By Tom Robotham
When I was working for Hearst Magazines in the early ‘90s I got to know Helen Gurley Brown, the iconic editor of Cosmopolitan. She was a formidable woman, but a bit of an enigma. On the one hand she spent her career advancing ideas that could be considered feminist: that women should have all the career options afforded to men; that they should cultivate their own identities, and, of course, that they should enjoy sex without shame. In some ways, however, she could be pretty old school. One conversation, in particular, sticks in my mind. I was in her office, chatting about an article I was working on for the magazine, when I asked her what she thought about sexual harassment in the workplace.
“I think people make too much of it,” she said. She went on to tell me that she used to have a boss who would occasionally pat her on the butt. “I’d just say, in a nice way, ‘Oh, Bob, stop that.’”
I’ve been thinking about that conversation again ever since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke wide open. In a remarkable display of solidarity, women of all ages began sharing stories on social media—under the hash tag “Me Too”—of their own experiences with sexual harassment and abuse.
The volume of “Me Too” posts didn’t surprise me. Most women I know have told me stories over the years about their experiences with varying degrees of harassment, from cat calls that made them feel uncomfortable to unwanted touching to rape and domestic violence. As a result of hearing these stories I’ve thought long and hard about this societal problem, and have shared my thoughts both in classes I teach at ODU and in magazine articles I’ve written.
Nevertheless, the recent posts have caused me to think deeply about my own behavior around women. While I find the mentality of men like Weinstein and Donald Trump appalling, I have to ask myself: Have I ever gazed too long at a woman I found attractive? Have I ever made a woman feel uncomfortable by touching her, even if it was only on the shoulder? Probably. I would venture to say that all heterosexual men who’ve grown up in our patriarchal society are the victims of its conditioning to some degree and unconsciously engage in sexist behaviors.
It’s incumbent upon all men to examine themselves in this way—for if our first reflex is to say, “not me,” it probably means we’re missing something, just as white people who say, “I’m not racist” are in denial of the racist conditioning that is inescapable in our society.
The good news is, the “Me Too” movement seems to have had some effect. A case in point. A few days after the movement started, an acquaintance of mine posted this on Facebook:
“They don’t mean me, right? Of course, I’ve slapped or pinched a butt or two (of both men and women). I’ve said inappropriate things to everyone. It has always been just jokes. It’s never been malicious or a ‘power play’ so all these ‘Me Too’ posts must be referring to those other guys, right?
“Wrong. They say the first step in recovery is admitting there’s a problem…
After reading countless posts from so many women on Facebook, I have been made acutely aware. I’ve been part of the problem.
“I’m sorry. Truly.
“I am, from this moment on, committed to being a better person. To be more aware of my actions and comments and their potential hurtfulness. I’m not saying I won’t make a mistake and slip up. I have a lifetime of bad habits to break, I’m saying I don’t want to be that person anymore.”
Alas, I suspect that many men will continue to act defensively or dismissively toward the “Me Too” movement. These men, I think, fall into two categories.
In the first category are men who do treat women respectfully, for the most part, but—echoing what Helen Gurley Brown told me—think the uproar is overblown. When movements like this get started, there is always the danger that some incidents will be blown out of proportion. This occurred to me after several women accused former president George H.W. Bush of “sexual assault” because he had squeezed their buttocks. The fact that he’s confined to a wheelchair and suffers from Parkinson’s and very likely dementia, means, to my mind, that we should keep this in perspective. Talking about his behavior in the same breath as Weinstein’s doesn’t serve the cause very well. On the contrary, it has the potential to backfire.
That said, I don’t think we should be too quick to dismiss Bush’s behavior altogether. If the pendulum swings a little too far at times, so be it. It’s an inevitability resulting from a long history of overt or tacit endorsement of sexist words and actions.
In the second category, are men who consciously think they have the right to do whatever they want in the company of women. This reality hit me especially hard several years ago when a female student of mine came to me to confide that she had been raped by a guy she’d regarded as a good friend. She said she couldn’t tell her parents because her mother would have responded that she “shouldn’t have been alone with any man.” Likewise, she felt she couldn’t tell her friends for fear of being judged. I urged her to seek counseling, but she was afraid of that too. This saddened me, but I understood. Anyone who has studied this topic at all knows that women who report rape or other kinds of harassment are often blamed for playing some role in it.
This extends to domestic violence as well. Just days before I sat down to write this column a female friend confided in me that a guy she’d been dating had punched her in the face during an argument. She sent me a photo she’d taken shortly after the incident and, in addition to showing her black eye it showed what appeared to be choke marks on her neck and bruises on her arm. In this case, as in so many others, the man apparently begged for forgiveness afterward. Sadly, that is a common pattern among abusive men. The cycle usually repeats itself.
To a lot of people, I’m afraid, these will seem like two entirely separate issues: the behavior of my aforementioned acquaintance who made a public confession, after all, seems nothing at all like rape or assault. And, of course, there is a vast distinction. At the same time, all of these behaviors exist on the same continuum, rooted in the belief that women exist for the pleasure of men—objects over which men can assert their power.
The flip side of this is that women, too, are victims of this conditioning. As the great documentary Miss Representation suggests, women are taught from an early age that their only source of power lies in their looks and their sexuality.
It is difficult for any of us, I think, to see this problem objectively, since the conditioning runs so deep among both genders. But as my acquaintance said, the first step is to admit you have a problem. That applies not only to each of us, as individuals, who should feel called to deep self-examination, but to us collectively, as a society. As Senator Marco Rubio said about racial tensions during the primary campaign, if a significant portion of our nation thinks they are being treated unfairly, then we have a problem, whether you think they are or not.
The same can be said of sexism and its manifestations in our language and behavior. The problem is deeply complex. But the first step in addressing it is cultivating a willingness to at least have the conversation—and to listen with respect and empathy to the experiences of others.