With all the revelations coming out about men who have mistreated women, I think it’s natural for me to take a little inventory of my own experiences. Fortunately, I can’t find much to regret in my own behavior, but it’s been sobering to think back on all the things I’ve witnessed and heard about. These things existed in my head, but as unconnected incidents. Now they seem like more of a pattern.
I recall three separate cases of rape involving both perpetrators and victims that went to my high school. One involved two young men and a young woman in an Atlantic City hotel room. Another happened in a car, and the third in a woman’s apartment bedroom. I learned of all three because they were widely discussed, but more so people could be wary of the rapists than for any other reason. No one was ever charged with anything, and I wasn’t a witness to any of the crimes so there wasn’t much for me to do but spread the news and shun the men.
There was a drunken party in high school where a half dozen boys or more went upstairs to have sex with a girl who was reportedly willing but in reality too inebriated to make any decisions. She had to live with the shame of that night, but I don’t think it caused the boys any lasting social problems.
I’ve known of grayer areas, too, where there was some dispute about consent the morning after, but memories were fuzzy from drink and nothing ever came of it.
And I knew a man in his mid-twenties who bragged that he had taken two 16-year-old girls back to their home after a concert, they were identical twins, and acted like he wanted a life achievement award for bedding them. We thought he was disgusting, and he was incredulous that we were not impressed.
Many years ago on my community blog Booman Tribune we had a mini-version of what is going on nationally right now. There had been a large exodus of women from Daily Kos to my site after the notorious Pie Fight. After a while, someone posted a diary about how she had been sexually abused and it opened the floodgates. Users gained courage from seeing others open up, and pretty soon there were dozens of diaries written by women about their own experiences of rape and molestation. Between these diarists and the women making comments in the threads, it became overwhelming. That was my lesson in how pervasive the problem is and has been. Almost every female user had some story to tell, most of them involving real trauma and serious criminal behavior.
I’m sure you’ve experienced the discomfort of discovering that someone you’ve known for a while has experienced some major tragedy or trauma in their life. This was like that but for an entire gender. It was eye-opening and sobering and depressing, and it evoked all kinds of emotions, some of which were contradictory. I wanted to protect friends who it was too late to protect. I wanted to know more, but I also wanted it to stop. I wanted to believe that there would be an end to it, but the end seemed like it would never come. I could see how therapeutic the exercise was for the people who had been keeping these experiences locked up, and I could see how educational it was for the men who were shocked to see the scope of it. Yet, it was so painful to experience that I wanted some relief from it. And then I felt and guilty for having those thoughts, knowing that my pain was fleeting and theirs would last forever.
So, I recognize a lot of reactions I’m seeing to the current national conversation about the treatment of women. I can tell who isn’t getting it, who is just starting to get it, who is just wishing it would stop, and who knew all along. And I understand the women who are incredulous that the men are incredulous…who are angry that the men are mourning the loss of a favorite actor or television series or politician instead of staying focused on what these men did.
Here’s what I can say having been through a version of this before. I can guarantee you that none of the men who were present for the discussion at Booman Tribune twelve years ago have forgotten it. And I am certain that virtually all of them came away from it more aware and as better people. Some of them probably took a while to stop fighting what they were learning, but they internalized it because they knew it was true.
Things are a little turned around in our present case. At Booman Tribune, we knew and trusted the victims, but we had no idea who the abusers were. It’s reversed now because we know Mark Halperin and Charlie Rose and Roy Moore but we don’t know their victims. It’s a different kind of feeling of loss, where instead of feeling pain for a friend you feel disappointment and disgust for someone you thought you knew and perhaps admired.
Hopefully, though, we can get to the same place in both instances. Men are getting an education. Some won’t ever get it or believe it, but many more will have their eyes opened and be better people for it. And women will benefit, too, by the empowerment that comes from solidarity and from the release that comes from divulging pent-up trauma, and from the men who now know and act more appropriately both with them and with their male colleagues.
So, it isn’t pleasant to learn about all the powerful and famous men who have been abusing women, but it has never been just powerful and famous men doing this. This cultural moment will eventually burn itself out and we’ll move on, but it won’t have been a futile or pointless effort. We’ll all gain from it.
As for me, when I look back at some of my experiences, there are at least some cases where I realize that I could have shown some leadership and maybe made a difference. I’ll make sure to teach those lessons to my son, and be better prepared myself if I confront similar situations in the future. I think if enough men do the same, it will make a real difference.