The current tidal wave of news reports of inappropriate sexual behaviour of many prominent men cannot be anything but disturbing to both men and women. It clearly represents a watershed moment in the conflict between the genders, demonstrating that women will no longer be silent and complicit in their own debasement by men.
And their debasement is both a disease by itself and a symptom of a much larger and more ubiquitous abuse of power that abounds in contemporary culture. It is a cliché to note that each of us has become, wittingly or not, a “thing” in the lives of our employers, our teachers, our doctors, lawyers and especially our “suppliers”. We have morphed individual human lives to fit a model of a mini-corporation, a business apparatus or machine that seeks to function in the service of its own best interests. We have so micro-defined behaviour into observable and reportable bytes, bites, digits and sound bites that have become bullets in a scorched-earth game of war between political actors, corporations, professional practitioners, hospitals, universities, colleges, churches, families and undoubtedly individuals cannot escape.
Demographic interest groups have lobbied for decades to seek and attain the attention of the political class, in an overt and determined initiative to gain political clout, a voice for what they considered their own impotence. And that impotence, they believed was neither deserved nor of their own making; it was imposed by a built-in power structure that has been centuries in the making. And one of the most powerful and growing “interest” group is the women’s movement, feminism, radical feminism, moderate feminism.
Perceived as the victim of male dominance, the feminist movement has undergone the normal iterations, starting in the 70’s with writers like Germaine Greer's Female Eunuch. From the beginning of the feminist movement, men have been on the defensive, in a way and to a degree that was neither visible nor accountable previously. Various faces of feminism have variously wanted to “despise” men, to “tolerate” men, to “patronize” men, and some even wanted to “work with” men as partners toward the goal of male-female equality and equilibrium.
Raising the consciousness of the establishment culture (dominated by male leaders and acolytes for centuries) was only the first goal of the movement. Changing behaviour, attitudes, and numbers of pay and positions of leadership and responsibility was also deeply embedded into the “cake” of the ideology. Equal pay for equal work, membership on corporate boards, and in the executive suites, leadership in colleges, universities, high and elementary schools, and in political and governmental offices, enrollment in graduate schools, maternity leave, parental leave, and even paternity leave, and the human right of access to an education, to quality and affordable health care, access to affordable day care and pre-school…..these are just some of the goals, and attainments of the feminist movement.
While some of these worthy goals have been at least partially attained, there remain many significant gaps, especially the equal pay for equal work, since evidencing a 25% gap, while women fall far short of filling top jobs in major corporations, and in filling politically elected positions, in many western countries.
Knowing that two already established “hot buttons” on the political radar of a prurient nation like the United States are sex and money, strategists for the feminist movement picked the more obvious “nuclear option”…the historic abuse of women’s bodies by men who neither respect themselves nor their female colleagues.
You may be surprised to read that last sentence, pointing to the lack of self-respect of male abusers. Yet, after all, the abuse of power, whether of a sexual nature, a law enforcement nature, a geopolitical or a spiritual nature is almost invariably the impetus of a neurosis, sometimes in extreme cases, of a psychosis, regardless of whether the abuse is inflicted by a man or a woman. Our culture has a difficult time, generally, differentiating between obedience and respect on the one hand and sycophancy, defiance, rebellion and violence on the other. The former comes from a relatively secure individual, conscious of his/her strengths, weaknesses and comfortable in his/her own skin. The latter, whether extremes of servility or defiance, comes from a less than secure individual, perhaps self-loathing, perhaps believing others’ put-downs of value, perhaps falling into the victim trap so prevalent in situations in which the people in power are themselves lacking in self-respect. Those people in power could be parents, teachers, principals, coaches, clergy, doctors and care-givers and how they interact with their charges goes a long way to laying the groundwork of a sense of self that develops through childhood and adolescence.
None of this background excuses any abuse of power, including the abuse of power by men over women’s bodies and wills. Womens’ too often silenced voices of protest have been a repeating pattern in this abuse for decades, perhaps even centuries. Let’s be honest! We are a long way from developing a “freeway” of easy, honest, open, equal and free conversation between men and women. And unless and until that freeway is opened, nurtured, sustained and updated by each succeeding generation, we will travel the back-roads of washboards, ditches, icy patches and outright lethal collisions.
We are currently in the midst of a cultural collision for which there are no formal and appointed detectives or lawyers or judges assigned to the case. It is the court of public opinion that is “hearing” these cases, and the presumed innocence that pertains in the legal system is no longer tolerated.
There is no reason to justify the abuse of a woman by any man, and, as some very old popular songs once intoned, men frequently asked “permission” to hold, touch, kiss and variously ‘romance’ a member of the opposite gender. Whether men lack the language or the patience, or the respect (for both themselves and the woman) to engage their female partners in any physical (or emotional or psychological) shared encounter, there is a long journey ahead, to be able to see a world on the horizon in which men and women are no longer in a competitive and conflicted tension for sexual favours.
However, the current cultural landscape idealizes and idolizes “power” and the “abuse of power”. Tabloid headlines, tabloid reporting, tabloid social media attitudes and personal attacks supplemented by an entertainment industry on violence and sexual steroids saturate our public discourse and culture. In this moment, we have a confluence of microphones for violence, and a history of repressed resentment, anger and contempt for the millions of incidents of sexual injustice linked to a political climate in which personal character is the single defining issue of the day. Policy, legislation, foreign policy, negotiations, treaties, agreements and the ‘stuff’ of public discourse have all been swept off the public consciousness, to be replaced by the obsessive-compulsive attraction to “sex”….not only as a marketing instrument, and a titillation of the entertainment industry, and a billion-dollar industry in itself, but now as a tidal wave of political and legal import easily and relevantly comparable to a recession, a depression or even another military engagement.
It is not possible to turn on any television channel, especially the 24-7 new-channels on cable, without confronting the names of accusers and the targets of their accusations in multiple sexual “assaults”. And while attempting to “right the wrongs” of centuries of male dominance in both domestic and public affairs, and to “level the playing field of male-female relationships” with a view to the achievement of equality, equanimity and justice is a laudable goal, the current narrative of our public discourse is clearly not going to accomplish that worthy goal.
In fact, the current massive “bombing” of the airwaves, the courts and the tabloids with the names of prominent men who have wantonly and irresponsibly abused women, supported by teams of victims will invoke one of the most blunt instruments of human design, the legal system. The court of public opinion, too, is not interested in the nuances, the complexities and the details of the offences. So on both fronts, the legal court system and the court of public opinion, all of the male names are now presumed guilty, with no chance of either defending themselves or bringing clarity to one of the most complex interactions on the human landscape.
Just as divorce settlements have come to a ‘no fault’ precipitate, after years of throwing blame from one side to the other, there will have to be a similar “precipitate” in the battle to deal with sexual offences. Such a position, of course, will be intolerable for those who consider themselves victims. And for those men currently under a cloud of contempt, embarrassment and quite literal degradation of reputation, there may not be either the public appetite for a responsible path toward redemption, reconciliation and healing. Some will argue that all men under such a cloud deserve the most nuclear punishment available. Others will argue that a different approach, in the long run, will generate a conversation, a full airing of the complexities of the many hidden and ‘private’ details that are neither worthy of public disclosure nor are they likely to generate a more equitable and healthy gender playing field.
Their women accusers, whose “public statements” generate 72-point headlines in the tabloid and mainstream media, will always find another Gloria Aldred to defend them, behind the microphones and in the court rooms. And those who have accepted the public apology from their abusers, will be grouped among all other accusers, without having the opportunity to seek dialogue and reconciliation.
This needed step is never going to be achieved in the current climate. While attempting to “right the wrongs” of centuries of male dominance in both domestic and public affairs, and to “level the playing field of male-female relationships” with a view to the achievement of equality, equanimity and justice is a laudable goal shared by a preponderance of reasonable self-respecting men and women, the current narrative of our public discourse is clearly not going to accomplish that worthy goal.
Shame is the cloud that hangs over the lives, the bodies, the minds and the hearts of millions of young boys and young men, as they wander through a labyrinth of conflicted messages exhorting them to be “strong,” “like a man,” and also vulnerable and sensitive. There are few mentors among their fathers, coaches and teachers who can or will demonstrate a discernment and practice of healthy, evolved and sensitive, self-confident masculinity. And the process of raising the curtain on the many entangling myths that have ensnared generations of men for centuries, and shedding light on a robust and confident and self-respecting masculinity (the very opposite of the kind currently occupying the Oval Office) will take decades, if not centuries. These are not noted as excuses for inappropriate behaviour and attitudes. They are merely a brief snapshot of some of the foundational stones that men will have to acknowledge and begin to shed. And they will need all the help they can get from their female family members, friends, lovers, partners and colleagues.