Anger and frustration are the only two feelings I can put into words regarding the maelstrom surrounding … well, everything – the exhausting everything – around #metoo, sexual harassment/assault, consent, sexism and the whole bubbling stew of every related thing that can be stirred in. It’s too complex and all-encompassing, touching on so many issues, to be able to parse effectively. Even if I could separate all the component parts, I am too indescribably angry and frustrated to do so.
But the thought that keeps coming back to me again and again is this line that people draw (I use the word “people” here because sometimes women are the ‘predators’ and sometimes men are the ‘victims’ – and even these labels are not going to be detailed and inclusive enough – but that isn’t my point): the line where one person stands, on the side of which (s)he (“he” from here on out because it’s usually a “he”) really, truly believes he has never done anything wrong. The “No Man Thinks It’s Him” line. It could be you standing on one side of this line, firm in the belief that you have never assaulted someone, never harassed someone, never pushed someone beyond their comfort zone, never took advantage of a power dynamic that essentially left the other person feeling they had no choice. But you could be on the other side of that line as much as any of these things could have happened to you.
I was more fired up about this particular point many months ago, but never had the time to articulate this. This is always the danger: when you don’t act immediately, the passion behind your motivation dissipates, or fear, or antipathy – any number of things – creep in. You just want to forget. You just want to move on. How many of us have just wanted to move on? We can see how speaking out may get your voice a megaphone (see #metoo), but the results can end up being terrifying (see the Kavanaugh confirmations and Christine Blasey Ford; oh yes, we’ve come so far since the divisive Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill case. No… history repeats and just a lot of noise around something that… goes on being exactly the same).
There are no consequences for those, particularly powerful white men with powerful white male friends, who abuse. Make as much noise as you want – it has not changed the real way in which such cases and complaints are handled, nor how victims are seen and treated. Certainly not in the court of public opinion.
And, as several articles highlighted as the Kavanaugh story got underway: both of them could well be telling the truth. Because in a man like Kavanaugh’s mind he never did anything wrong. This is how the “No Man Thinks It’s Him” line is drawn. All these people (again, primarily men, but I do know women who are wildly inappropriate to near-criminal levels) truly believe they never did anything wrong. Anything that happened was the norm, was expected, was agreed to.
One of the first times I really thought about this was when I stumbled across a video discussion among a group of relatively well-known actors and some lesser-known but still influential entertainment-industry type men called “Man Enough:. Essentially they sit and discuss together in frank terms their own transgressions, acknowledging that they never really saw the extent of the problem but eventually realized that it is also all of their responsibility, i.e., lamenting all the times they never said anything to stop others from behaving badly (which could mean a vast range of things) toward women. They acknowledge that their silence is complicity. But at the same time, while they may have alluded to their own actions (not necessarily treating women with as much respect as they should have), they still perceived themselves as being on “the right side” of this “No Man Thinks It’s Him” line.
But, if I take their discussion to its logical conclusion, it’s every man. No man thinks it’s him, but it is every man. In one way or another. No man in the video acknowledged that he has no way of knowing whether some action he took in the past might have been perceived as taking it too far. Almost no man (particularly those loud, prominent pro-women types) walks away from what he thinks of as a consensual encounter believing he did something wrong (assault, rape) and “got away with it”. It’s the fundamental thinking about these things that’s wrong. It is fundamentally a problem of not just thinking and acting on that sense of entitlement and “societal norm” on which he relies, but firmly and completely believing that whatever he has done has been consensual.
In cases where power dynamics are at work, or women have been cornered and go along with something they don’t want, it is not because they really consented. It is because they took the lesser of what they feared – giving an aggressive, out of control, overpowering man what he wants right now might save her life. Never mind that it will haunt her for life – at least she will still be alive.
But accountability – no. A man who goes through the world in which, if they are not overtly, openly “grabbing women by the pussy” – but are “just grabbing them and kissing them”, is a predator but will never, ever see himself that way.
This also came to light recently in Seattle, where a well-known businessman, David Meinert, was accused repeatedly of a persistent pattern of sexual assault and intimidation – all of which he tried to deny. Early on in the media, he tried to deflect the accusations by asserting his place on the right side of the “No Man Thinks It’s Him” line; he went into damage-control mode, and issued halfhearted apologies that amount to trying to demean and diminish what his victims endured, claiming that he had believed the people in question had wanted everything that they had done (consensually). And he may well have believed this. But the pattern of intimidation, coercion, threats, the power differential, and the sheer shock some victims felt as these events occurred (i.e. “is this really happening?”) is well-established.
The power dynamics and fear dynamics at play are things most men are not going to understand. They will swear up and down that they would never disrespect, much less force or hurt a woman, but do not understand that their insistence and manipulation is already disrespect, force and/or hurt. When forced into a situation where you’re afraid to say no, you are not fully consenting. Your ability to freely consent has already been taken from you.
No one is immune
There are, though, some very blurred lines.
Take for example the very blurry territory of consensual sex that turns into crossing boundaries that turns into assault. I read an article during the height of the #metoo publicity about the challenge of delineating when assault has occurred in a consensual relationship that contains mutually agreed-upon rough sex. The rough sex story hit a nerve because it’s right on that boundary – you have readily consented to have a sexual relationship in which you each agree to a certain kind of sex, which then can be twisted and manipulated and turned into an easy excuse to abuse you and then used against you when you realize you have been abused. I didn’t realize until recently that the discomfort, and unsettled feeling, I had about a former relationship, was largely down to this. And I am 100% certain that the man in question would never, ever imagine that he had abused his power, the very clear power differential (I was very young, he wasn’t) or me. I had consented and agreed – in his mind, I had liked it. Even when it reached the stage that I did not like it, did not agree and did not consent. He held all the cards, and I spent a long time convincing myself that I was agreeing to “exploration” – anything not to confront the reality of what had actually happened.
This line I refer to, the “I’m not that kind of guy”/”No Man Thinks It’s Him” line, isn’t just a line that men cross, as I mentioned earlier. Less blurry, but certainly an area for discussion, of course, is when women assault or abuse men, which can be and often is, coercive and manipulative. (This does not begin to cover the violence, abuse and assault in every demographic, e.g. gay and transgender populations, which is disproportionately high and very important, but not within the scope of this rant.) As a man in my life stated about his own experiences with a woman perpetrator: “If a man were perpetrating these acts on a woman, it would be assault. It would be harassment. It would be rape.” Society isn’t prepared to see woman-on-man acts as something unwelcome or that a man would not be willing to have happen. And yet it happens all the time. With the #metoo movement came a few media stories about similar tales, such as the Asia Argento ‘backlash’ and a story about an NYU female professor accused of sexual harassment by one of her male students. If we want to get to a place (however unlikely that seems at the moment) where women can come forward with what has happened to them, and today we defend women who are not listened to or believed, we have to do the same for men in similar situations.
As I told someone around the time these revelations came out, we have all done things we are not proud of. We should all be reflecting on how our actions will affect other people. It does not need to rise to the level of assault or rape to be questionable and worth self-reflection and/or remorse. A big part of the problem is that so many of the (mostly) men, those on the “right side” of this line I’ve cited, who have been accused still don’t really believe that they perpetrated assault/rape. They genuinely think they used their power to gain consent, and even that coerced consent still equals consent. They will never reflect on their actions and the meaning of those actions to realize, “Wow, I did something wrong. I hurt someone.” If they pretend to reflect at all and apologize it’s never “I am sorry for what I did and that I hurt you” but rather “I am sorry if you think I hurt you”, placing the blame/perception of harm back on the victim.