Content Warning: All the horrible bullshit men subject women to.
In botany, an evergreen is a plant that retains leaves year-round. In writing, it’s a piece that can be shared again and again because it remains relevant regardless of how much time has passed. Two of my most popular posts on this site are She Doesn’t Owe You Shit (evergreen), and a story about Harambe the gorilla, which was time sensitive and no one gives a shit about anymore.
Now, as I write this post, it is late September 2018. And it seems likely Brett Kavanaugh will be confirmed for the Supreme Court, despite there being multiple accusations of sexual assault against him and a lip-service FBI “investigation.” I’m writing this in part because of Kavanaugh, making it timely, but more so because rape culture is unfortunately an evergreen topic. I can share this again years from now and it will remain relevant.
Rape culture is not going anywhere, because most men don’t want to admit it exists. We don’t want it to exist, because if it does it means we’ve been complicit in perpetuating it. If you want to know what rape culture is, start with my previously linked She Doesn’t Owe You Shit piece, then follow it with this piece by Erica Smith. Another piece of mine you can read is titled “What Happened After She Said No.”
It’s about the insidious and ongoing objectification and abuse of women that normalizes the behavior in our society. It’s about blaming them for being stalked, assaulted, raped, or even killed. It’s so-called “locker room talk” and rape jokes and light (or nonexistent) sentences for perpetrators and catcalling and boys will be boys and a whole lot more. It’s a spectrum of behavior, from bad to egregious. Here’sa handy infographic of the hierarchy of rape culture.
Don’t #notallmen this. Don’t you fucking dare.
I don’t hate men. I am one, I like being one, and there are many men in my life who I like and a few I love. There are plenty of good men in this world. But rape culture exists because men exist. As I wrote in this piece: “To this day, boys are conditioned to see what they can get away with. We are taught to take. Girls are taught to give, to not make a fuss.”
“But women rape too—” Sit the fuck down. That’s not what’s under discussion here, so save your derailment and read up on the statistics of who is most likely to abuse who.
I have been complicit in perpetuating rape culture. I’m not talking about high school either, which someone disguising herself as a journalist wrote about in my local paper, saying #metoo is a witch hunt and that poor Kavanaugh is being “burned at the stake” because of something that happened long ago. So long that we should just let it slide, according to her.
And this is part of the reason why so many men wish to deny the existence of rape culture, because we all have skeletons. Some committed smaller transgressions, the ones at the bottom of the hierarchy; others are a Kavanaugh-sized set of bones. And there are also men who have a closet full of egregious deeds rattling at the door, and they fear a reckoning for all they’re worth. Denying rape culture, proclaiming a witch hunt; it’s a defense mechanism against being called out for their bad behavior.
Seen on Facebook: “Every mother of boys should be TERRIFIED that at ANY time ANY girl can fabricate ANY story, with no proof, & RUIN her boy’s life.” First off, false rape accusations are extraordinarily rare. Second, Christine Blasey Ford has nothing to gain from telling her story except harassment and death threats. Third, people need to learn the difference between a criminal trial and a fucking job interview.
Many men, and in some cases the women who love them, are freaking out right now. This is leading them to support Kavanaugh in the belief that if he’s guilty, any man can be. But there is little reason for them to fret. The majority of sexual assaults never get reported, let alone lead to a conviction. Unless you’re planning to run for a senior leadership position, the past will likely stay in the past. Even if it comes out, it probably won’t make a difference. Kavanaugh will probably get confirmed, just like Trump still became president despite all the allegations against him.
And this is why we need to understand that women are sick of being treated like men have ownership over their bodies, and not do that anymore. We need to admit that Brock Turner does deserve to suffer consequences for what he did, and that Kavanaugh should be denied such a powerful position for his egregious actions. And as I wrote last month, we shouldn’t be so ready to forgive people like Louis C.K. and Alan Aragon and let them return to the positions of power they abused without making any effort to redeem themselves. Alas, they are being welcomed back like next to nothing happened.
Speaking of Aragon …
I’ve seen rape culture unfold on Facebook over the last few weeks. With all this “why didn’t she report earlier? / there aren’t any witnesses / maybe she’s lying” bullshit, my friend Yvette was victimized by Alan, and there were witnesses. She reported immediately. She wasn’t lying.
And still, many rallied to Alan’s side, saying the most egregious things about Yvette. For weeks she has experienced online harassment. Recently, she made a post about what she’d been through. She’s upset both about Kavanaugh and the fact that Aragon is being welcomed back after blaming alcohol, blaming Yvette, and taking a short social media hiatus. If you want to see rape culture in action, read the comments on her post.
We need to teach our sons to do better, and we need to do better ourselves. We need to expose rape culture, protect women, and model good behavior.
I mentioned being complicit. As I wrote about here, I fucked up when I allowed myself to be duped by Alan into questioning the story of a woman he victimized.
I have also modeled bad behavior. I contributed to rape culture via the objectification of women just last year. In May of 2017 I wrote this vulgar, cringeworthy post about glancing at a woman’s breasts. There was backlash, and I got defensive. The next day, I “apologized,” but I fucked that up too.
It took me a week or so to realize the depth of it all. Yes, there were my defenders. Yes, some were women. No, it doesn’t make the post okay and it doesn’t make the apology adequate. But after a week or so I was more reflective, and considered writing more, but it seemed too late, so I figured I would just leave the posts there as a reminder to myself to not do that again, and move forward endeavoring to be better.
However, it recently came up again in an email conversation with a friend who I’d not communicated with in a while. She’d been an admirer of my writings supporting women, and was sorely disappointed in me over that post. This was my reply to her. Because of Kavanaugh, and Aragon, and especially because of all the women I let down, I’m now making my reply to her public with the hope that some men will learn about self-reflection, and how it can prompt them to do better.
This is what I wrote to her:
As for the breast ogling. Oof. I’ve been needing to get this off my chest. Excuse the pun.
I’ve had time to consider all that. You’re right that the apology was half-assed. I’ve been able to dissect what was going on in my head and how something so out of character ended up being written by me. Yes, it was intended as a joke. But you know when your gut tells you not to do something, and you do it anyway, and then you regret it? It makes you angry that you didn’t listen to that nagging feeling that was telling you no. Unfortunately, I didn’t direct that anger inward, but was initially annoyed at those who called me out. I believe this is known as “projecting.” It didn’t help that there were many who found the post humorous and were shouting support and telling me not to apologize (I actually got messages from a few women for up to a week later telling me I shouldn’t have apologized). That’s not to justify anything, because it was in very bad taste and definitely contributes to rape culture.
Anyway, yes, it was a shit apology because I was still mad at myself and hadn’t actually taken time to really reflect yet on why I was mad. So it was more of a “Fine. Whatever. My bad.” kind of thing.
Then, there was time to reflect, and did I ever feel shitty.
Two things became paramount to me. First, I’d been writing about stuff that was the exact opposite of that kind of messaging for three years. The previous year I’d written that viral “She Doesn’t Owe You Shit” post. And then, I wrote about ogling breasts. It wasn’t about damaging my reputation, it was about how I put myself in a position where I must hold myself to a higher standard. That one post had the power to undermine everything else I’ve worked hard to relay: important information I truly believe needs to be communicated to other men. And I put all of that into question by making one stupid post in an effort to be edgy, or some bullshit.
The other thing was, there was a real person associated with it. It wasn’t a completely made up story. I didn’t use her name in the post, but a couple of nights before making the post I had been out at the Fitness Summit and spent a fair bit of time talking to a woman who had been showing cleavage. I don’t ogle in real life, but I think everyone notices. I took that “noticing” and turned it into something creepy about a colleague, and that was really gross. And I should have known that she would be likely to end up reading it and knowing it was about her. And so I basically sexually harassed her with that post. And that was really fucking wrong. I am amazed she was willing to forgive me over it.
But the damage was done, and there was only one thing to do moving forward: never do it again.
I still carry the shame, and that’s a good thing because I believe it’s made me more aware of the responsibilities I’ve taken on in being a role model for how men can do better in their treatment of women, and let women know I am someone safe they can confide in. I don’t want them to ever question that I’m just another one of those guys.
I’ve not told anyone else this. I thought about writing it all down and publishing it, but the time was past, so it seemed like it would be more self-serving that anything else. But I wanted you to know, because I have so much respect for the work you do and I hoped that by telling you this you might understand that this event was far from something I considered being no big deal. It’s not just a stain on my character; it was something that hurt other people, and I don’t ever want to repeat it.
Where do we go from here?
Perhaps you have some skeletons you’re worried about being revealed. What are your options? The one option is to fight back against change. You can embrace this toxic culture of boys will be boys and locker room talk and blaming victims and “Don’t ruin a good man’s life.” You can call #metoo a witch hunt and say men can’t even talk to women anymore (even though #metoo only makes dating more difficult if you’re a rapist).
But if you do that, if you defend men like Brett Kavanaugh and Brock Turner and Alan Aragon and Louis C.K., it’s going to make people wonder what you have to hide. At the very least, it’s going to make the women in your life know they can’t trust you with talking about what has happened to them.
We all have moments in our past we’re not proud of. That doesn’t mean our past behavior need dictate our future. We can do better.
I will close by saying it is possible to take pride in being a man while acknowledging there are some serious problems present in traditional maleness to the ongoing detriment of women. The first step is to remove the blindfold of rape culture and cease denying its very real existence. Cease to be willfully ignorant. Don’t set it aside as “no big deal;” endeavor to learn more, to understand what makes up this culture and see examples of it in the behavior of others and in yourself.
And then work to bring an end to it. Don’t participate. Be a good role model. Be reflective and strive to do better. Don’t give blind support to men who engage in it, but do/say something to let them know it’s not acceptable.
Slow progress is being made in the battle against rape culture. Don’t get left behind.
James S. Fell, MBA, writes for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, AskMen, the Guardian, TIME Magazine and many other fine publications. His first bookwas published by Random House Canada in 2014. His next book, which is about life-changing moments, will be published in January 2019.