What is the difference between how adolescent girls gravitate around a “star” like moths to a porch light at midnight, and how adolescent boys gather around smaller, more tightly knit peer groups like teams, gangs, clubs and hobbies? Is this a simple sign of the relative importance of the “personal” over the “task/challenge/accomplishment,” with the former being more important to young women with the latter more important to young men? Or, is there something more basic even than that superficial guess? Has history portrayed the “heroic” man so profoundly as the “answer to every young woman’s dreams” and then reinforced this meme with images of war heroes, athletic prowess, medical, scientific, legal, engineering and even political metaphoric halos then replicated by the Hollywood backlighting of the forties and fifties? Or, is there something more biological, more psychological, more innate that any non-researched discussion will not and can not disclose?
The Greeks had a word for “fondness of men”: Philandry
They also had a word for “hatred of men”: misandry.
Liz Plank’s nonfiction investigation into masculinity, For the Love of Men, explores an epithet she utters to anyone who will listen, “Over the last decade or so, I’ve liked to tell anyone who will listen that the biggest problem facing America is the scourge of testosterone poisoning. (Amazon review of Liz Plank’s “For the Love of Men”) This is an obviously feminine-based observation she has followed with research. And her book and work offer counterpoint to the other side of the dynamic: the obsessive “rush” among young women for selected male “stars.”
Rock concerts have, for decades, been magnets for young teen girls and even early adult women. Record sales have traditionally followed such concerts, accompanied by stories of swooning, clutching, screaming, weeping, and fantasizing, none of which warrants derision. It does, however, warrant ‘flagging’ for any young man who might be the target of such adulation as well as for any young man who might fantasize about how to become one of those ‘stars’. Strong men, from military exploits, too, have somehow magnetized the attentions, affections and even the seductions of women for centuries. And when there is any papier-mache exhibition of a fusing of ‘star’ (without evidence of value) with ‘power’ (as is the case with the current occupant of the Oval Office), there is still considerable evidence that some women are susceptible to the lure of such an image (mask, Persona).
It is reasonable to interpret such ‘longings’ by women in the company of what they perceive as masculine “power” (powerful attraction) as projections, the roots of which are the unconscious. It is also reasonable to suggest that many men, if not most, are just as vulnerable to such “attraction” especially if their/our own psyche(s) have been wounded previously. However, such a collision of both female projections and male weakness is no justification for either man or woman to take advantage of the other.
In the current #MeToo, “#Time’sUp, Cavanaugh/BlaseyFord context, the Biden/Read discussions currently occupy much tabloid coverage, not to mention considerable angst among Democratic strategists. Explaining away Read’s attraction to Biden, even if it were true, when she was twenty-three, in 1993, is not adequate either to elevate her story above Biden’s rebuttal or to suggest that she was the victim of her own naivety. Similarly, Biden’s charm as a long-term U.S. Senator in 1993, in whose office Read apparently worked, is insufficient to justify any untoward assignation between them, if any occurred.
The proverbial “he said-she said” oscillation, also, does nothing to prove or disprove whatever allegations have been uttered and/or denied. A historic dig into the Archives may or may not provide empirical evidence to support or refute the allegations. However, what remains absolutely true, is that, once out of the bottle of silence, these allegations will haunt the former Vice-president for the rest of his life, whether or not he becomes the next president of the United States. There is simply an insatiable appetite for human slander in North America and more emphatically in the United States, especially if it focuses on disputed sexual behaviour/harassment/assault and given the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, crystalizing into a widely held gestalt that men are the perpetrators and women the victims.
One of the corollaries of the young women’s adulation of powerful men is its opposite, middle-aged women’s contempt of formerly powerful men who may have shown little or no respect to women in their college years. Link this corollary to the also widely-held conventional conviction that women have suffered gender bias for centuries, also initiated, supported, engendered and fluffed-off by men. And the current series of generations of western women have opened the windows of their microphones with the cry, “I’m (we’re) mad as hell and I’m (we’re) not going to take it any more!” from the 1976 movie, Network. The tidal wave of tabloid journalism linked political-metaphorical assassinations in support of a seemingly interminable zero-sum political gamesmanship, also primarily authored and executed by men, renders the quote even more relevant, if not prophetic, today than it was when originally written and spoken.
In this context, although rarely evoked in these discussions, let us recall, and pay homage to the Edmund Burke quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely!” Another equally applicable, if rarely used, aphorism on power, from David Brin, author of the novel, The Postman, reads like this: “It is said that power corrupts, but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power.”
Whether primarily men who seek office, executive stature, social fame, fat portfolios, or public acclaim, or women who, more recently have joined in the pursuit of power, while traditionally being attracted to and by its incarnation, the responsibility for the abuse of power engages both genders, albeit differently and albeit perhaps even unevenly.
When young women swoon over some ‘hollywood star’ there is literally and metaphorically little harm to either the young women or the object of the adulation. Yet, if and when similar impulses arise in one-on-one situations, irrespective of the age of both individuals, then questions of truth, authenticity, projections and propriety complicate both the relationship and its resolution. Often framed as moral/ethical questions, especially from the perspective of “professional decorum,” and workplace rules, regulations, sanctions and terms of employment, one-on-one male-female relationships, whether they be mere infatuation or more seriously considered loving (and who is the determining voice of discernment here?), there are complicating biological, psychological, metaphorical, needs/aspirational issues on both sides.
There is, however, unfortunately and paradoxically, a dearth of masculine voices in the aftermath of female accusations, allegations, reports, gossip and rumour, along with what Plank terms a testosterone poisoning. And the question of “who started this?” connection between a man and a woman is complex, indetermined and therefore left to the individual who raises a complaint. On May 2, 2020, Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times, in a column entitled, Joe says it ain’t so, types these words:
“To suggest every woman who alleges a sexual assault is as credible as the next is absurd. The idea that no women can ever be wrong just hurts women. Half the human race is female. Who has never been lied to by people of both genders? Who has never seen the mesmerizing female psychopaths of film noir?” Dowd then goes on to document the developing differences between the way Rpublicans and Democrats viewed and assessed various ‘relationships’ from Anita Hill where Biden presided, to Clinton and the to Cavanaugh. Our perspective here is not about how the Democrats might fare, having impaled themselves on their own petard of scrupulosity-and-defaming (Clinton’s accusers) or women’s accounts.
In the cultural context however, influenced as it always will be by the practicing political class of the day, the questions of veracity, trustworthiness, authenticity, and truthfulness will continue to flow like muddy water through the underground pipes of the storm sewers that underlie our towns and cities. Sexual storms, in which men as stereotypical (and by far most frequent) perpetrators, and women as stereotypical victims is also an equation that hurts both, just as Dowd argues the idea that no women can ever be wrong hurts women.
If is long past time when both men and women can and must acknowledge authentic complicity in relationships, even if their perceptions of equality, respect and honour need and demand enhanced, detailed and disciplined communication. And in fulfilling the need for enhanced, detailed, and reciprocal communication, it is also long overdue that men can and must no longer hang signs in their dorm windows that read, “No really means yes!” Men and women, even of early twenties, are both conscious of how they feel in the presence of another ‘special’ person of the opposite gender. And we all know that there is a plethora of potential communication paths, from both, that indicates/withholds/dissembles/declares ‘how I feel’. The initiative is and never was or will be restricted to the man; and the responsibility for any encounter never could or will rest exclusively on the man.
Not to share responsibility for attracting, for being attracted, and for ‘acting’ on either or both of these sparks, is just another way by which the perpetrator/victim war in all of its many manifestations continues, repeats, and repeats, without any change in the stereotypes.
Men cannot make women own up to the truth of their legitimate and authentic amorous feelings, any more than some women can accept responsibility for entertaining such feelings, especially if the social and cultural context seems prohibitive. And just because it might be also worth noting that some men will pay less homage to the requirements of the social/conventional/political/ethical context than many women, it is also worth noting that for their part women too engage in rushes of emotions (so conscious of the nuances of those feelings) even if and when the parameters seem to preclude such feelings and their being enacted.
Both men and women have spontaneous feelings for each other; both men and women act (or not) on those feelings, whether they might be considered appropriate or not by some jurisdiction. And because of the perpetuation of irreconcilable “rules” (with the facts of nature and sexuality), and the dominant nature of select stereotypes (women don’t lie, men want only one thing, women are victims, men are perpetrators) and a public that is both overdosing obsessively on “correcting” the stereotypes and is mired in language of disproportionate blaming/accusing/believing/dismissing, like the uroborus snake, the culture has its head in its tail, and continues to dig a deeper circular trench of contempt, disdain, and blame.
Both men and women, individually and collectively, as well as institutionally, from the perspective of governance, have some serious reflections to pursue. From a governance perspective, it is no longer appropriate for employers of any organization to consider a blanket rule of prohibition of co-workers, colleagues, or any other so-called “power differential” to be the standard for their evaluation.
First, sexual relationships are never simple, nor are they dismissable. Sexual relationships, especially by consenting adults, cannot be excluded from any situation in which men and women interact. Men and women both have to claim shared responsibility for their existence; consequently, truth-telling by both is essential. Hiding behind half-truths, distorted memories, or even mis-representations hurts both the target and the author of such statements. And of course, the exercise of power, (in which inequality prevails) negates and denies the facts of the relationship. It cannot be automatically ruled that a subordinate officer, for example in the military, cannot and will not fall in love with a superior/commanding officer, regardless of the gender of each party. Similarly, a first premise that all professionals cannot have a healthy consenting relationship with a colleague is untenable and unsustainable. And while serious steps need to accompany any such potential relationship, including formal counsel for both parties, initiated by the parties themselves, the rules of the game cannot begin with precluding such possibilities.
Of course, it will cost time and human resources, in order to ascertain the roots and the integrity of each relationship. There will need to be pre-established processes to declare, to comply with discretion, propriety, and a separation from interference with the responsibilities of the position held by each party. And there could even be supporting resources to monitor the development of such relationships, that support, in confidence, from the employer/supervising organization.
If women and men are truly to be considered and to operate as equals, in all situations, both personal and professional, then we have to debunk some paralyzing and life-defying stereotypes and replace them with innovative, sustainable and relevant processes that assure respect, dignity, honour, and longevity of both the individuals and the relationships.
Of course, all of this speculation, including its radical propositions, will never happen in a cultural, political climate like the current one prevailing in North America.
Nevertheless, we can dream, hope and even pray!