Something has been troubling me throughout the #MeToo movement’s ascendancy and I’m sure that I am not alone. That our modern society has a problem in relationships between the sexes is not in question. Neither is the fact that historically there has been a power imbalance that allowed bad men to harm women more easily and frequently than bad women could harm men. This isn’t only a question of social and economic mores but also deals with the reality that, in general, women are physically less strong than men and, of course, are the ones who get pregnant. Despite the attempts of ideologues to deny it, most of us also acknowledge a reality of psychological and, for want of a better word, soul differences between men and women that leave women more vulnerable.
The #MeToo movement has done a service by exposing the extent of despicable treatment towards women that many of us, male and female, were truly unaware of or dismissed as an unfortunate but unchangeable part of life. I am not speaking here of unquestionable breaches of the law such as putting knock-out drugs in a woman’s drink and then raping her. I’m also not speaking of complaints that are ludicrous like a woman claiming sexual harassment because a co-worker compliments her haircut. When we include those types of extreme instances in a general discussion we miss the opportunity to actually improve society.
What I would like to do today is to react to calls I’ve seen for men to behave respectfully. I am all in favor of respect. However, I do think that addressing men alone misses the complete story. Unless we want to advance the idea that women are helpless, incompetent and passive creatures, we need to demand an accounting on the distaff side as well.
One of the biggest mistakes we make is to view the #MeToo movement as a male/female issue. In my mind, there are and always have been moral men and women who treat each other well and there are and always have been immoral men and women who look to take advantage of members of the opposite sex. (Of course, history up to the present shows that interactions between people of the same gender are frequently less than upright, but that is not today’s prominent issue.) There are both men and women who respect themselves and those who do not.
Anyone who thinks that all men should be accountable for each other (being male, particularly a white male means you are privileged and as such deserving of being punished even if it is an injustice) or that all women are accountable for each other (we must believe all female victims) has to be willing to talk about enablers and manipulators (for the purpose of this Musing, I’m leaving aside liars).
A few months back, I heard an episode of NPR’s This American Life that featured a female reporter interviewing young men in Australia. It seems that it is considered a “game” there for a young man to run into a group of young women near the beach and slap one woman’s backside. The reporter was appalled and tried desperately to explain to a one of these men in particular what was wrong with his behavior.
When he said that the women didn’t object she pointed out that perhaps they were afraid to respond negatively. That was a good point. However, he countered that about 20% of the time, he ended up with a hook-up for that night and that more frequently than that he heard the “chosen” female boast about her attractiveness to her mates.
I have never been to Australia and don’t know the culture there. But this doesn’t seem to me to be a situation for which men bear sole responsibility. As long as there is a plus side that is delivered by a fair number of “victims,” the responsibility has to be shared. It is perfectly plausible to imagine a responsible male chastising this young man and being accused of being a prude by both the young man and a number of the girls in the vicinity. Perhaps the females sometimes saunter in certain locations to get exactly the response our callow youth is willing and eager to deliver? How is he to learn which women want to be treated like that and which do not?
Shortly after my husband and I were married, he was asked to deliver a speech to a group of women, (not obviously Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist or atheist) on Christmas Eve. Why one would ask a Rabbi to give a talk on Christmas is obvious if one is looking for an available religious leader. But why were these women available?
Their organization – and I kid you not – was composed of women having affairs with married men. They told my husband that Thanksgiving and Christmas were the hardest days of the year for them. Other days each woman might believe that her boyfriend was leaving his family; on holidays they knew that to be a lie. Now, exactly how many men would be having adulterous affairs if no woman allowed herself to get involved with a married man? If women truly cared about other women enough, adultery would just about disappear.
We navigate a complicated world. Women and men are both unique individuals as well as belonging to numerous groups, one of which is dictated by gender. Each behavior we choose affects others associated with us. This does not mean we should be interchangeable in the eyes of the law (in other words reprisal attacks) nor in other people’s eyes. But it is ludicrous to pretend that in our day and age men and men alone are responsible for women being mistreated, let alone when that word is not clearly defined.
It is not blaming the victim to suggest that if more women acted like ladies, the upside of being a gentleman would be greater. The responsibility for more respectful discourse and behavior between men and women falls on everyone. If close to 50 years after the debut of Ms. Magazine women feel so victimized, perhaps both genders need to rethink which “reforms” led to a better society and which took us in the opposite direction.