For the past two days I’ve been reading my friends’ “me too” posts on Facebook. I’m not particularly surprised by the number of stories, but the rawness and depth of emotion has been very affecting.
Like most men, I recognize myself in some of the stories, but most of them are way worse than anything I’ve done in my life. I think men tend to have two reactions to stories like this. They either feel defensive, or they seek absolution. Neither of these are particularly productive, and if that’s all I wanted to do, I wouldn’t bother to write.
As I posted a few days ago, I think a lot of men would act like Harvey Weinstein if they had the power that he did (a lot wouldn’t, however!) I’ll go further today, and I’ll say that I think most men can recognize in themselves the hatred and contempt for women that leads men to cat-call, grope, sexually harass, or rape. Now I don’t think this is universally true. I’m sure some men are free from that complicated relationship with femininity, but I do think that a contempt for women is a secret part of the character of many men.
There was a time when I thought I was uniquely monstrous because of the way I felt, and I’m sure many men still do feel like monsters. Men don’t talk about our feelings, and we especially don’t talk about the darkest of our emotions. But men often say things that, to me, only make sense if they too feel a secret anger against women.
For instance, the guilt that many men feel during times like this is completely out of proportion to anything they’ve actually done. Like, bro, most of these stories are about legit sexual harassment. The time you asked a girl out again after she said ‘no’ was sort of shitty, but it’s not remotely what people are talking about. But men don’t feel guilty about what they’ve actually done, they feel ashamed, instead, of all the things they’ve thought about, wanted to, or considered doing.
Similarly, men often have a need to minimize, reduce, or mischaracterize what people are saying. Like there’ll be a Harvey Weinstein type story and men will be like, “But am I not allowed to ever ask out any woman I work with???”
To which the reply is: Err, like, yeah, dude, that’s not what happened here. He wasn’t ‘asking out’ a coworker, he was luring subordinates into situations where he could sexually assault and rape them.
But the man’s reaction makes sense if you realize that we men know, in our hearts, all the times that we’ve crossed the line and put untoward pressure on women, and we feel a deep shame for those times as well.
Or when there’s statistics about campus rape, men will be like, “Women are saying every time they have sex while drunk was rape!” And it’s like, err, no, go read the questionnaires. The questions that lead to statistics like “1 in 5” aren’t about alcohol or fuzzy consent. They’re about forcible penetration. If anything they’re an underrepresentation of the truth.
But, again, men know about each time they’ve had sex with somebody who didn’t really want to have sex with them, and when they hear forcible rape being condemned, they think about all the things they’ve done or would have done.
Similarly, lots of my female friends talk about how they’ll be dating these guys who “don’t like to talk about their feelings” or “have a hard time connecting with people.” Several of my female friends have dated guys who called themselves “sociopaths” or “emotionless.” And I think women feel like guys are just blocked off. We feel the things women do, but we think it’s girly to talk about them.
But when you really put everything together, you realize what guys are saying is, “If you understood the depth of the hatred and violence inside of me, you probably wouldn’t love me anymore.”
What’s struck me so much about all the ‘me too’ stories is that while women are saying, “This is why I fear and distrust men,” what we see, when we look around at our society, is not an overabundance of women who fear and distrust men! Rather, we see the opposite: we see that women tend to give men too much benefit of the doubt. We see that women bend over backwards to see men in the best possible light. Women, despite all of these experiences, are anxious to find men who’re worthy of their love and respect.
If anything, in this society it seems to be men who fear and distrust women. And I don’t really know why that is. Even being a man–even feeling that emotion inside myself–I can’t describe this thing or where it came from.
What I can say is that men feel, I think, a longing for femininity. Men need it. Not just for sex–I think that’s a minority of it, actually. Rather, without femininity, we’d have nothing in our lives that was free or expressive or unguarded. I say ‘femininity,’ rather than ‘women,’ because I think sometimes we provide that femininity ourselves. What I’m struck by most often, when I see some of the most toxic guys, is the way they are drawn to the feminine: they wear pink, they hug and say ‘I love you’ and ‘bro’, they pamper themselves, they care about beauty and style and design.
I saw a photo earlier today of somebody making fun of bath bombs that were shaped like grenades, and the caption provided (this was, like, a Buzzfeed article) was something like, “When you’re a man’s man, but you still need a bath bomb.”
And I thought, that’s interesting. If men really only hated femininity, this bath bomb wouldn’t exist. Men just would never buy bath bombs and that’d be it. And if men had an uncomplicated relationship to femininity, men would just buy ordinary bath bombs, and then too the grenade-bombs wouldn’t exist. But the existence of this product is a testament to the push and the pull: the love that’s paired with contempt. In some essential way, the contempt is a byproduct of the desire for femininity, but I don’t know why.
I think it’s easy for people, men especially, to reduce it all to sex. Men want sex. Women won’t have sex with them. So they’re angry at the women.
But that doesn’t feel right. Because although there exists the incel, Elliot Rodgers-style rage, there’s also the casual contempt of the frat guy. No matter who you are, our society produces a form of toxic masculinity that comes in your size. And yet I do think the contempt is somehow a byproduct of being drawn towards women, because I know that when I was exclusively dating men, I loved how free I felt from this emotion.
Gay male culture has its problems, but sexual and romantic relationships between men are so much blessedly simpler than relationships between men and women. When I identified publicly as gay, my friendships with women were also a good deal simpler in some way that I can’t define, because it wasn’t just that they felt more comfortable with me, it’s also that I felt more comfortable with them.
(Not that gay men don’t have their own issues w/ objectification and contempt for women. Plenty of gay men think they have right to touch women whenever they want, although I’ll note that many women also feel the same way about gay men’s bodies!)
I do believe it’s our society that produces this terrible hatred that men have for women. It’s not something that’s inherent in our gender or our biology. It’s something else.
It’s easy to say, too, that it’s in the way we’re socialized as kids, but again I don’t know. I went to an all-boys school, but I acted in plays and musicals at girls’ schools in the area, and I remember my relations with them being relatively free and easy. None of my friends were dating, and I really almost never thought about sexual or romantic relationships. In fact, I remember feeling that girls were just like me.
But literally the moment I stepped foot on a college campus, the anger and contempt for women flowered within me. I mean it happened within weeks. There was something in the air. And it wasn’t necessarily in the way people spoke either. It was in the environment of college, which perhaps was just the environment of my own mind, where I felt suddenly like women were a currency that I needed to possess.
Paradoxically, it was at that same time that my longing for femininity increased. As a teen, I only cared mostly about boy-oriented things: space opera and military SF, video games about lone adventurers, etc (although I did also love musicals and Sailor Moon =). But in college, I got more into teen dramas and sit-coms and novels about, like, relationships between people.
Somehow at that time this division between the feminine and the masculine was created in me, and I’ve been, to greater and lesser degrees, trapped in that morass ever since.
I don’t know where to go in the future. I think in the short-term “trying to be better” is a good plan. Let’s try to be better and to teach our boys to be better. In the medium-term, I think the solution must be societal. There is a large subset of boys and men who’ve learned a secret: they will not be punished for crimes against women. Let’s make it so that’s not true, okay?
But…in the longest-term, I’d like to think that someday the root cause of this (and, as I keep mentioning, is in my opinion that root cause is the anger that men, for some reason, feel towards women) will be eradicated.
I don’t think that violence is an essential part of human nature. I especially don’t think that violence for the purposes of dominance or sexual coercion is something that we are unable to overcome. And, for me, women are proof of this. It’s become a dreary truism to state that 95%, or something like that, of murders are committed by men. But it’s still a little bit shocking to me. I mean, women face all the same problems that men do (more, even!) and yet they rarely resort to murder.
The easiest and most tempting thing to do is to put this down to an essential difference between the genders. But I’m wary of such explanations, because it seems that people are always trying to say “The situation right now, at this moment in history, is due to an essential part of human nature.” A hundred years ago, people would’ve said that homosexuality (they might’ve called it ‘inversion’) was essentially sick and that no homosexual relationship could be anything other than toxic. Now we know that’s untrue. Five hundred years ago, people in the Western World might’ve said that women were, by nature, unsuited to literary endeavor. Today, the pre-eminent literary form, the novel, is one that was pioneered and is dominated by women. We are always trying to say that some facet of our nature is set in stone, but I still feel, at least intellectually, the same way I did as a kid, which is that boys and girls are essentially the same, and that the differences between us are, if anything, more a proof of the elasticity of human nature than they are of the opposite.