of thinking going on here. Na na ni boo boo, stick your head in doo doo.

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Trump and his troll army at Fox News are deft at attacking their critics. Unleash the MAGA drones and make all opponents’ lives hell. (It’s the main reason I declined to appear on the Tucker Carlson show last month.) It serves to silence dissent and protect his authoritarian approach to governing. Trump is already pushing to revise federal libel laws so he can go after tell-all authors like Michael Wolf, whose best-selling book, Fire and Fury, paints a more than unflattering picture of Trump and his dysfunctional White House. Hell hath no fury like a small-handed rich guy scorned.

Getting it

It’s crystal clear that, when it comes to race, Trump just doesn’t get it and doesn’t want to get it. This a guy who in 2014 tweeted, “How is ABC Television allowed to have a show entitled “Blackish”? Can you imagine the furor of a show, “Whiteish”! Racism at highest level?” Um, you could totally have a show called Whiteish. How awesome would it be to have a sitcom that confronted issues of white privilege? (ABC, I’m available to write it.) But Trump’s brain farts are a great example of dichotomous lower-revel thinking.  Nuance must just sound “French” to him. As a rich white guy, he doesn’t get the race problem because he’s never had to and as president he could, but he’s got a tee time at 1 pm and then there’s all his “executive time”  he needs to catch up on Fox & Friends. Courting his racist base makes him feel more secure in his own racism. Merry Christmas!

Both Bill Clinton and Barak Obama promised more dialogues on racial reconciliation under their administrations and both failed miserably. But just the idea that white people need to take part in exploring how they benefit from racism, even if they are the “least racist person you ever met,” was a start. The white people who don’t want to be bothered with such silliness are now driving the nation. An NPR/Harvard poll last fall found that 55 percent of white Americans now feel whites are discriminated against. This is Trump’s base and they want to make America 1924 again.

If we hope to move forward, we’re going to have to talk our way out of this shithole. The sad part is that our president is an obstacle not an ally in our struggle against racism.

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Let’s End Duality: Make America Grey Again

January 4, 2018

To start off 2018, I’d like to take us back to a moment in 2004 when Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama said these words:

“The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”

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It seemed like a shift away a from the Bush-era divisiveness and surely played a role in Obama’s election in 2008. It’s worth pointing out that 14 percent of registered Republicans voted for a black Democrat in that election. It seems unimaginable now as we tweet and post from our red and blue state fortresses, rejecting anything that requires acknowledging the complexity of these issues. Remember Donald Trump in February saying,  “Nobody knew that healed care could be this complicated.” Oh, they knew.

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Queer Theory has been instrumental in helping people break through their binary thinking. When we are young we are taught that the sexes are “opposite.”  We are brainwashed in gender attributes that are mirror reflections. Boys are strong, girls are weak. Boys are stoic, girls are emotional. Boys are active, girls are passive. And on and on. It continues into adulthood. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Men care about foreign policy and women care about education. Most adults figure out that we have more in common that in opposition. “You have a pancreas? So do I!” Gender is not black and white. It’s many shades of grey. (A little bird told me that Vice President Mike Pence wears frilly pink panties and Donald Trump actually has a mangina.)

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I was thinking about the persistence of this bullshit dichotomy over the holidays when I read my old pal Bono kavetching that today’s music was “very girly;” that there wasn’t enough loud rock ’n’ roll like when he was a teenage boy. I flashed to the moment that a local Atlanta rock star I worked with in 1981 described the first U2 album as “whiney.” He should try saying music is too girly to Joan Jett’s face. Bono might turn off the Taylor Swift and check out bands like Savages, Diet Cig, Daddy Issues, and War on Women. There’s an explosion of women in rock right now. When I was 13-years-old I thought Kiss rocked and then I heard The Runaways’ Queens of Noise album. I’d put “Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin” against any of U2’s “guitar rock” without hesitation. If that’s girly music, give me more. The girls I know love the loud guitar. I’m a huge U2 fan but Bono is stuck in an antiquated binary.

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We don’t live a black and white world of evil doers and God’s pious peeps. We’re all sinners. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. Context matters. The yin-yang symbol makes for a cool tattoo, but Buddhism does not reduce the world into a simple duality. Taoism is based on the paradox of simultaneous duality and unity. God vs. man? The Gnostic Texts excised from the Christian Bible, make the case that Christ ends that duality. The kingdom of heaven is within you. But you don’t get that message from the Christian Church. Man keeps constructing boundaries. Here’s how you get through heaven’s gate…

Duality makes sense in the abstract world of Boolean algebra, but here in reality things are rarely occurring in opposites. It’s only freaking Thursday?? And yet it’s 2018 already! Time can move fast and slow simultaneously. Even the distinction between life and death is a blurry line at best. We let those man-made boundaries define us. A person can be born with a penis, see themselves as a female identified person, AND be attracted to women. And maybe men occasionally.

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The issue of gender queer persons makes binary thinkers’ heads explode. You have to fit into a nice socially constructed category. It’s either/or not whatever. You have a penis? You belong in the heterosexual male box. Anything else is a “transgression” against nature, or God, or that old Oxford English dictionary your grandmother gave you for your ninth birthday. Those boys and men who stray into the pink zone must be punished. You’re watching The Crown instead of the Sugar Bowl? Smear the queer! I remember it well.

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The same is true with race. You’ve got a box to fit in and that’s who you are. You are either white or non-white. Again, reality has other plans. In the 2010 U.S. Census, 2 percent of Americans identified as two or more races. That’s 9 million people. In fact, multiple-race Americans grew at a faster pace than single-race Americans (32% vs. 9.2%). More and more Americans do not fit nicely into a demographic box. Is my half-Mexican daughter “white” or “brown”? Well, when she is applying for college scholarships, she’s gonna be “Latina” when it helps. But her light skin will privilege her the majority of her “white” life.

But here we are are, in a world where the President of the United States tells transgender Americans they are not allowed to serve in the military. (Another of his many failures in 2017.) Lower-level dualistic simple thinking rules the day. Either you are with us or against us. America, love it (our way) or leave it.  Sorry, simple people; it’s just not that simple.

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The reason this is the first post of the year is that I’ve noticed a creeping problem in 2017. Both sides are stuck in a binary deadlock. If you are a conservative, anyone who identifies themselves as liberal is just a “libtard” and anything they say will be dismissed out of hand. The other side is not much better. “You voted for Trump? You must be a complete moron and incapable of rational thought.”

Americans are not red or blue. They are mostly purple. Numerous surveys show that, despite political polarization, most Americans hold both liberal AND conservative opinions about things. Not only is it a scale, it’s a sliding scale. I imagine people get more conservative as April 15th approaches and more liberal over the holidays. Some people are socially liberal and economically conservative or vice versa. Some may change their political position after a good movie or a bad arrest. I spent much of my college years hanging out with Marxists, but I don’t want to live anywhere that looks like North Korea. I think capitalism is inherently corrosive but I appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit of my local Portland businesses. I even bought something in a Wal-Mart last year. (Long story.) Am I a hypocrite or just a complex person? Most people are complex. People who voted for Obama also voted for Trump and might vote for Elizabeth Warren in 2020. My dad likes to say he’s a “Republicrat.” Make your case. He’ll listen.

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I’ve written about the need for political civility in this blog. But this is something bigger. This is about breaking away from the us vs. them lie that’s been fed to us. I’m a post-modernist. I want to destroy these artificial barriers that confine us politically, sexually, spiritually, and any other way. We are trapped in our dogmatic partisan perspectives, fearful of the natural complexity of things. This is nothing new in this country. Our founders divided themselves into federalist and anti-federalist camps. Surprise, surprise – the best reality was somewhere in the middle.

There are things we can do to break through this artificial dichotomy. Ask questions of people making opposing arguments. Find the shades of grey you can work with. Keep an eye out for polarizing language. I tell anyone who uses the word “libtard” in a Facebook debate that there is no point to engage after that. Others should do the same when I use the word “moron.” Don’t make assumptions about people in different camps. You probably have more in common than you know. Instead of trying to “beat” them, help them to understand your position. Break out of your bubble. Diversity is good for plant life and party conversations. Don’t be afraid of encountering strong arguments that undermine the position you’ve taken. Don’t be afraid.

2018 is going to be a hell year. Perhaps the most important mid-term election in this nation’s history is only eleven months away. It’s going to be emotional and people are going to be combative, defensive, and needlessly inflammatory. We could divide ourselves into two opposing factions, a new civil war. Or we could reject the red and blue traps we’ve created for ourselves and make America fully human for the first time. “Hi, I’m Ying Yang, Yeah, it’s complicated. Get to know me.”

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Watching the Wheels Turns 3: Thanks and Resistance

November 23, 2017

As you get older, measuring years in a life seems more difficult. The difference between my year as a 15-year-old and Randy at 16 seem like distinct chapters of a very logical book. I couldn’t begin to tell you how 46 was different from 45. But having a child puts you back on the clock. We’re not giving Cozy’s age by weeks anymore. (It’s 170 weeks today, if you care to know.) But the transition from 2 1/4 to 3 1/4 has been pretty grounding.

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It seems like a moment ago I was starting this blog, fully employed as a full professor at Portland State University, while the baby slept and my wife returned to work at her job at Planned Parenthood. Now we have a kid who runs the board on Candyland and likes to tell me what things really mean. Her sense of humor is as warped as her father’s. She likes to complain about our car being “stinky.” Yesterday, from the backseat, she said, “Daddy, can I tell you something crazy? If there was a stinky man here he would say, ‘I really like your car!’” I laughed so hard I almost ended up on the sidewalk.

Another year watching this child evolve as I’ve watch my country devolve. A year ago, I still was hoping that the election was just a bad dream. Now were racing towards either a version of The Handmaid’s Tale or Idiocracy. I can’t tell which is coming first. Last November, I was in New Orleans at the annual convention of the American Society of Criminology. One of my esteemed colleagues who also studies hate grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “This election might be bad for the country, but it’s going to be good for us.” Who knew how right he’d be? From the dramatic rise in bias crimes, Muslim bans, the rise of the alt-right fascists, Charlottesville, and Trump cultist who say they trust their pussy-grabbing leader more than they trust Jesus, it’s been one quick death slide of a once great country. But anybody who says the emperor has no clothes on is branded “fake news” by the MAGA police.

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It’s certainly kept me busy. I’ve done more interviews on hate crimes, the alt right, and mass shootings this year than I can count. CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera, flying to New York for CBS News (Yes, I saw Charlie Rose). I think the most surreal moment was doing an interview in a Portland hotel room with a former racist skinhead for a Canadian film crew doing a documentary on Trump-era hate and having to take a break to do an interview on Trump-era hate, via Skype, for live TV in Turkey. The world wants to know what the hell is happening in Trump America. I’ve been researching this issue for 30 years, so I guess it’s my time to join the global conversation. Hopefully, my words will help sound the alarm.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for a few things. I’m thankful that the resistance to this swing to the moronic and hateful is being countered by a growing number of Americans, including traditional Republicans. The opposition to this thing that looks more and more like fascism is sometimes noisy and annoying and might veer off message or attract its own knuckleheads, but it is vital to the salvation of the core American values. Let’s be clear, Trump and his alt-right thugs want to destroy America and remake it in their hateful image. There would be no antifa (anti-fascists) if there weren’t fa (fascists). And there are fascists. I’m thankful that people are standing up to any form of authoritarianism, including those standing up to sexual harassers and abusive police. Maybe we needed the Trump nightmare to finally ignite the red blood cells of this country.

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Most of all I’m thankful that everyone in my family is safe and healthy. We are growing in spite of this assault. My wife has to keep her green card handy and we know that the GOP, under their dear orange leader, is hellbent on taking our daughter’s healthcare away from her. But so far we are holding strong. Cozy is doing great and we are thankful for her Obamacare-funded vitamins. Knock on wood, she seems perfect in every way and doesn’t even need diapers anymore. (Thank you, Frozen undies!) A friend recently had a stroke and I know how quickly all that can change, but we are strong and ready for the winter. Our little family is mighty.

In three years this blog has engaged in discussion in lot of issues, from baby brain development to football violence, and tried to keep the feminist lens in focus. A year ago, I was writing about the children of Aleppo (who are still being bombed, btw) and lord knows what I will be writing about a year from now. (2018, make America smart again?) But I am thankful to be able to share my family’s life and my random thoughts about the state of the world. And I’m thankful that you’re here as well. Unless you’re a troll.

4 Novembers

Rape Culture and the Complexity of Consent

November 16, 2017

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I have to believe all these news stories coming out about sexual harassment and abuse are triggering some deeply held trauma by millions of women. As we know from Kevin Spacey’s reign of terror, not all the victims are female. (Terry Crews recent disclosure is a powerful example.) But it’s mostly women. We know this. For every Harvey Weinstein and Judge Roy Moore, there are countless women who must shudder each time this expanding story is reported. (Al Franken? Really, dude?) For some it takes them right back to that moment. Listening to Beverly Nelson’s account of Moore’s assault is like listening to someone frozen in a moment for 40 years.

I asked my wife how she was hearing these stories. Like most women, she has her own experience of abuse. I was worried it was bringing up difficult memories. Her emotional response was anger; that this sexual abuse was so widespread and that the conspiracy of silence surrounding it has allowed even more women to become victims. I wonder if that’s as common a response as the feeling of emotionally crumbling yet again.

A few years ago I was giving a lecture on the under-reporting of rape to my criminology students at the University of Oregon. It was a giant classroom in McKenzie Hall and I was being very social scientific about the reasons sexual assaults are not reported to the police, including the finding that 78% of rapists are known to their victims. In the middle of me laying out all these horrible facts, a young woman in the front row burst into tears and ran out the classroom. I never gave that lecture the same way again. I know when I’m talking about sexual violence, there are going to be victims in the room. I know there are victims reading this.

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I’ve written plenty about rape culture in this blog. From fraternities to #metoo, and probably too many references to Game of Thrones. As a feminist, I’ve lectured for decades that the normality of rape reinforces patriarchal power. To men, it’s an invisible reality. But to a female, every time they are in a bar, or walking to their car, or watching the local news (or Game of Thrones), there is a constant reminder that they are a potential target. And there’s a good chance that it’s already happened. Every woman understands the “rape schedule.” Few men even know what it is.

That’s why this blog post is going to push some buttons.

The complex nature of consent

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In the early 1990s, universities across the country were finally having real conversations about the epidemic of “date” rape on college campuses. As a graduate student at Emory University, I made “Fraternities and Rape on Campus,” by Patricia Martin and Robert Hummer (1989) required reading for my students. The mantra came down from on high that, “if she’s too drunk to consent, it’s rape.” It didn’t end predatory males from pouring 100 proof hunch punch down young women’s throats, but it planted the seed that the rapist isn’t just the stranger in the parking lot.

But after that clear and important message, it can get confusing.

Female agency and sex-positive feminism

Sally and Biff both get shit-faced at a party and then hook up. Did Biff rape Sally? Or did Sally rape Biff? Or was there just drunken sex with no rape? And can I even ask this question without forfeiting my membership in the National Organization of Women?

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Another book I assigned to my students, in the early-2010s, was Shira Tarrant’s Men and Feminism (2009). Dr. Tarrant was in Portland, speaking about campus rape at Reed College, so my girlfriend and I headed down to catch her talk. Reed had had it’s own issues with sexual assault by male students so the main theme was the revisiting of the “if she’s too drunk, it’s rape” mantra. Again, it’s in important message to get to young college students but I was in the middle of a much different situation with a stalker who was using her femaleness as a defacto victim status to upend my life. (Think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987).) So, feeling like some complexity was needed, during the Q&A, I asked this question:

“My mom likes to tell the story of how my dad didn’t want kids. One night she cooked my dad a big dinner and opened a bottle of Chianti and got him drunk and that was the night I was conceived. My question is, am I the product of rape and should my mother have gone to prison?”

You could hear a pin drop and then you could hear heads explode. I should point out that this story isn’t exactly true (as far as I know), but the scenario introduces something debated in feminist circles, that women have their own sexual agency. I’ve had women tell me that they got drunk with guys as an excuse to have sex with them. “If it turns out bad, I can just blame it on being wasted.” I’ve had women tell me that they slept with their professors in college like it was a sport. “We all got points for bagging Dr. So-and-so in the English Department.” I’ve had many of these conversations but I didn’t want to share them with the audience at Reed College.

We took Professor Tarrant out for a beer afterwards and talked a little bit about my situation (and my question). She admitted that when talking to undergrads you really have to start at the beginning of the issue in an attempt to keep college women from becoming victims of date rape and the spiral of consequences that follow. The more nuanced stuff must come afterwards. I’m glad she’s out there on the front lines doing this work. I’m looking for the return of the sex-positive feminists to add to the discussion.

Assuming consent

Every time I kiss my wife, I’m assuming her consent in the matter. Am I wrong? Am I sexually harassing her? Does our marriage provided a “reasonable presumption of consent”? What about marital rape? Ivanka Trump alleged that her husband raped her. Was Donald just invoking a “reasonable presumption of consent” due to their marital status? In the wake of all the recent revelations, I’ve been think about this a lot. Deep in my heart I believe I’ve never been in a romantic or sexual situation that wasn’t completely consensual, but probably most of that was based on assumptions I made at the time. Was that wrong? I’ve been very explicit the last few weeks. “Dear, my I grab your ass?” All I manage to do is annoy her with the constant request for consent.

To be clear, the cases in the news are pretty clear, including the Al Franken case. These women clearly did not want this contact. The Lewis CK case is slightly more murky. And then there are lots of cases that might be put down to misread signals and honest mistakes. Those situations really need a closer look instead of the broad assumption that all men are abusers.

When the discussions about consent and date rape started hitting college campuses in the early-1990s there was, of course, some blowback. The “masculinists” were lining up to shut down feminists. I remember one “consent” document that hit the Emory campus that laid out each of the four sex bases and required a signature from each participant on each base before moving forward. “Do both parties consent to moving to second base? If so sign here.” Talk about taking the fun out of life, liberty and the pursuit of shama-lama-ding-dong. It looked like soulless feminists were out to ruin the joy of sex. Of course it turned out the form wasn’t from the university HR department, but some dudes in a frat. Well played, assholes.

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Human sexuality is incredibly complex. Some (male/female) people like to be aggressively taken and bent over the office desk. Some (male/female) people are gold diggers or just want to bed (male/female) people who are more powerful than they are. Some (male/female) people want to have sex with (male/female) people they admire and others prefer (male/female) people that repulse them. That’s called the Louis CK dynamic. If it’s consensual, who cares? Every relationship has power dynamics at work. (How many times do I have to say that?) Philosopher Michel Foucault wrote a great deal about how S&M mocks the power-dynamics in “normal” sexuality, but it’s easier to find a dominatrix than it is a dude to whip you. (Safe word: post-structuralism)

Keep your dick in your pants, just for a minute

This is in no way meant to delegitimize the deep trauma from years of abuse that has been brought into the light this fall. Harvey Weinstein needs to go to prison and Roy Moore and his creepy “evangelical” crowd needs to be shunned by the nation as a whole. (Please Neil Young, give us a new song about Alabama). And every man in this country needs to take a deep inventory of his past behavior to figure out if there some “me too” stories that are being told about him.

I know you dudes might feel emboldened. You’ve got a president that brags about grabbing women “by the pussy,” and alt-right Proud Boys who have declared open war on feminism, but here’s the secret I leaned along the way. Listen to women. Before you  unzip your pants and start masturbating in front of your dinner date, listen to women.

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Women seem so much better at reading the clues in intimate situations. Maybe it’s having to have their rape-threat radar on 24-7. But women are in the game that most men only think they are. I know it’s hard for men to ask for directions and shit, but just keep you dick in your pants for a minute and follow her lead. Try it. If she wants you to throw her up against the wall and go all 9 1/2 Weeks on her ass, she will make sure you know. It’s worth it, bro.

There was a moment in the 1990s when it felt like the third wave feminist movement was fully present. Power feminists, like Naomi Wolf, were taking “victim feminists” to task for negating female agency and erasing women’s sexuality. And Madonna gave them their soundtrack. (Ready to feel old? “Erotica” came out 25 years ago.) I think they hadn’t yet dealt with the intransigence of rape culture and the real rape (and rapist presidents) it has produced. Bill Clinton’s icky-ness might have given us an “opportunity” to talk about power dynamics but Donald Trump’s cult has no time for any of this “political correctness.” Maybe after we get through this new opportunity to cut the rapists and sexual harassesers off at the knees, we can at least again have this conversation.

 

Me, too, Harvey Weinstein, me, too: Undoing the Normality of Rape Culture

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.

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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’.

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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.

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