My mother was small, but not easily intimidated. I had seen her tell off leering men in forceful Puerto Rican Spanish. So if she was asking, it was because she was worried. I picked my scrawny self up and, burning with impotent rage, went to chaperone her home.
That’s a long way of saying that I’m not terribly surprised by what #MeToo has revealed. If you have a mother or a girlfriend or eyes, it’s hard not to be aware of the aggressive entitlement that many men feel toward women’s bodies.
Most men are not, I’d wager, serial harassers or rapists. But problematic male behavior seems widespread enough that it suggests our conception of masculinity is flawed. I have a beautiful young son now, and I wonder: How can I instill in him a code that prevents him from becoming a groper or harasser? How do I raise a man who will never be a rapist?
There are problem guys who are simply clueless — who misread cues and think that their victims enjoy what they’re doing. Presumably education can change them for the better. Worse are those who don’t care what their victims want or feel, or those who, because they’re the boss or just a bigger, scarier human being, coerce others and actually relish the coercion.
For these men, it is precisely the power imbalance that’s erotic. And to fix that, you have to change male sexuality. I think of this as eroticizing reciprocity, and it goes beyond enthusiastic consent. Men need to be aroused by the fact that women are aroused. They need to like the fact that women are into whatever they’re doing. (And of course the same rules apply to same-sex relationships.)
One impediment to this project is power itself. Plenty of research suggests that power has a corrosive effect on the psyche. In experiments, the powerful lose some ability to empathize with others. They’re more likely to behave inappropriately, and quicker to take candy from children. Powerful men also think that women are more attracted to them than they are.
Dacher Keltner, a researcher at U.C. Berkeley, calls this “the banality of Harvey Weinstein.” As a diagnosis, it indicts the system, implying that social structures corrupt the people inhabiting them. And it suggests that having more women in power could reduce men’s predatory behavior.
But it doesn’t explain why even men outside defined power structures — the catcaller on the street corner, for instance — feel like they have the right to impinge on women. They aren’t necessarily “deviants,” as Michael Kimmel, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University in New York, points out. They’re “overconforming” to common, if exaggerated, notions of masculinity. They’re doing a five-star rendition of what they think manhood requires.
That assessment is both comforting (all we have to do is change the definition of masculinity) and unnerving (masculinity requires that you do what?).
Two decades ago, the psychologist William Pollack wrote that boys start out sensitive but through a “shame-hardening process” — told to stop crying, to be a man — they learn to hide what they really feel. And if they don’t know or understand their own feelings, how can they care about anyone else’s?
This has become something of a cliché. And the truth is, there’s no single culture of boys, but many. In my memories of adolescence, beneath the constant ribbing and occasional pyromania, we had tremendous affection for one another. And we longed to connect with women with an intensity that was difficult to contemplate.
But what the critique gets right is that early on, we learn to wear masks. As a father, the most obvious way to address this is by example: Take off your mask. Don’t shame your son. Treat women well. From a list by the actress Nicole Stamp come more concrete recommendations: Don’t use gendered insults; don’t call her “sweetie”; and when other guys demean women, tell them to knock it off.
But just modeling a better man is not enough. You also have to talk to your sons (and daughters) about what a healthy relationship looks like. Sarah Edwards, an assistant professor of psychology at Minnesota State University, told me that discussing “gray zones” — times when explicit consent hasn’t been given — was important, because that’s often when assaults happen. Her research suggests that men may not even know they’ve done something wrong.
According to a survey of 3,000 18- to 25-year-olds by Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project, we are failing horribly at this task. Eighty-seven percent of the young women said they had been sexually harassed. And three-quarters of respondents said they’d never talked with their parents about how to avoid harassing others. Richard Weissbourd, who led the study, said this revealed a “dumbfounding abdication of responsibility.”
Little data exists on whether kids actually listen to what their parents say, he concedes, but if you don’t talk to your children, he argues, they’re left to absorb norms from, most likely, pornography. And what boys learn from porn is that men must dominate and that women like it that way — neither of which is necessarily true.
Lots of things impede us from having these talks: We’re embarrassed by sex; dads may even be ashamed by things they’ve done; moms may be triggered by recalling their own experiences. But we must get specific, Mr. Weissbourd says. Telling boys to respect women isn’t enough. Explain that catcalling isn’t all right; having sex with someone who’s drunk is not O.K.; women probably don’t enjoy having men ejaculate in their face, and so on.
His larger point is that many men’s need for self-aggrandizement, for confirmation about our prowess — what he called the “narcissism of male desire” — shows just how fragile the construct of manhood can be. He blames this on the shaming that goes into making men “manly.” It produces brittle people in constant need of shoring up.
It is surely little solace to the many women who have been harassed and worse, but men are also hurt by their concepts of masculinity. Rewiring male sexuality shouldn’t be seen as another attack on beleaguered men — the Trumpian interpretation — but as a step toward their own emancipation. As the educator Tony Porter says, “My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.”
We know what to tell boys not to do, but what about telling them what they should do?
Jackson Katz, the author of “The Macho Paradox,” offered one idea. He has his 16-year-old son read lots of young adult novels. The idea is to expose boys to a language for talking about feelings — to help make them “relationally and emotionally literate.”
Dr. Kimmel, from the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, also recommended encouraging boys to have cross-sex friendships. That’s one way they learn to see girls as people, not objects. It also helps to be able to talk with friends who are not undergoing the “hardening” process boys are subjected to.
Finally, we need to teach boys to handle rejection with grace. Tell them about the time the girl you were smitten with dumped you for that guitarist. Tell them about the woman in college who suddenly pulled away from your kiss.
Teach them that good men handle the hurt and confusion of being rebuffed without lashing out — that being a man is not about dominating and getting your way. And share with them the times you fell short of this and other standards, and how much you regretted it.
There is, of course, the argument that “boys will be boys” — that this warm-and-fuzzy stuff is nonsense because men are hard-wired to be aggressive and uncaring. There are clearly biological differences between men and women. We’re generally bigger and stronger. We have more testosterone, which arguably spurs aggression. Most murders are committed by men.
But whatever our urges, humans are moral beings. Our ability to modify our behavior is also what makes us human. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. We internalize these rules and adhere to them for the sake of social harmony. These norms change, because we change them.
In the big picture, what’s remarkable about human males compared with our great ape relatives isn’t our violent nature but the amount of time we spend helping with children and how well we cooperate with others. Some anthropologists argue that during the Paleolithic — the long stretch of time during which evolution shaped us roughly into what we are today — men and women probably had egalitarian relationships. Why? Because egalitarianism reduces conflict, permitting larger social networks, which in turn allow useful knowledge to arise and spread more efficiently.
In other words, humanity’s success may stem in part from the fact that men are more “feminine” than we care to admit. We just need to remember how to act that way.
Moises Velasquez-Manoff, the author of An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Disease, is a contributing opinion writer.