Friday, November 24, 2017

#toomanymen


Al Franken. Roy Moore. Donald Trump. Louis CK. Charlie Rose. Harvey Weinstein. Bill Cosby. Jeffrey Tambor. George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton. Clarence Thomas. Dustin Hoffman. 

That's just the names that pop into my head at this moment. You know what they've got in common: every one of them has been accused of touching women without their consent. There's a spectrum of misbehavior--some are serial offenders who've broken laws; others playful gropers who got just a little too handsy; still others sick people who need psychiatric help. Some have issued deep apologies. Others have spun stories. Some have threatened to sue. Some are Democrats, some Republicans, some defy partisan labels.

But back to the commonalities: they're all men. More specifically, they're middle-aged and older men. They're men with power: actors, prominent comedians, members of Congress, news anchors, judges, Presidents of the United States. Something about the power they had led them to believe they could just grab, fondle, molest without fear of consequences. It was a perq, something that came with having paid one's dues and ascending the ladder of success, or with having been born into wealth and power, or by being famous, popular, respected, idolized.

Some of the names have been bouncing around for decades. I think I became aware of Bill Clinton's far-too-liberal touch at around the same time I first heard his name. Some of them, joining the list in the last few weeks, shocked me. How could George Bush think it was okay to just grab a woman's bottom as she was posing for a photograph with him? Why would any man, however powerful, think that masturbating in front of a coworker, an employee, a protege, was all right with her?

All the men on this list are heterosexual, but it could be expanded to include Kevin Spacey, an actor who chose to spin his own unveiling as a predator of young men as an occasion to come out as a gay man. In the case of Roy Moore, his enjoyment of teenaged girls would, if he acted on it today (as opposed to in the 1970s and 80s, when he was banned from a shopping mall for being too creepy), get him prosecuted as a pedophile. Bill Cosby was a serial rapist. Louis CK and Charlie Rose appear to have been exhibitionists.

George Bush and Al Franken, on the other hand--no pun intended, but if I had intended it, it was the perfect one--appear to have just gotten a bit too familiar, turning hugs into gropes.

These too-tactile men are just poster boys for a problem that runs deeper than many of us men had ever imagined. Oh, we knew that masculinity had an element of sexual opportunism tied to it: I'd heard stories all my life, and while the friends I had were not, as far as I knew, inclined to grope without permission, we all knew guys who had done so. It's not that long ago that molestation was a socially acceptable part of masculinity. The sexual revolution and the modern women's movement began to put an end to that sense of sexual entitlement, but as current headlines are indicating, it's a stubborn vice, in no mood to go gently into that good night.

And while the men I've called friends, and I personally, have erred on the side of respect in our interactions with women--I remember at least one woman I dated concluding I just wasn't aggressive enough for her--that doesn't mean the impulse to touch hasn't been there. I have my parents to thank for indoctrinating me to be respectful to a fault. But there were certainly times I wanted to misbehave.
Clearly that puts me in a minority--a minority, I'm increasingly realizing, is far smaller than it should be.

Women have been trying to make this an issue at least as long as I've been alive, struggling to get men to listen, to understand that the word "No" is not an invitation for even more aggressive behavior. Anita King's accusation against Clarence Thomas inspired many women to run for office, and those inroads began remaking American understandings of gender roles and sexual ethics. There was hope, then, that society was beginning to turn, that men were beginning to acknowledge the rights of women not to be molested, to have a say in whether and when a relationship would become physical. The impeachment of Bill Clinton was a significant step in this painful reckoning; the downfall of Bill Cosby another. But it took revelations about Donald Trump's cavalier, entitled attitude toward grabbing women whenever he felt like it, and his victory in the 2016 Presidential election despite those revelations, to finally stir women and their allies to pour into the streets of every American city to march and cry out.

It still took time for the movement to pick up speed. The outing of Harvey Weinstein as a lifelong user of power imbalances to foist himself on women rendered the movement nonpartisan, and began the snowball effect. The #metoo campaign added fuel to the fire. Even women who had no idea what a hashtag was began to come forward, speaking for the first time about how often they'd been handled, mauled, abused by men. The feeble comeback of #notallmen quickly lost steam in the face of the shear number of prominent men, some of them progressive, pro-feminist icons, who had crossed the line at some point in their careers.

That's why I'm using a hashtag as the title of this essay. No, it's not all men. Some of us get it, and while we've been shocked to learn just how widespread the problem is, we've always known touching others sexually is not a right that comes with having a penis, but a privilege that comes with mutual consent. So no, it's not all men who do this. But it is clearly too many of them who do. Far too many.

And yes, there are occasional women who cross lines and become involved with underage men, but those really are the exceptions to the rule. They make news by being exceptions. The cavalcade of prominent male sex offenders, on the other hand, is the rule.

It's time to change that rule. Men who have broken sexual assault laws need to be prosecuted, no matter how important they may be to a political movement. Men who committed acts that were, at the time they committed them, not yet illegal, or for whom the statute of limitations has run out, still need to face consequences for what they did. And men whose unwanted advances do not rise to the standard of illegality but were, nevertheless, childish, boorish, and rude, still need to face the medicine of public humiliation. They've hurt far more people than just the women whose bottoms they squeezed, and they need to be held accountable for the ripple effect of those indiscretions.

That's the painful side of this moment. The hopeful side is with the empowerment I saw last January, as all those women in their pink hats packed the streets of Portland on a cold, wet day. I was humbled to be a part of that demonstration. I expect some of those women will be running for office in the coming months, and I look forward to seeing some of them replacing the chauvinist demagogues who've been holding up progress in the House and Senate; and, the sooner the better, the Oval Office.

That may, in the end, be the one really positive thing to come out of the Trump regime: a galvanized resurgent feminism that finally shifts the balance and gives women the voice and power that should have been their birthright from the beginning of time.

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