In answer to your question about what men need to do right now: I have no idea. And worse: this is both men’s mess to handle AND men can’t do it without women, but we don’t owe you the help. Also, we’re not feeling particularly gracious right now.
Right now, I’m simply walking away, mid-conversation, from every man who tells me “It’s really hard to be a man right now.” That’s been three times this week, and it’s only Tuesday. And the walking away is probably a lousy, confusing way of responding to that particularly insensitive statement, but I’m worn out on it. I’m not surprised by Al Franken or Charlie Rose, and I won’t be surprised by the next decent man accused of sexual misconduct. Look: most children who are victims of sexual abuse are abused by members of their own family, so I’m never going to be surprised.
Men who are suddenly concerned that their own “good guy” image won’t protect them are perhaps getting a sense of how those women who followed the rules (don’t date, don’t drink, don’t go out after dark, dress “modestly”) and are still assaulted feel. Remember: being children, living in a nursing home, having a disability, or being in church doesn’t protect innocent people from being victimized, so looking like a decent guy should certainly not protect perpetrators of assault.
Most people who are assaulted are assaulted by people they know and trust. It’s why my own children are pretty carefully monitored, why they are never alone with a piano teacher or a math tutor, why we don’t do sleepovers, why my children are never at home when a plumber or an electrician comes to the house, and why, if other people’s children are in our home, no one else is. My thirteen-year-old isn’t allowed to have friends over to play ping pong in the basement if my five-year-old has a friend over to play Legos upstairs. I do this work so that they don’t have to, but, eventually, they will. It’s rite of passage in patriarchy: defend yourselves, kids, because it’s likely no one will believe you if a grown-up sexually assaults you.
If that sounds like a lot of work, it’s just the little bit of work that’s required to be a woman. (And for the men reading this who think, “That’s overreacting–I don’t live my life like that,” ask your wife or your children’s teachers if they are doing the work for you.) The constant monitoring, followed by the second guessing (“Did that really happen like I think it did?”), followed by the self-recrimination for letting it happen and for not standing up for yourself, followed by the hopeless of knowing that doing so would have only increased the risk of harm–it’s a burden. So much so that I can’t bear to think of what the world has lost with all the time women have spent doing it.
After a lifetime of being wary, I don’t really care that Jeremy Piven had to endure the indignity of taking a lie detector test. Like, I care in the big picture sense, in that people shouldn’t make false accusations and waste investigatory resources and undermine the credibility of the many people who have been victimized–and also that polygraph tests are baloney. But of the things that require my attention and deserve empathy, men fearful of being accused of rape right now doesn’t rank high.
So, since they shouldn’t be whining, what should men do?
I don’t know. I don’t know. All my advice is contradictory.
- If you’ve hurt someone, make it right. But, for God’s sake, you don’t have a right to come back into their life. (Have you ever been on the receiving end of Step 9 of the 12 Steps? It’s terrible.)
- Fix this without demanding help from people who have been victimized. But don’t presume to know how to fix this without their help.
- Apologize. Mourn. Repent. But not until you’ve taken done something that demonstrates a commitment to change. Better yet, show me change first, then apologize.
There is an old, shitty object lesson from the purity movement: you give each little lamb in the youth group a small tube of toothpaste and have them squirt it on a piece of paper. Then you tell them to put it back in the tube. They can’t, of course, which is supposed to be a lesson in how you can never undo your sexual history. Or something like that. It’s a pretty awful way to talk to kids about sex.
Above, a tube squirts out toothpaste. This had something to do with abstinence, but all I could think about was sex during this particular youth group meeting.
But it’s a potentially useful way to talk about sexual abuse. Some things you break can never be fixed. As popular as words like “resilience” and “grit” are right now, some people don’t “get better” or “heal” or “bounce back,” and it’s mean of us to hold up exceptional survivors as a standard for behavior. Some of us aren’t “survivors.” But, even here, I don’t mean that sexual abuse makes people broken. Whatever words people use–broken or survivor or victim–, we need to listen, not ask them to use words that better fit with our preferences.
I mean that our current conversation about sexual assault is breaking something else: a code of masculinity that has men protecting men and always doubting victims. Start looking at every man like the sexual predator he’s probably not but very well could be. Then you’ll start seeing the world as women see it.
I don’t want to recover from that. Let it stay broken.