reflections on #metoo
First, this is not a request for either pity or sympathy. None is required, none is deserved.
I am a high school English teacher, have been for nearly 20 years. (Okay, maybe a smidgen of pity for that.) I’m 53. If you do the math, that puts me getting into the field at 33. It’s my third profession. Before teaching I held other jobs — a lot of them in the years that I kept dropping out of college. I was in restaurants for a long time, eventually ending up in management. Construction. Factory work. Delivery. Phone sales. Editing. Bear with me a minute, I’m going somewhere with this.
I’m 53, white, male, with a graduate degree. My parents are professionals, as are nearly all my friends. I earn about 50 grand a year and have never really earned much more than that for any extended period of time. For periods of my life I’ve held multiple jobs. While I make enough money to get by, and have savings above the average (thanks entirely to a wife who is far better with money than I am), the future is potentially fraught. I’m nowhere near the place one is supposed to be at my age and gender and skin color, in terms of financial authority or a place in the scheme of things.
The thing about teaching high school English is a sense — rarely stated — of unrealized potential, of stalled ambition, of — not to put too light a word on it — failure. In particular, a kind of masculine failure — failure to achieve a certain power, failure to move into the world as a man, earning money, bossing people, creating stuff, golfing. Teachers feel this, I think, though we don’t talk about it much, a quiet little shame concerning ambition and status. Now, obviously the world is a vast and complicated place, and we are such a varied stew of motivations and emotions and self-concepts that this single niggling notion cannot be considered overwhelmingly significant without taking other factors into account. But it exists. It’s a thing. It’s not THE thing; it’s not even a big thing in the overall landscape of my life. But it’s A thing. And it’s mixed up with a lot of other things, one of which is currently exposed for all to see in a somewhat new and naked fashion.
There has always been, in the back of my mind, in the recesses of my heart, a tacit assumption that I’m not masculine enough for power and authority.
This is a simplification, naturally, and a narrow focus on only one aspect of a complex mess of personality and idea, but it’s most certainly there. The thing is, I’ve NEVER been ‘man’ enough in this regard. Never the sexual conquistador, never the powerful athlete, the headstrong leader. I’ve not plunged into the world of money and finance, not amassed my fortune or headed up my own business or been in charge of more than 50 people at a time (adults, anyway. Kids don’t count.) It’s one of the reasons I suspect I’ve had so many jobs.
There are a lot of us out here, quiet men in the middle, feeling this simultaneous moral certainty yet worldly uncertainty about our place, about the way we muscle through the world.
And it all has within it a sexual aspect that is both difficult to pin down yet thoroughly embedded.
I was never the smooth player, the conquistador, the kind of guy who casually engaged in one night stands or manipulated a female into sex. Women were never objects; they have always been human beings, like me, creatures of passion and motive and values and feeling.
I’ve never boldly propositioned a woman, never pawed a female, catcalled, dickpicked, bathrobed, or any of the other frankly appalling and disturbingly casual behaviors of those men now finally getting the kind of attention they deserve.
It’s not just faith to my wife that keeps me from taking some sexual power trip. Throwing my dick at co-workers would be a betrayal of my job, of the demands and structure of work. Sex outside marriage is a dangerous betrayal of my family, a destructive indulgence that would tear apart my relationship as an honorable father and husband. There are rules of behavior that aren’t that difficult to understand, and consequences for breaking those rules.
Yet this is a choice that men in power seem to make without much hesitation; in fact, it often seems fundamental to their power altogether.
Maybe my circle is limited, but nearly every man I know is like me. We live our quiet middle class lives, have our homes and families, hobbies and interests and sports teams, socialize with friends. We are not powerful, not millionaires, don’t own companies or sit on corporate boards. We vacation once a year and spend holidays with relatives. We have the kinds of jobs that millions of other Americans have: salaried or hourly, insured, with modest retirement plans.
Here’s the thing, and maybe I’m wrong, but a lot of the men who I’ve watched rise in the world have been the conquistadors. The ones in college who strode with such purpose and force out and up, some of those I’ve worked for over the years, the Superintendents and Publishers and Restaurant Owners and Factory Managers (as mentioned, a lot of jobs). Maybe I’m wrong on this, justifying a bit, but often the main difference between the powerful and myself, and certainly the most consistent difference, has been sexual aggression.
If I stuck around a job long enough and found myself sliding towards authority, towards Management, I frequently found myself being silent in the face of an awkward, sexually charged atmosphere. The men would stand around talking — at work or in a bar — and an aggression would emerge, a kind of jockeying for dominance that centered around women as objects. It’s hard to explain and I have no anecdotal examples, where the line ever is with this, but eventually I’d wander back to my job and that would be it. After awhile you start to recognize the stance from afar, the body language in the circle, and stay away. I’ve also suspected that I too present a stance, one that says I’m not that kind of guy.
This is not to say that the men in my circle do not talk or joke about sex. We’re not prudes. We have our language and topics, but there’s a line that stays uncrossed, a difference that I suspect often is measured by the space between talk and action.
I think this describes most men, but we — most of us — navigate a complicated landscape of masculine authority in which a certain type of man has the most power.
There’s nothing grey about Weinstein or what he did, but we are grappling with something bone deep in ourselves, something we simultaneously celebrate and vilify. Sex and sexuality are part of what we are, part of our deepest humanity and presence in world. It involves a selfish, mindless core of impulse and drive and pleasure. I’m not entirely sure if it’s the sexual part we should focus on — even though that part of it is what’s so deeply damaging — because there’s no clear solution there. Sexually speaking, what all these men are doing is not endorsed by the culture; otherwise there wouldn’t be payoffs and subterfuge and half-whispered threats and drugs in cocktails. But in another way, it most certainly is endorsed by the culture, and rewarded.
Every culture to the beginning of culture has built massive social, behavioral, traditional, and especially religious structures to control and harness our physical drive. Yet we continue to speak today as if sex is some kind of cultural creation. The real issue, in my mind, is not sex, but power and wealth, which rewards the primal to emerge unchecked by social rules. Men like Weinstein aren’t acting with the approval of the culture, but that it still happens, that so many women have suffered and so many men are so profoundly rewarded, reveals a much more complex landscape than we wish to admit.
One of the primary goals OF power and wealth is sex. At the same time, perhaps intentionally so, one of the driving forces BEHIND wealth and power is sexual in character — masculinity, physicality, etc. We use sex to get sex, if that makes any sense. We go to some length to define and box in and draw boundaries around those forces. Most social constructs are meant to control and harness our primal, instinctive actions, but is it the sex that needs more boundaries or is it the power?
If this is all very confused and contradictory, that’s because it’s how I feel as well. Confused and baffled and not a little helpless, not a little out of my place, not a little bit wandering some kind of uncomfortably physical territory.
On the other side of this quiet discomfort are other choices made and other lives built. My wife and I, married 25 years, have a house we own and 2 kids in college. I have a good steady job that provides meaning and insurance and enough for comfort. On one side are choices that have led to this place; on the other are choices that MAY have led somewhere else, but involved taking on a personality and action that were at best an ill fit, and at worst a moral compromise. That’s the choice we make.
The question many women have been asking recently is why was so little done? It’s a question almost immediately answered with across-the-spectrum evidence of specific suppression. Against the victim. The women didn’t do anything because they were punished for it. But for us, the men who also stood in positions to do something, simply for being men and being nearby, for sharing the same workplace and landscape, the reply is more complicated. For the women, there is a clear sin, and a clear injustice. It continues or goes unpunished because of a power imbalance and carefully managed threat of violence. It’s the way criminals everywhere go unpunished, by staying hidden to all but the victim, and keeping that victim isolated.
I ask myself often enough these days, with all these stories emerging, why I never saw it. Or rather, why I never acknowledged in action its intensity and pervasiveness. And to be honest — an ‘honest’ answer proved wrong with the usual intensity of hindsight — I never really saw it. Not really. I knew about a casual, irritating, endemic sexism, and was even aware of it in my own actions (the tendency to mansplain, the occasional dismissal of an argument along gender lines, and a hundred other things I’m sure someone somewhere can easily remind me of). But this other thing, threaded throughout the culture and especially tumored among the wealthy and powerful, this other aggression, I did not witness. Until now.
There’s this choice that often presents itself, between appetite and responsibility, power and submission. It’s framed simultaneously as weakness and noble sacrifice, but sometimes we make that choice long before we have to make other choices, and we set ourselves on paths and in places where the choice to action does not have to be made. Sex and power are so deeply twisted together, at such an early time in one’s life, that many of us make other choices and find ourselves in other places. Most of us, I think. Most men.
I have no thesis to this collection of paragraphs, which is part of the problem overall. One expects, when writing out thoughts, that there be some guiding argument or final point. There isn’t, maybe because we’re still in the middle of it, maybe because there is no answer to my particular cowardice.
This is not a request for pity or sympathy. It’s not even a request for understanding, for even as I write this and hesitatingly publish it, I wonder how deeply and tragically I have it all wrong. Choices were made going back 40 years or more, choices leading to this place where I, and a lot of other men, are mere witnesses to a crime we somehow dishonorably divorced ourselves from a long time ago. Or perhaps it’s a marriage we never made in the first place, and thus find ourselves in the lives we are in, for better or worse.