A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Men, listen up.
In light of a year of disturbing revelations from the #MeToo movement and from last month’s profoundly troubling Brett Kavanaugh hearings and his eventual confirmation to the Supreme Court, it is time that we, men, act.
Certainly, some of us men have spoken out on behalf of women. But many more of us have remained silent. Some have kept silent out of fear of being judged, fear of criticism or censure, others out of genuine respect. In fact, silence has become the default stance of many men who consider themselves “allies” of women. But given all that has transpired, staying out of it is no longer enough.
I’ve decided not to cut corners. So, join me, with due diligence and civic duty, and publicly claim: I am sexist!
In fact, perhaps it is time that we lay claim to a movement — #IamSexist. Think about its national and international implications as we take responsibility for our sexism, our misogyny, our patriarchy.
It is hard to admit we are sexist. I, for instance, would like to think that I possess genuine feminist bona fides, but who am I kidding? I am a failed and broken feminist. More pointedly, I am sexist. There are times when I fear for the “loss” of my own “entitlement” as a male. Toxic masculinity takes many forms. All forms continue to hurt and to violate women.
For example, before I got married, I insisted that my wife take my last name. After all, she was to become my wife. So, why not take my name, and become part of me? She refused. She wanted to keep her own last name, arguing that a woman taking her husband’s name was a patriarchal practice. I was not happy, especially as she had her father’s last name, which I argued contradicted her position against patriarchy. But as she argued, “This is my name and it is part of my identity.” I became stubborn and interpreted her decision as evidence of a lack of full commitment to me. Well, she brilliantly proposed that we both change our last names and take on a new name together showing our commitment to each other.
Despite the charity, challenge and reasonableness of the offer, I dropped the ball. That day I learned something about me. I didn’t respect her autonomy, her legal standing and personhood. As pathetic as this may sound, I saw her as my property, to be defined by my name and according to my legal standing. (She kept her name.) While this was not sexual assault, my insistence was a violation of her independence. I had inherited a subtle, yet still violent, form of toxic masculinity. It still raises its ugly head — I should be thanked when I clean the house, cook, sacrifice my time. These are deep and troubling expectations that are shaped by male privilege, male power and toxic masculinity.
If you are a woman reading this, I have failed you. Through my silence and an uninterrogated collective misogyny, I have failed you. I have helped and continue to help perpetuate sexism. I know about how we hold onto forms of power that dehumanize you only to elevate our sense of masculinity. I recognize my silence as an act of violence. For this, I sincerely apologize.
I speak as an insider. I know about what so many of us men think about women — the language we use, the sense of power that we garner through our sexual exploits, our catcalling and threatening, our sexually objectifying gazes, our dehumanizing and despicable sexual gestures and our pornographic imaginations. This is not simply locker room banter but a public display of unchecked bravado for which we often feel no shame.
We have heard many accounts from women of what it is like to live under the yoke of our self-serving construction of a violent, pathetic and problematic masculinity. It is time that we stop gaslighting their reality.
By now, many of you are probably saying, this doesn’t apply to me — I’m innocent.
It’s true that many of us, including me, have not committed vile acts of rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse the likes of which Harvey Weinstein has been accused of. We have not, like Charlie Rose, been accused of sexual harassment by dozens of women who worked for us; and we are not, like Bill Cosby, being sent to prison for drugging and sexually assaulting a woman, in this case, Andrea Constand. Yet I argue that we are collectively complicit with a sexist mind-set and a poisonous masculinity rooted in the same toxic male culture from which these men emerged.
I’m issuing a clarion call against our claims of sexist “innocence.” I’m calling our “innocence” what it is — bullshit. As bell hooks writes in “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love,” men unconsciously “engage in patriarchal thinking, which condones rape even though they may never enact it. This is a patriarchal truism that most people in our society want to deny.” When women speak out about male violence, hooks writes, “folks are eager to stand up and make the point that most men are not violent. They refuse to acknowledge that masses of boys and men have been programmed from birth on to believe that at some point they must be violent, whether psychologically or physically, to prove that they are men.” We have learned it. In the language of Simone de Beauvoir, “One is not born, but rather becomes” masculine.
We have hidden behind a myth that “boys will be boys” — a myth that distorts our moral compass, that stunts our growth, maturity and self-respect, and smothers our capacity to love and experience the genuine ecstasy of Eros. Audre Lorde writes in “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” (1978), “The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women.” She adds, “Pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling.” Not only are we as men taught to deny our feelings, but we also are taught that sexual vulnerability is weakness, not the province of “real men.”
We mask that vulnerability. I find hooks’s description powerful and true to my own experience as a boy: “Learning to wear a mask (that word already embedded in the term ‘masculinity’),” as hooks writes, “is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity that a boy learns. He learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.”
What does hooks mean by “soul murder”?
When I was about 15 years old, I said to a friend of mine, “Why must you always look at a girl’s butt?” He promptly responded: “Are you gay or something? What else should I look at, a guy’s butt?” He was already wearing the mask. He had already learned the lessons of patriarchal masculinity. I was in an unfortunate bind. Either I should without question objectify girls’ behinds or I was gay. There was no wiggle room for me to be both antisexist and antimisogynistic and yet a heterosexual young boy. You see, other males had rewarded his gaze by joining in the objectifying practice: “Look at that butt!” It was a collective act of devaluation. The acts of soul murder had already begun.
Yet I, too, participated in acts of soul murder. As early as elementary school, the young boys would play this “game” of pushing one another into girls. The idea was to get your friend to push you into a girl that you found attractive in order to grind up against her. I was guilty: “Hurry up! Push me into her.” He pushed, and the physical grind was obvious. She would turn around, disgusted, and yell, “Stop!” Youthful? Yes. Was it sexist and wrong? Yes. This was our youthful collective education; this is what it meant for us to gain “masculine credibility” at the expense of girls.
Later, I was also made to believe that girls were “targets,” objects to be chased down and owned. That is the contradiction. For example, at about 16, we used to play a game called “Catch a girl, get a girl.” There was no equivalent called “Catch a boy, get a boy.” After all, as boys, we named the game. We would count to give the girls a head start. We would then run after them. If you caught a girl, you could steal a kiss. Some of the boys attempted to grope the girls.
The logic governing the game, unseen by both the boys and the girls, was predicated upon sexist assumptions that relegated the girls to positions of prey. This is what American male culture taught us early on: Women were like “meat” and we must always nurture a voracious appetite. This fact alone should challenge how we construe “mutual consent.” The game was orchestrated around what the philosopher Luce Irigaray would call a “dominant phallic economy.” We chased; they ran. We were the pursuers; they were the pursued. Our objective was to “get them.” We gazed upon the prey and then we would strike. Though the girls played, they were not to blame. We were the “winners,” possessors of conquered territory. That is part of the early training that I received when it came to my toxic masculinity.
Looking back, I wish that I could speak face to face to that younger self and undo the soul murder. Yet, I am not beyond redemption. That young boy is still learning from the older me. I have tremendous love to give him, a demanding love that he learn to undo the toxicity of male masculinity.
This is why Donald Trump Jr. got it all wrong when he was asked which of his children he is most concerned for and he answered, “Right now, I’d say my sons.” This is pure obfuscation, a substitution of fictions for facts, and a form of dangerous denial regarding the reality that his daughters may one day face. With that statement, he lied to his daughters.
Trump Jr. should get his priorities straight. In a male-dominated and sexist toxic world, a world where his own father grabs women’s genitalia and kisses them without their permission, it is our daughters who should concern us as targets of sexual violence. Trump Jr. should be concerned about raising his sons not in the image of his own father but in the image of those of us men who are prepared to recognize our soul murder, our toxic masculinity, and to do something about it.
We all recently lived through the public spectacle of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. What is at stake transcends but also includes Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school during the 1980s. The history of toxic and violent masculinity should have been enough for us to give full weight to the reasonableness and believability of Ford’s testimony. But we did not.
Donald Trump’s cruel public mocking of Ford in Southaven, Miss., days after her testimony was despicable and must be seen as another violation of Ford’s character. And as the crowd laughed and applauded, including women present, Ford’s words, her emotional testimony, were denounced as the ramblings of someone without any claim on the veracity of her experiences. To add insult to injury, Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s defense that Trump was just “stating the facts” is both a blatant lie and a further act of cruelty, a denial of Ford’s pain and denial of the collective suffering of women more generally from acts of sexual violence.
I can imagine being passionate about defending myself if put in Kavanaugh’s position. Kavanaugh, however, unabashedly reinforced white male machismo and aggressiveness such that even if one thinks that he is innocent of what Ford accused him of, he put on full display the performance of a cantankerous white male who is recklessly determined to seek revenge against those he claimed were out to get him.
The history of male violence against women speaks to Ford’s pain and suffering. The statistics regarding sexual assault are telling: One in five women are raped at some point in their lives; 90 percent of rape victims are female; in the United States one in three women experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime; roughly half of female victims of rape reported being raped by an intimate partner and 40 percent by an acquaintance; in eight out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knew the perpetrator. We can no longer deny this reality.
I know that if you are a woman, you don’t really need me as a man saying to you that you are not paranoid when it comes to male violence, sexual and otherwise. I speak not for you but with you. In my view, and in the view of many others, Kavanaugh failed himself, and you. And we have all played our part in that failure. I don’t want to fail women anymore.
Since the world is watching, we, as men, need to join in the dialogue in ways that we have failed to in the past. We need to admit our roles in the larger problem of male violence against women. We need to tell the truth about ourselves.
George Yancy is professor of philosophy at Emory University. His latest book is “Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America.”
First published in The Stone, an imprint of the New York Times. Included in Vox Populi by permission of the author.