After a recent article I published in Vox debated whether sex addiction is a “real” mental disorder or primarily an excuse used by men to escape punishment for sexual crimes, I received an onslaught of emails from men. Dozens of men. Some asked for advice about treatment for sexual issues, others (including a male therapist) wielded insults, accusing me of being, among other epithets, “self-serving” and “a tight-ass bitch.” I answered the sincere requests and deleted the trolls.
Then came a direct message on Facebook from a man I’ll call Aaron, a fling from the early aughts. “BTW…our little tryst just happened right? I didn’t coerce you into anything? I recall the night quite fondly.”
I DM’ed back that everything we did together that long-ago weekend in New Orleans was consensual. Aaron confessed that another tryst from a decade earlier he’d believed consensual apparently wasn’t. The woman later said it was rape and refused to talk, even to let him apologize.
I watched the dots form in Aaron’s chat bubble as he typed. Then these words appeared: “It still haunts me.”
I typed back: “That’s probably a good thing, though I believe you didn’t intend to cause harm.”
Whether unintentional or not—forcing a sliding scale of intimidating behaviors toward women because you can is reprehensible. While it is commendable that so many men gasp in horror with each #MeToo confession or high-profile unmasking (et tu Matt Lauer?), awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual coercion is just the first step.
There is still much male-centric confusion over what constitutes unacceptable behavior—though I think more are getting the point of Samantha Bee’s Penis PSA to “keep your business in your pants.” A male friend I thought knew better said he believed sexual harassment was lessening because he “rarely saw construction workers catcalling anymore.” I asked, “And when was the last time you walked in the shoes of a teenage girl?”
Professionalism compelled me not to snap at the male patient who pronounced confidently, “I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching, and I know I’ve never stepped over the line with a woman personally or professionally.” Upon exploration, he realized that his nodding in assent to a remark directed at a female colleague about how recent weight loss left her “curvy in all the right places” was not a compliment to the woman. Particularly as she was just about to deliver a pivotal presentation to a roomful of suits. My patient said, “Wow, I thought she’d be flattered. I’m ashamed of my gender. I’m ashamed of myself.”
What will it take for this rethinking of what it means to be a man to be more than a blip, but a leap toward real and lasting change?
“ALL MEN RAISED AS PREDATORS”
There is no denying that in this post-Weinstein landscape many men are grappling with cracks in their self-image of themselves as good guys who treat women well.
There is a growing curiosity about how that image jibes with the misogynistic culture in which young men are traditionally raised. For example, egging one another on to achieve ‘milestones’ like visiting strip clubs or pressuring dates into going to the next base.
New Hampshire life coach Raymond DePaola says, “When the Trump ‘pussygate’ tape came out, some guys said, ‘Locker room talk doesn’t mean anything.’ Others countered, ‘None of the men I hang out with talk like that.’ But that’s not true either. When guys are together they want to fit in. Even if they’re not saying the sexist stuff, they’re not denouncing it either.”
The avalanche of #MeToo declarations split DePaola’s psyche open. “I realize how even behavior I’d thought was innocent like flirting with a woman who was at a bar alone, to her might have felt uncomfortable bordering on creepy. Nothing can be perceived as innocent, everything can feel scary.” He finishes, “I struggle with guilt and shame because I feel that I was raised, as all men were, as predators.”
Those who take that predatory nature far beyond flirting at a bar often have distorted perceptions of how sexually active their peers are, believing the bragging that goes on in locker rooms, fraternities and the like. Sherry Hamby, editor of the journal Psychology of Violence, says, “Men understand they’re not supposed to sexually assault women. It’s not a lack of information that makes them do it. Rather, their desperation to collect masculine bonafides, aided by a lack of empathy and surplus of narcissism, can lead them to ignore the obvious harm they’re causing.”
Studies also point to, among other factors, the misperception of a woman smiling, making eye contact or even just drinking as a sign of sexual interest.
Theater producer Seth Greenleaf is among the men dumbfounded at the ubiquity of the problem. “I’m very protective of women, so I’ve never [sexually coerced someone], and no one around me would. But as a straight white man, I’ve never been on an unbalanced playing field. I am starting to recognize my entitlement and realize that not everyone has the option to say no. This relationship with power has to be reexamined.”
“WHATEVER I SAY WILL COME OUT WRONG”
Neil Kramer has been creating cyber-waves with his attempts on social media to “defend most men.”
The Queens-based writer says, “The majority of my online friends are women, and I treat them as individuals before gender. Now it’s feeling like ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Whatever I say will come out wrong, and I’ll be attacked for voicing an opinion.”
He adds, “There’s a lot of male bashing. If the roles were reversed, and men were writing about women the way women write: I can’t trust any man—it would be viewed as disgusting.”
In the offline world he is aware of how he—a tall, sturdy, middle-aged male—can be perceived as a threat, telling me about being alone on a quiet residential street with a woman and purposely moving away so she wouldn’t feel threatened. What truly saddens Kramer is that he feels unfairly lumped “with everything bad about men.”
Women confronted with these sentiments often have responses similar to a recent comment on Kramer’s status update: Deal with it. Women are not responsible for you being pushed out of your comfort zone. #notgoingback.
My onetime tryst, Aaron, is struggling, albeit defensively, with the much more serious charge of being labeled a rapist. He belatedly realizes that he should have stopped once his partner had second thoughts during sex. He phrased his reasoning in third-person: “It feels so good once the love act has begun that he may feel duty-bound to continue.”
Aaron clarified “duty-bound” in the sense that “men are raised to be men…not to be weak…It’s a dinosaur, caveman mentality an older guy tends to adhere to.”
The experience has rendered Aaron “100 percent more docile.” He added another smiley face with the pronouncement: “I’m not such a lady killer anymore.”
I said bye and shut down our DM chat, shuddering. The Aaron I’d made love with in NOLA a lifetime ago was caring and considerate. I believed that Aaron would have pulled out if I asked him to. Of course I hadn’t asked him to.
THE ONLY POSSIBLE PATH TO CHANGE
Back in the 1970s, Dr. Edward Gurowitz, discovered that a woman he’d had sex with had felt coerced. “I spoke to her and made it clear that wasn’t my intention. She understood, but you can’t un-ring that bell. You can only be more awake next time to notice signals.”
Today the psychologist and consultant is chair-elect of the Mankind Project USA, a global men’s organization with the mission of helping men “own the impact of their actions and cut through the b.s. we’ve been taught are the fundamentals of being a man.” They do this through offering training and support groups for men where they can learn to be self-critical and re-examine how they define masculinity.
It is an uphill-climbing endeavor to alter what studies show is an entrenched hostility toward women, which is a strong predictor of physical and sexual aggression. Indeed, many men subconsciously carry around a sense of ‘internalized dominance’, the view that they consider their sex superior. This belief makes it acceptable to take advantage of those who may be operating under a ‘complementary phenomenon’ or internalized oppression.
Gurowitz says, “I work with men in corporations, helping them become aware of their own unconscious biases. When we go into a company like Kaiser or Ebay, we start a conversation about the importance of inclusionary leadership versus keeping women on the wrong side of the glass ceiling.”
In the last 30 years, nearly 70,000 men have undergone training through various chapters of the Mankind Project. Gurowitz says, “I live deep in the heart of Silicon Valley and five, six years ago when I talked about these issues, few people wanted to listen. Now, at least they’re paying attention.”
Change will not happen without ongoing educational efforts. I was saddened to see the initial deluge of #HowIWillChange tweets— documenting men’s pledges to change their sexist behaviors—slowing down these last few weeks.
Another component is societal support. Men and women who are coming forward to reveal their stories of harassment and abuse are rightfully receiving accolades from many, but obviously not all sides. It still takes an enormous amount of courage to go public in a Trump-centric environment. Men who are admitting past mistakes and vowing to be mindful of their behavior from hereon in, should also be encouraged.
Praise or not, life coach Raymond DePaola is committed to continue evolving. “It’s essential to keep talking with other men about the ways we’ve hurt women. It’s so hard for us to go underneath the macho mask, the braggadocio, but I know I’m not the only guy struggling and feeling like I’m all alone on the island.”