Just like everyone else, I’ve been surprised by the allegations against rich and powerful men and the ways they have sexually harassed and assaulted other people, the majority of whom have been women. I’m not surprised that it happens, but I’m surprised that some of them — like the ones on the left and in Hollywood — are being held accountable by losing jobs, having awards taken away, and making public apologies.
We all feigned shock at how awfully the men behaved on Mad Men. Like racism, homophobia, ableism, and everything else terrible we do, we wanted to pretend that things are so much better now and that those things happened in the past. We know better, and if this disaster of a government has shown us anything, it’s that oppression and discrimination are alive and well in the U.S.
What I’m about to say is not meant in any way to excuse the behavior of those men, of course. And it bothers me when people say the issue is not about sex. It is. Sex is the tool these men use. However, what they have done is not solely about sex. It’s also rooted in a need to hold power over their victims and humiliate them. Power and control is the outcome they desire. It’s ugly. It’s dirty. And it’s meant to make people feel ashamed.
There are some critical conversations we are not having about the root of this problem and what is currently happening in this reckoning. It feels good to see powerful, rich men pay for the terrible things they’ve done. However, if we don’t start addressing it as a cultural and social problem, we’ll feign shock and surprise again when it rears its ugly head down the road.
I’m concerned we are not differentiating between bad and inappropriate behavior on the one hand, and sexual harassment and assault on the other. By throwing everything into the same category, we risk minimizing the experiences of people who have been sexually harassed and assaulted. This does not mean we excuse bad behavior or stop holding people accountable for their actions. In fact, I think we have a unique opportunity to talk about what is acceptable behavior and what is not, and to focus on how we socialize young people around sex and sexuality.
I’ll start by owning my past bad behavior, particularly from when I was younger (and age is not an excuse, either). I’ve grabbed women’s breasts at gay clubs and bars because I thought that my gay card gave me a free pass. I have been aggressive with men, especially when under the influence of alcohol and drugs, in ways that I never would be while sober. I’m embarrassed and feel terrible about those behaviors. I’m sorry if I’ve ever made anyone feel uncomfortable or hurt them. I’ve even personally apologized to men when I knew that I was out of bounds — it’s amazing how far a personal apology can go. I work every day to be a better man and human being and to make the world better because of these things. We can all do better.
Who do so many people, particularly men, behave in inappropriate ways when they are trying to find a sexual partner, at a bar, online, at the grocery store, wherever? (And let’s stop looking for sex at the office. Just stop.) For many people, alcohol and drugs are the only way they can let go of those inhibitions enough to ask for sex. The problem is that when those inhibitions go, so do all the others. We no longer know when to stop or when a line has been crossed. And yes, we should all be held accountable for the things we do when we’re drunk or high.
We are also incredibly bad at handling rejection. Our reaction to embarrassment is anger and, sometimes, violence. We’ve all seen the reactions on hookup and dating apps from men when women reject them. Why are they so incapable of saying, “OK, sorry to bother you. Have a nice day.”?
We must start teaching young people how to negotiate relationships and sex, how to handle rejection, and how to handle their emotions. As grownups, we need to have more conversations about these things and seek out information about how to handle them. I imagine classes on flirting, asking for sex, and handling rejection could be quite popular. So I’ll work on getting those workshops developed and out there.
In the meantime: Guys, stop being dicks. When someone says no, move on. And let’s keep teaching boys and young men that when they use power, money, physical force, or any other method to force people to have sex with them, the punishment will be swift and fierce.