Things won’t change until each of us recognizes and understands the nature and extent of his own complicity in a culture of sexual misconduct. But such introspection is more difficult than it might seem.
Thirty years ago, I kissed a girl on the cheek without asking her consent, even though I was pretty sure she would not give it if I had asked. It was so long ago that I don’t remember why it seemed like a good thing to do at the time. I don’t recall the myriad of whims that triggered a conscious decision to violate her bodily autonomy, nor do I recall if or how I rationalized it afterwards. I remember only a schoolyard recess on a gray winter morning. A bunch of classmates were engaged in some kind of group activity. A game or something. At some point, I pretended to be pushed into this girl by another classmate, and when I got “pushed” into her, I kissed her on the cheek. I remember that, immediately afterward, I felt discouraged, not because she seemed indifferent to my kiss, but because her cheek was cold. I had a crush on her, so when all I felt as my lips met her cheek was frigid skin, I was disappointed. The banality of the kiss struck me as surprising and deflating. In addition, I found myself staving off a sting of conscience that hinted at having done something illicit. Sometime after, however, or maybe it was before (it was so long ago, I don’t recall the timeline), I nevertheless handed her a letter in which I said I wanted to have sex with her.
I was eight years old, and in the third grade.
I don’t remember much more about the experience, but I think this is more than enough. There is not much to say in my defense. It is true I was still years away from puberty, and I had little idea of what “sex” entailed, except that it vaguely implied an act that was physically intimate and private. I was, however, old enough to surmise that sex was some kind of “prize” I could brag about to other boys, despite knowing instinctively that the possibility of having sex with her was a pipe dream. I also understood that my actions warranted the shame I eventually felt when, one day not long after, the girl’s father, who was the coach of the CYO basketball team I played for, gingerly told me that he had read my letter and told me that what I had done was not right and advised me that I should behave better. I hung my head and said nothing. I had been caught and felt ashamed.
Did I feel shame because I was caught or because I felt genuine remorse?
I don’t know. I was eight. It was a long time ago. But my best guess as I write this is that it was a mixture of both. I remember that it didn’t feel good to know that her father had read a letter that was meant to be private, and that the contents of that private letter concerned matters that no father of an eight-year-old daughter to whom they were addressed wanted to read. But morality is fluid at that age; a solid core of principles and behavioral proclivities is still very much under construction, and at least as far as I recall, much more prone to influence by other kids than by adults. I cannot recall if I shared the contents of the letter with other boys, but I do think other boys would have admired my daring if I had. Not because “boys will by boys”, since I don’t know what that means. Yes, boys will be boys, but what does it mean to be a boy? If you ask me, the answer is blowin’ in the wind, as the Dylan song goes, which is to say, the answer is elusive, or at least perpetually up for debate.
All I could go on at the time was what I picked up from the culture in which I was immersed. I was in Catholic school, where a lot of parents sent their kids to properly inculcate them with biblical values, and presumably because they trusted the nuns to keep a stern eye on all matters of disciplinary interest. Call it old-school character development. Indeed, there was no dearth of moral principles being disseminated in a school where the fear of God was a regularly scheduled message, and there was not much laxity in their enforcement (though my infraction, as far as I can recall, seems to have escaped the attention of nuns that morning), though rulers on the wrist were outdated by then.
But did the messages get through?
Yes and no. Thirty years later, I no longer believe that God parted the Red Sea, but nonetheless I find the Bible a great source of moral insight. At the time though, I did have the fear of God in me. Yet it hung over me in a cloud of abstraction. It held much less sway for me than the far more vivid winds of egotism urging me to impress other boys with my “exploits”. I was far more compelled to sway with the ebbs and flows of capricious juvenile impulses than to hold fast the helm of a sturdy ship of moral principle swaying in a sea of temptation and trouble.
As an eight-year-old kid from a highly dysfunctional family, I had acquired a deep and resentful distrust of adults. I spent a lot of time as a latchkey kid in search of mischief. I was also wholly immersed in the mores of pre-pubescent boys in my neighborhood. These boys were often from families like my own: broken, or at least battered and distracted by the socioeconomic realities, psychological trials, and emotional hangovers that beset the poor and working class. I do not ignore the subtle ways that the malleable behavior of my peers was molded by the culture at large, defined or at least heavily shaped by obscure adults in Oz-like corporate skyscrapers who ran the patriarchal institutions that disseminated mass culture, which at the time was primarily movies and cable television. But I do discount the influence of media and mass culture by a factor that incorporates all the ways that boys in my neighborhood concocted their own provincial identities from the cultural ingredients of movies, sitcoms, comedies, and sports that they saw on TV, the biases of parents who molded them as infants, and the scruples (or lack thereof) of teachers, politicians, coaches, and other community leaders who served tenuously as role models.
Whatever those identities were, they were rooted organically in the streets where we played pick-up football, in the schoolyards where we played pick-up basketball, in the city parks where we got into fistfights, in the baseball fields where we played Little League, in the railroad tracks where we climbed abandoned freight cars like monkeys, in the tenements where we played video games and watched TV, and in the classrooms where we did our best to give the teacher hell. It was a world unto itself.
From that world emerged the fluid norms which early adolescence was inclined to emulate.
These norms reflected countless aspects of potential adolescent behavior, and we were largely making it up as we went along. We answered primarily to ourselves in terms of the questions we asked about matters or right and wrong. Of course, we knew that adults ultimately held the cards. They were the teachers who could discipline us. They were the parents who could punish us. They were the cops who roamed the city in patrol vehicles and knocked on our parents’ door if we got ourselves in too messy a fix. Institutional authority was not far from us, but it was also something we had not yet internalized, and in that sense, it was a million miles away. As far as we were concerned, adults deserved our suspicions and our resentments.
I suppose that’s why societies change over time.
Society does not stay put. Those in power cannot rest on their laurels through competent management of the institutional pillars on which society, and their power, rest. There is always restiveness in the roots of a new generation. The fountain of youth is one of the springs from which the future flows. Nonetheless, the tensions between old and new do not invariably reflect a simplistic division between the vices of obsolete cultural norms and the virtues of voices that cry for change, but sometimes also reflect a simple affair of misguided youth doing things they should not be doing, and it is up to adults to help kids find a moral compass.
This is more difficult than we let on. Each kid is a unique personality that responds in its own unique way to various incentives and disciplinary measures, and does so within the bubble of his own neighborhood culture. There is no magic elixir. When I felt shame after the girl’s father coached me on the appalling impropriety of my letter to his daughter, I appreciated that he did so delicately. He did not try to shame me. He did not reproach me. He did not get angry. He kept the conversation between us. He seemed to understand that he got his point across and could sense that I would respect his daughter. He was right. Why? I don’t know. The shame was there, but I don’t know how it got there. I am grateful it was there. But it terrifies me to realize I have no easy answer for how to cultivate an ability to feel shame which seems a prerequisite for remorse and reform.
I was eight. Boys at that age are, to put it mildly, impressionable.
I can say that I probably feared that the girl’s father might consult with my parents, and I had a healthy fear of my father when his ire was kindled. By extension, I can conjecture with a reasonable degree of confidence that other boys in the neighborhood may not have been as receptive to her father’s approach. These were more likely to be the boys who went to the local public school rather than the parochial Catholic school I attended, and more likely the ones who did not have a strong paternal (and/or maternal) presence in the home. Indeed, I’m no apologist for the mafia, but when the legendary former boss of the New England mob, Raymond Patriarca, once conceded that he strayed a bit after the death of his father, he remarked insightfully: “why do a lot of young fellows do a lot of things when they haven’t a father?”
But there are any number of other reasons why kids could go astray.
Household dynamics. Neighborhood dynamics. Behavioral dynamics. Institutional dynamics. Why does one kid go right, and another go wrong? How the story unfolds for each kid is exceedingly difficult to foresee. In my own case, I committed an act of clear sexual misconduct when I was eight years old, but when I reached puberty and then adulthood, I developed a timidity around women that prevented me from acting on any urges I may have had to catcall, insult, manipulate, harass, or pressure a woman to have sex. I don’t want to say I have never acted inappropriately to a woman. I cannot recall having done so, but I am reluctant to take the moral high ground. It is likely that my actions have not unfailingly paralleled the pieties of my intentions. Nevertheless, I am confident that I have always striven to abide by the principles of Kantian morality, and can claim that my intent has always been to respect women and treat them as ends-in-themselves rather than as instruments of my own selfish ends, even if my actions sometimes fell short of my intent. The Kantian moral law, the biblical version of which is to treat others as you would be treated yourself, has long exerted a profoundly strong pull on my conscience.
Why? Why did a boy who committed a clear act of sexual misconduct in grade school become a man who was exceedingly uncomfortable when he saw other men objectify, insult, or mistreat women? And what was the nature of that discomfort? Was I uncomfortable because I knew it was wrong? Or was I uncomfortable because I did little or nothing about it? Or was I uncomfortable because I assumed this was what men do and that I was too “cowardly” to do it myself? Was my discomfort ultimately grounded in Kantian ethics, or in impassivity, or in complicity?
Again, difficult to answer. Going back to grade school, one aspect of the neighborhood culture in which I was immersed, and which I grasped at a gut level, was that there was a pecking order which arose organically from the streets and schoolyards in which we played. The degree of osmosis between adults and kids did not concern me. On some level, I feared the disappointment and reproach of my parents, especially my father, should they ever learn of my faults or trespasses, and such fear did motivate me to keep my most wayward impulses in check. But it was the pecking order that most resonated with my adolescent consciousness. When I wrote a letter to a girl in my third-grade class conveying that I wanted to have sex with her, it wasn’t lust that compelled my pre-pubescent mind to write the letter. Rather, I thought sex was an act that would elevate me in the pecking order. To me, she was the prettiest girl in class, and I wanted to be the one to win her heart.
Presumably to a mature mind reading this, and certainly to the mature mind writing this, the notion of sex as a notch in the belt at eight years old is ridiculous, if not appalling. Yet it was there, even if I had not the remotest idea of what I was talking about when I talked about sex. How did the idea of sex as a notch in the belt find its way into the mind of an eight-year-old boy? I don’t know. But it was there, and it would remain there for years to come. I also know I was not alone in harboring it.
A few years later, in the schoolyard on the first day of seventh grade.
I heard a boy mutter to a group of boys he was with as a girl walked by, “I want to take her to bed with me.” I recall other boys not uttering a reproach, instead letting their eyes ogle on the girl. Some snickered. Some perhaps weighed the possibility of taking her to bed themselves. As for me, I recall being awed by the sheer brazenness, and inwardly nursing a sense of inferiority that I did not possess the same bravado. The pecking order was as real as ever, but I had more misgivings about my place in it. I was no longer in Catholic school. After moving several times since fourth grade, I had ended up in an inner-city middle school where anarchy trumped mischief as the most serious threat to authority, and the attacks of bullies could send you to the hospital rather than the nurse’s office. In that kind of combustible environment, where the possible eruption of violence lingered in virtually all interactions with peers, being a nice guy did not exactly elevate you in the pecking order, and competition for the attention of the opposite sex could involve brass knuckles, ambushes, and other acts of violence triggered by the jealousies of rivals.
Sex was no longer just a three-letter word that had an air of sportive mischief to it.
It was a heart-pounding lust that shook me and my peers to the core. In the third grade, it was abstract. In the seventh grade, it was visceral. What changed? Hormones. Yet in both cases, neither I nor my peers had any idea of the complex nature of intimacy it involved. What I did understand, however, were impressions that peers made on me. It did not occur to me that what my peer in the seventh grade said as a girl was passing his group of friends in the schoolyard was anything nefarious. Instead, it felt like a dare when he said it. In the first stages of puberty, sex was lust, and I felt my whole being shake when overcome with lustful temptations. I had no idea what sexual intimacy entailed. I only knew that I wanted it badly. But having no idea what it entailed, I looked for guidance not from adults. I looked to my peers, who spoke my lingo and who were most able to relate to my hormonal insecurities. For us, sexual lust was a seductively novel and incredibly powerful force raging in our insides. How to make sense of it? Some of it we would figure out for ourselves. Masturbation. Porn magazines. But most of all, sensitive conversations and insensitive raillery with each other, which inevitably reflected the complex dynamic between the timeless urges of biology and the cultural norms that were prevalent in the neighborhood bubbles in which we lived.
How that interplay between nature and nurture played out was different for different boys.
But that does not mean that general social mores did not arise from the medley of personalities extracted from a new generation of youngsters. So the question arises, what did the social mores of that specific milieu in the early 1990s portend for my life as an adult? Given those mores, what can be said about my subsequent life as an adult male in America with respect to matters of sexual conduct?
As powerful men fall by the day in the wake of allegations that they have engaged in sexual misconduct, I have been reflecting a great deal on my own life. Have I engaged in sexual misconduct? Have I sinned? I know I have been a victim of sexual harassment, but have I also been a perpetrator? These are hard questions to answer. One rarely sees his own flaws with perfect clarity and objectivity. Memory is selective and often betrays us. Denial is instinctive. Brain circuitry is too often wired to filter experience through the lens of self-serving narratives. The emotional baggage of self-interest clouds the reasoned perspective of disinterested inquiry. The light of truth is elusive in the dark shadows of our own opinions, especially our opinions of ourselves.
In my adult life, I never thought of myself as having harassed women or engaged in predatory behavior, and primarily for good reason. For example, in my professional life, I have avoided workplace relationships like the plague. That doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. But they were few, and they were brief and trivial. It was not because I feared the possibility of sexual harassment. Rather, I feared emotional entanglements in the workplace. Don’t shit where you eat, as the saying goes.
Still, I have found female colleagues attractive, and I have not entirely avoided brief workplace relationships. But I was always tentative about them, and nothing substantial ever came of them. I never feared being accused of sexual harassment. I was scared instead of drawing undue attention from colleagues by entering a consensual relationship, never mind engaging in inappropriate advances. I am glad I never tried to pressure female colleagues into unwanted relationships, especially considering how karma seems to have caught up with all the men who did. But I’m not patting myself on the back because I was too scared to do what I should not have been doing. Instead, my conscience is terrified of the possibility that I never acted on wanton impulses simply because I did not have the “courage” to do so.
I may have believed that it was wrong to catcall women, or to believe that no means yes, or to mistake harassment for persistence. But was it moral conviction that kept me safe from the propensities of “toxic masculinity”? Or was it lack of “courage” that originated in the insecurities of boy in an inner-city school who did not want to compete with rivals who might wait for you after school with brass knuckles or knives? Was it both? All I know is I feared something, and that I thought fear was a deficiency. Nevertheless, I recognize that such fear did reflect, among other things, a moral compass which, while under development, was developing nonetheless. What is the nature of this moral compass? Have I remained relatively pristine because I knew it was wrong, or simply because I lacked the courage to do what men could do when all the power was in their hands? Did I fear being caught by the watchdogs of society, or by the dictates of conscience?
Upon reflection, I can say it was both, and in my case, more a matter of conscience.
The fact is I habitually recoil at the sight of men who engage in bad behavior, men who don’t take no for an answer, men who insult women who turn them down, men who brag about their sexual exploits, men who tell stories about degrading women because they assume the stories are entertaining, men who catcall, men who, in short, mistreat women. In high school, and especially in college, I was drawn to the morality of Kant, most prominently the categorical imperative, as well as treating people, in this case women, as ends-in-themselves and not as instruments for my own selfish gain.
But I still have to confess that, on some level, these same men also made me feel inadequate. I often thought there was something wrong with me that I wasn’t more aggressive. I mistook aggressiveness for being proactive. I would look around and see men making all sorts of advances toward women. Many with success. Many without success. Many from innocuous motives. Others less so. But if I heard a catcall, I’d wonder, what is wrong with me that I think this is crude and offensive? Other men do it like it is normal. Why be the killjoy who chastises and lectures men for doing what all men do? What was wrong with me that I felt squeamish when harassment manifested?
In other words, I asked questions that betrayed my complicity in the culture of sexual harassment. For years, I have bemoaned the way that men treat women. Not all men are the same, but in general, in my experience, men serially rate, rank, and evaluate women according to their physical attributes and whether their personalities are amenable to male sensibilities. Too often I have gone along with it. Not always, and when things got out of hand, I stepped in. But I frequently excused such behavior, failing to appreciate how much strain it puts on women to fend off the insults of men they rebuke, the assumptions of men in power that pigeon-hole them, and the assaults on their self-confidence as they fought to reconcile their ambitions with the nature of opportunities available to them in a male-dominated society. Seeing myself as inadequate rather than morally upstanding,
I was not mature enough to appreciate that women welcome confidence but not aggression, and that a compliment is one thing, but insinuation another. Thus, I stewed in self-pity, and failed to register how I had become complicit in a culture of sexism and harassment. I looked up to the guys who never took no for an answer. I admired male promiscuity. I laughed at crude locker-room talk.
It wasn’t that I necessarily condoned it. It was just that I didn’t think I had a choice.
The mantra was, nice guys finish last. They were milquetoast. They were boring. They lacked charm. They acted like a freshman on his first date.
Somehow, I went from the eight-year-old boy who told a girl in Catholic school that he wanted to have sex with her, to a mature adult who lamented the arrogance of men who shamelessly propositioned women for sex, but nevertheless allowed the behavior of such men to make me feel inadequate. How? The short answer is that I matured. But if it were that easy, most men would do the same, and the culture of harassment would not be the epidemic it is. The reckoning each man must make with himself about his deeds and misdeeds in life is a long and arduous journey, complicated immensely by the nuanced ways he interacts with the local cultures in which fate has placed him, as well as the entrenched identity narratives he has cultivated for himself. If you ask me, introspection is the key contribution to a cultural debate about sexual harassment.
Unfortunately, honest moral introspection is one of the most difficult things we can ask of ourselves. But it is also one of the most important things we can do for ourselves, and for women. For the sake of the future, I recommend that men seriously ask themselves not what they have done right, but what have they done wrong, and trying to understand why it was wrong. Most men are not monsters. But that doesn’t mean we can escape complicity in the epidemic of sexual misconduct.
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