I fully understand that this is a triggering subject. I do not raise this issue lightly, and I don’t do so without raising the ugly specter of my own history of traumatic abuse, which is as follows.
As far back as I can recall, I lived in fear of my own abuser. Other boys were often unpredictable and sometimes violent, but this one boy was intensely focused on me and me alone. His violent and unyielding presence in my life continued for over a decade.
Was this a boy in the neighborhood or a member of my own family? I choose not to say. But his presence in my young life meant I spent years carefully tracking his moods, his daily movements and where his attention was directed. This abuser/survivor relationship requires a huge amount of energy and comes at a high price, stripping victims of our sense of identity, agency and physical integrity, sometimes for the rest of our lives.
For a young boy to spend years tracking his abuser? I cannot know who I might have become were he not in my life. I can say this, the work that I do now is directly related to his actions. Understand, I made me who I am, in reaction to his brutality. I do not grant him power over who I have become, but he remains with me. And whenever I hear someone tell their story of abuse, I get ready for the backlash, both from the abuser they will publicly face, and inside my own gut, from my abuser, who remains with me, a physical presence, to this day.
Was it sexual assault? I can’t entirely say. Sexual assault, as we know, it is about abusive power. It is about breaking down the integrity of another’s emotional or physical autonomy. Intimate physical details of my abuser remain with me to this day. After fifty years, I still remember how he smells. I still remember the pressure of his body against me. I still remember his smile as he closed in over and over again. And most of all, whenever I stood up to him, I remember his rage.
The fact that my own safety was left up to me to manage from a terrible early age, tells us volumes about how boys are taught to become men in America. Be tough. Stand up for yourself. Man, up. Fight back. It puts the onus on the victim. The abuser is not really relevant. My own story is deeply informed by the man box culture we all are embedded in and as I watched events play out in the Kavanaugh hearing I saw several very clear markers that brought back my own experiences.
There is ample research which shows that our dominant man box culture of masculinity strips boys of their relational capacities including their capacity for social connection and by extension, empathy. It does so primarily by encouraging us to bully and police each other as proof of our manhood.
The first rule of the man box is that men don’t show their emotions. There are other narrow and damaging rules. Men are always leaders. Men are emotionally and physically tough. Men always have the last word. Men never show doubt or uncertainty. Men are heterosexual and sexually aggressive. Men don’t apologize. And so on. It is a recipe for shutting down human connection and replacing it with a brittle competition to rise up a pecking order of male dominance, the result of which is epidemic levels of social isolation, addiction, divorce, violence, depression and suicide for men.
In my article titled, Yes, Men Have Been Cheated I write:
In the moment we make the choice to teach our boys to hide their emotional expression, we commit to raising sons who focus, not on the back and forth of human relationships, but on performing a narrow and closely policed version of manhood based on the rules for being “a real man.” While the rules of the man box are highly effective in enforcing hierarchical, command and control structures, they suppress or eliminate boys’ capacities for connection, empathy, collaboration, innovation, co-designing across difference, and forming authentic relationships.
And there it is, the basic mechanism that underpins our male dominated culture of inequality. We force boys and men into a pecking order cycle of bullying to prove their manhood, and then we never stop making them prove it. As a result, they buy into bullying and abuse as central mechanisms for forming and expressing identity.
As I watched the process of the Kavanaugh hearings I saw many deeply familiar moments. Republican Senators intend to have what they want. To get it, they will take it from the rest of us. As voices in the Senate chambers said over and over, “There is credible evidence of sexual abuse. We need a fuller investigation,” the Republican Senators on the committee as well as Kavanaugh himself grew increasingly angry and reactive.
For abusers, the performance of rage is the card they always play, performed in the Senate chambers as indignation at what they would frame as an unfair process, but fueled by the same rage that I always saw in my abuser’s eyes, when I refused to lay down and take it.
The rage exhibited by members of the committee and by Kavanaugh himself is not about fairness. It is about having their authority, their place on the alpha male pecking order of the man box challenged. This performance of rage, resonates deeply with men who support Kavanaugh. For them, it is the confirmation of their hard earned man box right to dominate others, men beneath them, women, and minorities.
Though our culture will not permit a public admission of this, for these men, an accusation of sexual abuse, of rape, is not grounds for dismissal, it is confirmation of their status. It is proof of their power. It is the reason they are to be feared and respected.
The self-righteous performance of rage that we saw in the Kavanaugh hearings, should always be seen for what it is. As should the smirking, eye rolling and dismissal of others that often accompanies it. It is the marker of an abusive man or women who is feeling their authority challenged. In public, they are intent on silencing civil public discourses. In the privacy of bedrooms and more hidden places, they are signaling the physical attack that almost comes next.
After Lindsey Graham exploded angrily during the hearings, many voices affirmed his expression of rage as powerful leadership and fully justified. It should come as no surprise, that men like Graham use this tactic, or that many in our culture of manhood affirm it. This is directly attributed to a culture of manhood which trains us to respect the application of rage and violence as the final arbiters of the authority of American men. It is not.
Good, decent, empowered men are working to end man box culture, based on the following simple truths. Men do not want to be angry. Men do not want to be alone. Men are not naturally inclined toward the toxic confines of the man-box. If we were, it wouldn’t be killing us.
We at a crucial moment in American history. As the stakes get raised higher and higher, we must call out abusers and eliminate the blunt and bloody mechanisms by which they maintain power. It’s up to all of us to engage the battle against our man box culture of abusers and end their grip on power.
Because #MeToo and #TimesUp.
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Photo by: Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP