It’s great that men are using the hashtag #IBelieveYou, in support of the women who post #MeToo on social media—a trend triggered by reports of harassment, assault, and rape by producer Harvey Weinstein, which in turn came a year after presidential candidate Donald Trump, in a leaked tape, boasted that “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. . . . Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” Yet many of the women who now feel compelled publicly to relive some of the most horrific and debasing moments of their lives, wonder where we go from here, beyond the hashtags.
It’s easy to stuff all the blame for the ubiquity of sexual violations into the grotesque bastions of power symbolized by Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump. But if we really want to make our society safer for all, we must do more than vilify these particular men, and do more than believe the women who speak up. We must also acknowledge even the subtle ways we maintain a culture that disempowers women.
Many men are hesitant to recognize our own complicity in this, as we are afraid to be defined as creeps like Weinstein, Trump, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, or Bill Cosby. We’d prefer to be the opposite of them—righteous and upstanding, and liked. But this binary thinking of good guy vs. bad guy will only keep us stuck. We men need to own our contributions to a misogynistic culture if we want to move forward. As psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin says, true repair in a relationship can only take place “if one can admit having denied the other’s humanity without the complementary reversal in which now one’s self must take up the position of being unworthy to live.” In other words, our options are not only to be good or bad, destroyer or destroyed. We can feel the shame of our mistakes, admit our failures, and acknowledge the injuries we have caused our sisters and brothers, with the intention of moving forward together on equal footing, and treating each other better.
In this spirit, I share a few examples of my own complicity in our sexist culture.
I was a student, presenting a review I had written of a play. Several women classmates asked why my descriptions of the actresses in the play were exclusively about their appearance. (In some cases I compared them to flowers or food.) Upon receiving this feedback I was ashamed, and therefore defensive. “I’m gay,” I shot back, as if that somehow proved I couldn’t objectify women. How could they not see I was a “good” guy, and not a Weinstein or a Trump? Reflecting on this now, I realize my conviction that I was innocent had less to do with me being gay, and more to do with the movie reviews I had read in high school, which objectified women as a norm. I feel embarrassed looking back on this. To wonder, especially as a minority myself, how on earth I missed the fact that I had so obviously degraded the women in the play, and my class, by objectifying them. And then, to add insult to injury, I denied the objectification ever took place—a reactive bit of gaslighting. I am sorry for that. But as a therapist I often find that looking back can help to move forward. I now make conscious efforts to avoid repeating that mistake with any human being. I aim to be empathically curious about everyone I meet, and to advocate for people who are different than me. Most importantly, though, I try to listen with humility whenever I inadvertently offend someone out of my own shortsightedness or ignorance.
I was in my early twenties and sharing an apartment with a female friend. We were both regularly stressed out about starting our careers and paying our bills. One day we were arguing about shared expenses. Things got heated. I felt I was not being heard and I screamed, “Just pay what you owe, you bitch!” Her face dropped in a way I had never seen. I’d like to blame my reaction on the fact that I was stressed and had observed many men speak to women like that, in life and in art. But it was I who delivered the line at that time and in that way. Only me. The nature of our argument was complicated, but the way I exploded was not. As the years go by and I gain perspective on what happened, I am more and more disturbed by my reaction—the way I so thoughtlessly dipped into a readily available well of misogynistic power at a moment of anger. I think of how many times a day all kinds of men react in just that way, and often far worse, to all kinds of women and then disavow their behavior, e.g.: “She made me do it”; “What’s the big deal, guys do that all the time?”; “I get treated that way too, have compassion for me”; “I have anger issues”; “I’m a sex addict”; “It’s not my fault.” It is my fault whenever I use my power and privilege to harm someone else, even reactively. And I encourage you, dear reader, to acknowledge this as well
I was at a house party. Suddenly a guy who was very charismatic and popular at our school approached me and a male classmate. He announced that he had just peed on the bed of a young woman, another student, who lived in the house but was not present. I believe it had something to do with her refusing his sexual advances. The other guy and I reacted by laughing. That was our first, primal instinct. And that continues to haunt me. Why did we laugh? Because we were shocked and disoriented? Terrible people? Drunk? Because the guy who committed this hateful act of violation was more powerful than us and we didn’t know what else to do? I have wrestled with these questions ever since with no definite answers. What I do know is that I am deeply sorry, both for what happened and for the way I first responded.
It wasn’t until the perpetrator’s wife – a fellow student – discovered what had happened and became outraged, minutes later at the party, that I was suddenly flooded with shame. The reality of what had happened began to sink in, including the fact that I had initially laughed.
When this all came to light, months later, I did reach out to the woman who was targeted and apologized for being at the party. But I wish I had apologized for laughing, for not being immediately outraged, and for not telling her what had happened right away.
Everyone at our school eventually found out, and our administrators did not help us to heal. A counselor stopped by our class for an hour, and we had exactly one all-school meeting that was intended to put the incident behind us. I remember the man who ran the whole institution – who is today very powerful, beloved, and greatly enriches the world in his current position – encouraged everyone at the meeting to simply “move past” the event because he himself had done things “far worse” when he was in school. (The event being, as I think of it now, a form of hate crime.)
With each new day and story of sexual violation entering my news feeds, I realize that I still have not “moved past” what happened. And as I began writing this article I wondered how the woman who was victimized feels about it. So I decided to reach out to her. My intention then, and now as I write, is to emphasize not only that we all contribute to abuses of power, but also that we have the capacity to own our shame, apologize, heal, and grow as we move forward.
I sent her an initial message, sharing my idea for this article, and how I wanted to encourage men to be open about our complicity in cultural misogyny, and assuring her that I would not proceed without her permission. She responded warmly and openly. She shared that she and her husband had been talking a lot about the #MeToo trend, and she had told him she would never post a #MeToo status because, “anytime I have spoken up about an injustice in my life related to gender and gender politics, I have been shut down and dismissed.” She explained that she has deeply mixed feelings about our school because of that incident. She wrote:
I felt like there was an overwhelming pressure for me to make it right for everyone, by “getting over it,” and in the end I surrendered to that pressure not for me but for everyone else because I felt like that is what I had to do to be included in the community. Eventually I convinced myself that my perception of the incident was wrong, that I hadn’t been targeted because of rejecting his advances, that it was just a random act that could have happened to anyone.
She said that though the incident had been “locked away,” #MeToo had brought it up, and now she is struggling with her place in all of it. She wrote:
I feel deep guilt that I didn’t do more to stand up against this . . . I felt suffocated and I felt like my survival depended on moving on. Having the opportunity for any part of the story to be seen in the light of day will be so cathartic and beneficial to me.
I then shared what I had written so far, along with a detailed account of what I remembered about the event, and my participation in it. I shared how ashamed and haunted I remain for laughing when I first heard what happened and for not telling her right away. I told her how much I hope other men (and women) will read this, identify with it, and be encouraged to own their participation in abuses like this. She then shared an account of her experience at school, which she gave me permission to publish, and I include in detail below:
I remember very specifically the time [he] cornered me and told me he was a CIA agent, and he only felt comfortable telling me his secret , and he used to tie people up and torture them, and would I like to be tied up to see how good he was at his job. I told him I thought that was the worst pickup line ever and he was a dirt bag for even trying to pick me up considering he had [his wife]. He told me that [his wife] was a prude and he could tell I was not. I told him to leave me alone and he did.
[The following year] I remember [your classmates] being particularly susceptible to [him]. They would all worship him. I thought it was stupid considering what I knew about him from the year prior, and they all told me I was full of it. The weekend that the incident happened I was at [my boyfriend’s]. When I came back to my apartment and my room, I knew something had been wrong. I asked [my roommate], for weeks and weeks what had happened but all he said was he never wanted to talk about it. I found out [your male classmate] was there and I asked him what had happened, I knew something was up and neither of them ever said anything. There was a particularly violent night where I was accusing [my roommate] of always lying to me, and I brought up the night where I knew something happened and no one would be straight with me. He said if I wanted to know so bad that I should call [your classmate] and get the truth. [Your classmate] came over, I think he was drunk. I continued to accuse him and [my roommate] of hiding something from me. I told them I had a sick feeling that something happened, and [your classmate] got right in my face screaming and pointing at me, then pushed me against a wall yelling at me that I was a bitch for accusing him and why the fuck wouldn’t I leave it alone. It was so scary, and I moved in with [my boyfriend] that night.
Fast forward about six months, maybe even a year, I don’t remember the time frame. [Another person who was at the party] and I get into an argument and she said, you should be nicer to me since I tried to clean up the pee on your bed. I said, what are you talking about. She then went on to tell me that she knew I always wondered about that night and that [he] peed on my bed, while [your classmate] poured beer all over my room. I was so shocked, I flew out of the room and immediately confronted [my roommate] who denied it. This caused a big dramatic scene with me learning that several people knew about this but never told me, even though I had been begging for the truth.
[When I reported to our school administrators] what had happened, they were horrified. They told me that they would be consulting with others and would get back to me about what we were all going to do. Their solution . . . we had one visit from a counselor to our class. I can remember [two of my classmates] being so hurt and upset, when the counselor said his job was not to stay with us beyond the hour. I remember both of them demanding to get [the administrators]. They came in and both [of my classmates] blasted them saying that a horrible thing happened, and how disappointed they were that the school’s response was to have someone come in to open up all the wounds, and then leave while we all bled to death. The next morning I was in front of [the administrators] who told me that it is was obvious this was getting out of hand, and was there a way I could articulate a reasonable solution so that everyone could move on. I told them I wanted [the perpetrator fired from his job, at the school] They said no. I asked him to be kicked out of school they said no. I said, ‘What am I supposed to ask for then?’ They said how about he pays for your bedding that he peed on. I said that is not enough, they said that is the best they were ever going to help me with.
The next day I sat in front of [him, the administrators, and the head of the institution]. [He] got to read me his apology statement. The statement was all about how this incident was ruining his life and how he knew I couldn’t be compassionate at this time, but he wished I could see that he suffered too, in that [his wife] was angry with him. He then handed me a check for $300. It sat in front of me I didn’t even want it. [The head of the institution] said with this payment this closes this issue and that he hoped that he didn’t hear about it again, he then said if I find I can’t move past this, that I should remember that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” [The administrators] also reminded me that I needed to move past this quickly for all our sakes and that if I was having feelings I should save them for [my school work]. From that point on, I was a pariah to a lot of people. Very few people stood by me, and the faculty treated me poorly. I remember [his wife] passing me in the hall and asking me if I was happy that I “ruined everything for the whole school.”
For years and years I fantasized that this would come to light and that somehow I would have a real moment of vindication. I imagined that [his wife] would finally realize what had happened and would call me and apologize. I imagined that [the administrators] would write to me and tell me how sorry they were for mishandling everything, and would refund my tuition since they basically stopped teaching me after this happened, and I imagined that [the head of the institution] would publicly apologize for his cruelty. As you know none of those things happened.
I too feel haunted by this. But I know that I am not going to shy away from doing the hard work of examining this event. I hope that I can continue to grow and learn about myself and about people, and be the best human I can be.
I hope for that for myself. I hope for that for men, and for women. I think it begins by looking inward, believing the solutions are sometimes found in the problems, and initiating dialogue.
*This article first appeared on Truthdig.com
Copyright Mark O’Connell, LCSW-R