Sexual Harassment And Sexual Assault Are A Cultural Problem–Male Privilege Is Part Of That
In “The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido,” recently published in The New York Times, Stephen Marche argues that men need to reexamine, what he calls, “the often ugly and dangerous nature of the male libido” in light of the current conversation about sexual harassment and assault. As an NYC therapist, I agree with many of his points. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are a cultural problem and male privilege is a big part of that.
Men need to develop in their appreciation that, for men, sexuality and violence are culturally connected. As I see it, what men are now being asked is that they be curious about the impact of how they live their lives on women–how we use our bodies, how we express our sexual desire and what work we can do to listen to women.
Examining Male Privilege Doesn’t Mean Giving Up On Masculinity
It’s important to make the distinction between masculinity itself being assigned blame rather than our cultural norms around masculinity. When we relate in an essentialist manner (as evolutionary psychology would have it, for example), we effectively say either: “Men can’t help it” (big concern there) or “Male sexuality and masculinity itself are inherently problematic.” I have some big problems with that.
I see this position as quite different from “not all men”–both the assertion and the hashtag. My position is “yes, all men” and we, as men, can and must do something about that. We need to recognize that there is something decrepit in the culture of male sexuality, not the biology of male sexuality. We are creators of culture, and we can and must make choices about how we, as men, participate in that culture.
Examining male privilege doesn’t mean giving up on masculinity entirely. Men can be proud of who they are and give expression to proud masculinity. Plenty of women enjoy men who are assertive, sexually forward and playfully complimentary. We need to also be willing, though, to be revolutionary in the expression of our masculinity–willing to do things that open us up to being seen as “gay” or “feminine.”
More Than Just Changing Behavior: Men Should Develop In Understanding
Part of the mistake going on is that the emphasis is largely on men’s behavior as opposed to men developing in their understanding of what women are saying to them. It puts the focus on “Do X and don’t do Y,” rather than being impacted by women’s experiences of “X versus Y.” In couples therapy, I often have the experience of a man saying to me about his female partner, “I just don’t understand what she wants.” Meanwhile, she’s been telling him clearly. Men aren’t used to listening to women.
As men, we regularly find ourselves in situations in which we have the power to coerce because of our physical size, our cultural capital and our tendency to be noticed and heard in ways that women are not. Men have to have the humility to listen.
A Note For The Nice Guys: It’s Important For You To Keep Listening Too
Sometimes nice guys are the least curious. They feel as if they’ve already listened to women, done the required reading, taken seminars and are fluent in the language of the woke man. Assuming that leaves you all set, however, just perpetuates the problem.
So what should a nice guy do? There’s humility that’s needed. Unfortunately, one form that takes is humiliation–men who get really degraded and cast themselves as monsters. And so men who are “with it,” but don’t want to accept that role (and shouldn’t have to), become closed off. There’s a wish for a sort of special dispensation–that by virtue of being a good guy, we shouldn’t have to keep doing the work. But it’s the work–and the listening–that counts.
Women Also Play A Role In Men’s Development (No, This Isn’t Always Fair)
In my NYC therapy practice, I also talk a good deal with women about men’s development (usually about the man they’re dating or married to). I often say that women have an important role in helping men develop around being more compassionate and more tuned into the ways their masculinity can be oppressive. And no, this isn’t always fair.
I think, by and large, men aren’t going to be moved to grow in these ways unless the women in their lives demand it. A common statement, on the macro scale, for women is, “We need to stand up and be heard.” While “stand up and be heard” is generally a metaphor, I think, at times, it’s literally what’s necessary. As a therapist, I’ve urged women–both with their male partners in and not in the room–to stand on a chair, and scream and shout, “You’re not listening to me!” Understandably a lot of women don’t want to go there–there are a litany of ways they get shot down in these moments (and are made to feel crazy). Ultimately, if a male partner just isn’t open to hearing this, it may be a dead end. But plenty of men are open to being impacted–what’s needed is for women to be more forceful.
This leaves women with a tough choice. I commonly see one of two bad options being indulged by women who are fed-up. She can be mad at her partner an awful lot or she can go along with it and park her resentment somewhere out of the way. There’s a third option, which is to understand this as a development matter for men. Rather than saying, “I’m so mad at you for not listening to me,” the move here would be to say, “Hey, I think you don’t often listen well and you need to work on that.”