For those of you who do not pay attention to the news, today is the testimony before Congress of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, accuser of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Dr. Ford is accusing Kavanaugh of sexually assulting her at a party thirty-five years ago; Kavanaugh has denied those accusations.
The reactions to this scenario are very revealing. Setting aside whether or not you believe this should be disqualifying from serving on the Supreme Court, there are fundamentally three different reactions to this: those who believe Dr. Ford, those who believe Mr. Kavanaugh, and those who believe that even if Mr. Kavanaugh did what he was accused of, it is no big deal because, essentailly, “all boys do that.” The logic behind that last point is astounding. What is even more astounding are those, like Mr. Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge, that take it a step further and claim that “boys are supposed to do that.”
It is no doubt that we are in a period of reckoning, with women banding together and forcing repercussions on how men have treated them through the ages. Well-intentioned men, not wanting to be caught up in something they didn’t do, respond “not all men.” This response, while it might be true to a degree, is both insulting and incomplete. It is insulting to tell women that because they know that already – they know that there are decent men out there. But they also know that they are vastly outnumbered. It is incomplete because these types of behaviors are things that all men benefit from, whether they actively participate or not. Things like video games, advertisements, movies – they all feed into “male fantasy” that all men can partake in, regardless of whether or not they have ever directly done any of the things that women are accusing men of. As Mrs. Banks sings in Mary Poppins, “Though we adore [men] individually/We agree that as a group they’re rather stupid.” Thus, “not all men” is not a useful thing to say in response to women.
It is, however, something that can be said to other men. And so when Mr. Judge writes things like, “if that man is any kind of man, he’ll allow himself to feel the awesome power, the wonderful beauty, of uncontrollable male passion,” I can say to him, “not all men.”
I believe Dr. Ford’s accusations; admittedly, I have not reviewed the evidence, but little evidence has been provided. However, hers is the easier story to believe because our society encourages such behavior in men. It is, of course, men that set up that society, but there is a certain “social capital” in such behavior. Social capital can be redeemed in order to be part of the “in” crowd; to be “cool;” to be accepted by one’s peers. It is those actions that grant you acceptance into a group of people. We see examples of this in many of our stories in cultures across the globe; the “rite of passage” trope is about earning that social capital in order to spend it for entry in a group of people. Some of these are good, but others are not and are especially toxic.
It is true that there is a culture of “maleness” that values sexual conquests, and that “real men” must prove themselves in that area before they can gain admittance to this particular peer group. I’ve seen seen this personally – teenage boys in high school bragging about what has been done with whom. Slang terms confirm this: a boy is said to have “scored” with a girl, and girls deemed “easy” are not worth as much social capital. Men then see that gaining such capital as a necessity – they cannot progress in society without it – and then feel deprived when they can not acquire such “wealth.” They see getting a woman to fall in love (or at least go to bed) with them less and less as something that is optional and more and more as something that is a right. Movies and stories reinforce such notions. Somehow, the hero guys always end up with the girls, regardless of what they have done to them in the movie. National Treasure features a couple that fall in love after he steals the Declaration of Independence and kidnaps her. Even “nerds” are not immune to such depiction: Revenge of the Nerds features a couple getting together after he (a “nerd”) rapes her by pretending to be her boyfriend (rape by deception). It is to the point where stories that do not feature the lead male and female protagonists winding up as a couple are seen as “off” somehow. Even J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series of books, has apologized that Harry did not wind up in a relationship with Hermione. (As a side note, even though the book Basil Broketail and its subsequent series has many faults, it does depict such a non-pairing, and is one of the few works that I can point to that features such.)
Of course, even though Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge and even Donald Trump might not realize this, not all men feel this way. I, for one, had no desire to gain entry into such a peer group – in fact, being around such people tends to be very uncomfortable for me; they discuss topics and decisions that they made that I simply would not make. Yes, I was a “nerd,” but not in the Revenge of the Nerds style nerd; I was much more a Spock or Sherlock Holmes nerd, needing little or no outside validation. Telling me that I needed to “romance” a woman in order to gain social capital and be accepted as “one of the guys” is like telling me that I need 36 used peanut butter cup wrappers embossed with an image of James Joyce in order to purchase 4 tons of rocks from the Citarum River in Indonesia – it is a currency I don’t understand for a product I do not need which is probably toxic anyway.
Again, not all men, Mr.s Kavanaugh, Judge, and Trump.
I don’t have any solution to this problem. Such views permeate our culture: from the concept of the “friendzone” to the belief that “boys will be boys” to the believe that any friendship between a boy and a girl must lead to romance. I don’t have solutions, but I have suggestions. I would start by normalizing non-romantic-but-emotionally-connected friendships between boys and girls. I would normalize non-romantic-but-emotionally-connected friendships between boys and boys. I am a bit abnormal in my uncaring for social validation; I would not encourage people to be like me in that case, but I would encourage people to be more choosy in whose validations they seek. I would encourage more value be placed on arts and music, and less on sports. Why? Sports tend to be more segregated than arts and music – we know from the presidential campaign what “locker room” talk is. Note that I am not saying that we remove or outlaw sports – team bonding is important, and physical conditioning likewise. But an increased emphasis on arts and music in our schools is needed.
I don’t think that this is a problem that can be solved overnight. This is a problem that has developed over many years, and the rapid pace of technology has likewise seen a rapid increase in the pace of development of such views. I am also not saying that older generations were better – they had their own sets of problems and unhealthy attitudes regarding relationships. In particular, the notion that any friendship between a boy and a girl must be romantic is one that goes back many, many years. We might not be able to solve it overnight, but we can start the process. Our children or our children’s children might reap the rewards.