It has been deeply unsettling to follow the parade of revelations that have arisen out of the #MeToo movement. I’ve found it disturbing to read reports of respected leaders, doctors, pastors and priests, coaches and media figures, all men, who have harassed, assaulted or forced sex on children, athletes, and women against their wishes. In the late 1970’s, novelist Marilyn French wrote, “All men are rapists and that’s all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws and their codes.”
It’s really tempting as a man to say, “not all men.” But when I consider the pervasiveness of violence against women and children, and sexual predation, I realize this just doesn’t wash. I don’t know a woman alive who has not at least been harassed by a man, or felt the threat of sexual violence, or experienced it, and had what is most precious, their own bodies and their wills, violated. Saying “not all men” may make us feel better, but it really doesn’t even begin to take on board the deep pain and fear in the lives of our wives, our daughters, our colleagues, our friends. We really just need to shut up and listen, if the women around us trust us enough to take them seriously.
Scholars of race speak of systemic racism. It might be just as painful to face the reality of “systemic rapism.” There is something to what French says about eyes and laws and codes. Who of us men have looked at a woman and paid attention only to shape and body parts, and failed to consider the person? Who of us men have not benefited from inequities in our laws and customs that have the net effect of conferring higher wages and better opportunities? Who of us men have not sometimes benefited from unspoken ways of doing things, or social codes in churches, organizations, and businesses that protect power and control? Even the rights women have gained, such as suffrage, have had to be wrested from men.
Where do we begin in owning this stuff? Perhaps the place to begin is to stop justifying ourselves and sit with the tremendous havoc wrought by our gender in the lives of women and children. Stop saying “not all men.” It ends conversation. Instead, we might say “tell me more” and acknowledge the pain that is being expressed without offering justifications or excuses. Sometimes wrong is just wrong. Any way in which a man threatens or forces himself on a woman, child, or another man against that person’s will is just wrong. This is a bright-line offense that needs to be understood as unambiguously wrong, and the violation of that bright-line must never be protected, never justified, never covered up.
The other thing I believe we as men need to do is to assume full responsibility for our own sexuality. We must stop blaming women for our sexual longings and desires. We must stop blaming what women wear for our sexual responses. A sexually responsible man does not need a woman to tell him “no.” He makes it his responsibility to understand and honor the boundaries of a relationship. I would go so far as to say that men should not say with their bodies what they are unwilling to say in their commitments to a woman. I would go so far as to say that a man should not engage in the activity that can father children unless he is ready to assume the responsibility of being a father (and the woman wants him as the father of her children).
Women have been trying to call us out on these things for a long, long time. Men, we need to start calling each other out on this stuff. “Locker room humor” and all the ways we demean women should be treated as unacceptable and juvenile. Women shouldn’t have to call out these things because we as fathers, brothers, colleagues, and friends are doing it first–at the first hint of disrespecting the dignity of women.
I’m going to be controversial here, but I’m going to suggest that men declare a moratorium on trying to prevent women from having abortions. Please understand me here. I am pro-life. The inherent contradiction in celebrating conception when we want a child and destroying a fetus when we don’t should be readily apparent. The global abortion holocaust, particularly of female babies is a horror as awful as anything. Period.
What I want instead is for men to start talking about their own responsibility for the conditions that lead to abortion. We ask women to use methods of birth control that are often detrimental to their health. When these fail or are not used, we ask women to undergo a procedure that carries physical risks and psychological implications. Often, not always, it is the pressures of male lovers that force women into abortions. Women often choose abortion because they know the man won’t support them in raising a child, or don’t trust him, and they will end up carrying the burden of a child themselves. Men, if we really cared about preventing abortion, there is a great deal we could do without ever telling women what they should do or passing a law to prohibit abortion–refraining from fathering children we’re not ready to father and assuming responsibility for birth control for starters. In other words, assume responsibility for your own sexuality! Don’t put it on women.
Men, we need to own what those of our gender have done against women. No excuses. No shifting the blame. It’s not pretty. We’ve covered up for each other and arranged our power structures to sustain those coverups. We’ve joked about what is despicable. There are no excuses. To say “not me” or “not all men” is just a dodge for facing hard truths about ourselves and our brothers. Perhaps facing those truths unflinchingly may be the most “manly” thing we can do.