Being a Man in a Man’s World

[This one's been sitting in my drafts folder for a while. I wasn't sure whether to post it or not, and I'm still not sure it's coherent. But what the hell, it's only a blog post.]

It’s hard to escape news of rapes by and of high school and college students these days. It almost seems like if you’re a girl or young woman within five feet of a group of male athletes you’re in serious danger of assault. I shouldn’t pick on athletes, though, because the male rape mentality, and the inhuman assumptions behind it, are pervasive throughout most cultures in the world and always have been. Indeed, one of the nastiest rape-related incidents I’ve read about that didn’t involve actual rape was a college student who is supposedly “a junior studying classics and religious studies” holding up a sign on the University of Arizona campus that reads, “You Deserve Rape.” It sounds like he spends a lot of time preaching outdoors babbling his incoherent hatred, so he’s probably too busy for athletics. Usually the preaching role is reserved for insane old guys who wander around college campuses ranting and being the butt of student jokes, but I guess even those insane old guys were young once.

That story also links to various other rape stories that have happened lately, the saddest one involving a high school girl who killed herself over the shame of the event. Police trying to investigate the crime had trouble finding witnesses who would talk about it. “One girl told investigators, ‘I just don’t want to throw anyone under the bus.'” It’s always sad to see someone complicit in her own oppression. I wonder how worried she would be about buses had she been the victim. Then there was the media sympathy for the Stuebenville rapists. Those poor little boys, raping someone and then having to deal with the annoyance of going to jail for it. Oh, their poor ruined lives. Raping women is a moral evil. Sympathizing with the rapists instead of the victim shares in that evil.

I think about this kind of thing more now that I have a teenage daughter who will be going to high school next year. I’ve always taught her to stand up for herself, resist bullies, and never let people push her around. I’ve taught her how to physically and verbally defend herself. Lately I’ve tried to gently tell her about some of these awful stories, not to frighten her, which I doubt would happen, but just to warn her that the world is occasionally a dangerous place for women and that knowledge and caution help keep people safe. After reading this rather depressing article on Shulamith Firestone, I also decided a little positive feminism was in order and got her this book, which she devoured in two days, her only remark to me about it being, “This is cool. Thanks.” I figured a book written by a teenager on “why feminism isn’t a dirty word” would be easier going than The Dialectic of Sex. I want her to be as independent as possible, protect herself, and never think there’s a role she should take on just because she’s female.

I never had to think about this kind of thing as a boy. In another post I mentioned that the claim of male superiority never had a great hold on me because I’ve met a lot of men in my life and haven’t been particularly impressed by many of them. I’ve also never been much of a joiner, so the natural breeding grounds of group rapist male bonding were out of my demographic. I’ve never understood the urge to be violent towards women or shared in the “bros before hos” communal misogyny so many men enjoy.

I also never had to worry much about bullying like the kind that drove that poor girl to suicide. The only thing about bullying in school that’s changed is people are now trying to do something about it, although based on the very public teen suicides prompted by bullying I’m not sure that much can be done. Through seventh grade I attended what I now sometimes call my violent Christian private school. Fights and bullying among the boys were as common as the daily baseball games at recess. As a bookish introvert, I was occasionally the target of verbal or physical bullies. However, I was also smarter, funnier, bigger, and stronger than most of the other boys, and never one to back down from a fight, so usually one encounter convinced them to leave me alone. I got into a lot of fights with bullies, but even with all that, I still never had to worry about some of the problems girls have to worry about.

A lot of you are probably aware of this, and some righteously angry about it, but I’ll point it out anyway. It’s pretty easy being a man in a man’s world, and it is a man’s world. Look at the people in power in just about any non-woman-centered political party or corporation or what have you, and the people in power will mostly be men. That this doesn’t seem strange to men is because they’ve been raised to expect it, like they’ve been raised to believe they deserve to get the girl because they’re the heroic action star in the movie of their life.

It’s easier to be a man in so many ways. People take you more seriously, even when that’s a foolish thing to do. I remember a contractor who wanted to point out to me some work he was planning to do, but didn’t want to talk to my wife. Whatever it was (this was fifteen years or so ago) I knew nothing about but my wife actually did. I’ve watched auto mechanics explain simple maintenance issues to women like they’re infants, and then turn to me and start talking like I know something about cars. If I knew that much about cars, I’d fix the things myself. But, you know, men. If I’m assertive in a discussion, I don’t have to be worried about being labelled an aggressive bitch. If I’m speaking during a meeting, other men don’t routinely interrupt what I’m saying. No one would ever say I how cute I am when I’m angry. Nobody would ever expect me to make the coffee or clean up the dinner mess after a family meal. Being a man and not being aware of the social bias towards men isn’t as morally heinous as rape, but it’s still inexcusable. In an ironic example of how much easier it is being a man, I probably get moral points from some people just for writing about this stuff, as if thinking everyone should be treated like human beings is some sort of radically enlightened assertion.

The sexual politics are much different on the other side as well. Just for fun I Googled two similar phrases: how to get a man and how to get a woman. The first two results for getting a man are “How to Get a Good Man: 12 Steps” and “How to Get a Man to Fall in Love with You: 8 Steps.” The 12 steps seemed reasonable to me, and were along the lines of “just be a decent, worthwhile human being and stop worrying about it.” The 8 steps had stupid suggestions like “be a little mysterious” and “always leave him wanting more.” Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer the decent, worthwhile human being who doesn’t bother with crap like that. Nevertheless, the majority of the links are about finding relationships. Most of the men’s links are about trying to get laid. Sometimes it’s more, like this advice: “Do you want a “Total 10”? A “Total 10” is a woman who’s beautiful inside and out — she’s hot , intelligent, emotionally mature, and knows who she is. If this is the kind of women you want, you’re probably not going to meet her at a bar, a club or a strip club.” It fails to mention that if you’re the sort of guy who browses websites for tips on how to pick up women, you’re probably the sort of man that intelligent and emotionally mature women would want to avoid. Women seek a connection with another human being, men seek a pliant object with moist orifices, and everyone goes along like this isn’t a perverse state of affairs. The prevailing assumption, as with the rape mentality, is that women are objects to be used. They’re not to be considered as human beings by men, just game pieces to be played. Everything I’m pointing out here is common knowledge, but what kind of sick culture do we live in where this is the norm?

And then there’s the alleged danger of female sexuality, which is the bizarre pseudoproblem promulgated by traditional religions and cultures from time immemorial. If you’ve taught college writing, you’ve probably run across essays that start, “Since the beginning of time people have done [insert action that people have certainly not done since the beginning of time].” However, I believe it might be true that since the beginning of time men have been raping women and then claiming they just couldn’t help themselves. Like that egregious buffoon at Arizona or the morally retarded in any country justifying legal penalties for women for not walking around covered in a blanket everywhere they go, the bizarre and absolutely untrue assumption is that men just can’t help themselves. When they see a bare leg or a bare breast, they’ve just got to get them some sex. It’s not their fault! They just can’t stop themselves! Well, I’m a straight man who likes women and likes sex and I can tell you for sure, men can stop themselves from assaulting women. It’s just that in certain morally twisted cultures and subcultures, they don’t have to because they’ve got unaccountable power. Blaming women for the violence men do to them seems to be common everywhere.

The only good I can see coming out of the publicity around all the traumas and trials is that some people, even some men, seem to be waking up to the situation. It’s healthy to see the aggressive and vocal reaction to the moral obtuseness of, say, high school principals who want to silence raped girls so the football team won’t get in trouble. That’s the sort of sick behavior that people don’t want known about themselves, which means the threat of publicity might stop some other morally questionable behavior. More brave girls fighting against a system of exploitation and silence might change things for the better.

Even non-traumas are sparking conversations. I remember last summer the controversy after a comedian who’d been heckled by a woman who claimed jokes about rape are never funny replied with the “joke” that it would be funny if that woman was gang raped right at that moment. Another comedian tried to defend it by saying feminists don’t have a sense of humor, as if saying a woman should be gang-raped was at all humorous. The woman was wrong that rape jokes can’t be funny, and the comedian was wrong that feminists don’t have a sense of humor. For example, I thought up a rape joke in response that I bet would get a few chuckles even in the most radical of feminist circles. I’ll try it out on you, with the warning that it’s a bit crude: “men who fight against women’s reproductive rights should be raped with old baseball bats and then denied medical treatment in order to preserve the life of the splinter.” I bet some of you laughed at that. You might even feel bad about it because it’s violent and disgusting. There are plenty of people who wouldn’t laugh, but no one would try to respond, “Republicans just don’t have a sense of humor.” Except for Bob Dole, that might be true, but not laughing at that joke wouldn’t necessarily be an indication of it.

I have no conclusion or special wisdom to offer. It’s just that I’ve been saddened and angered by the spate of stories about the abuse of high school girls and college women, and these were among the thoughts conjured up by all the tragic news. I’d like my daughter to grow up in a world without rape or reactionary gender expectations, but that’s not going to happen. All I can do is help her learn how to be careful in a world that can sometimes be dangerous for women in a way it isn’t for men and to understand that except maybe for breastfeeding, the idea of “women’s work” is a moral prejudice and not the natural state of affairs. Oh, and maybe watch out for football players.

3 thoughts on “Being a Man in a Man’s World

  1. Thanks for thinking and talking about this topic. Men *and* women have to speak up in order to change perspective. Also appreciate that you get that it’s not just about women’s safety, it’s about independence too. I get a little tired of dialogue that blames women for being victims, after casting them (often benevolently) in that role in the first place.

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