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What Is It 'Bout Men: Toward a More Nuanced Response to #MeToo

by Carol Cooper

I confess I have very complex and conflicted feelings about #MeToo's virtual movement.

Back in the post-Madonna 1990s I knew many avowed feminists who, as liberated women, demanded the right to use their bodies however they pleased, including to get the jobs they wanted. Because I believed sex should never be exchanged for favors in the workplace, such feminists often viewed me as a clueless prude. There will always be controversy about the possible impact of sexual attraction in, or on, the workplace. And despite all the other issues that have recently been discussed under that hashtag, workplace manipulation and social advantage is really what #MeToo seems to be about.

But here below, almost as an aside, I present my memories of four different moments where (presumably well-meaning) men have tried to warn me about the innate predatory nature of their gender. Two separate times I was warned while in college as an undergraduate. In private conversations supposedly about academic matters, first a dean of my college then shortly thereafter a humanities professor, (both black), told me I shouldn't be naive about my power and vulnerability as a walking sex object. Both said I should learn to use and manage that power. The humanities professor added the observation that "evil is real." (All this went right over my head as a teenager. I thought they had drifted into a bizarre digression, and were a bit ridiculous. Kept walking.)

Next came some advice I got from the male head of business affairs at my first big music industry job. We were pals, and the O.J. Simpson trial was about to begin. He was convinced from the beginning that OJ was guilty. I asked him why. "You have no idea what sex and jealousy can make men do. You should never underestimate the levels of mindless rage all men are capable of." (Still in my late 20s, I remained skeptical. Kept walking.)

Mere days ago, a male friend described watching another man consider forcing himself on a woman too drunk to defend herself. He synesthetically sensed the prospective offense before he even saw it. He said it was like watching a subliminal, animalistic transformation, something observable in the eyes and body language of the predatory male, something that he had been able to recognize in other men since he was twelve. He averred men recognize it in each other because it is something both latent and immanent in all men, all the time. He said the "predation button," whether gay or straight, is on in the male brain all day, every day. Women ignore this at their peril.

(This time the warning somehow made sense and I believed him. And felt compelled to address it in a public essay.)

I grew up around a mom and other adult women telling me that "men are dogs." It was just a succinct, epigrammatic attempt to make me cautious. "Men are different." Duh. Boys are made of "Snips and snails and puppy dog tails." The allegorical poetry of folk wisdom.

Any #MeToo narrative implying that women are naive, defenseless ingenues unaware of their animal status as prey, is disingenuous. We know. We've always known, and we fight routine predation where and when necessary. Another odd notion suggested by some of the more recent (and colorful) #MeToo testimonials is that women should always expect nonsexual behavior from male colleagues after post-midnight revelry in social situations or at a club where everyone has been drinking (and often drugging).

Even if common sense doesn't kick in, what woman's mother (brother or father!) has never warned her that nothing wholesome ever happens at a nightclub or a private meeting after midnight? If you are strong you can defy such presumed stereotypes, but stereotypes exist for a reason. So, tacit rules of behavior and engagement between single (or just adult) men and women have arisen to manage everyone's intentions and expectations. Women try not to be alone with men in private or even semiprivate situations unless they feel competent to accept or defend against a sexual proposition. Fear and coyness have nothing to do with it. It's about growing up.

Now, there is a difference between "pay for play" power abuse, and simple sexual predation. The current #MeToo call-outs tend to obscure that distinction. Telling someone they can't earn a living or practice their craft unless they sleep with you is a criminal act that should be punished. Rape by force is a criminal act. But just being a sloppy sex maniac (and/or a lousy lover) is a big annoyance, not a crime.

I can testify that women have secretly wanted to punish men who behave like creepy, disrespectful, cryptomolesters, for generations. (We have also been aware that the only reason most adult straight men even talk to a woman is because they want something from her.) But only now has the possibility of smacking serial creepers -- no matter their race or class -- out of power, or out of jobs and entire business communities, become possible.

Should people of all persuasions behave better towards each other? Sure. But perfect behavior is not human nature. We shouldn't overestimate our ability to regulate the sex drive (or how people feel and think) even via punitive legislation. Predatory self-interest will always emerge and proliferate somewhere.

The best results that could come out of the current public scandal-mongering are (1) more fully funded woman-owned businesses, and (2) more honesty and transparency about who the gentlemen moguls are, and who the creepy moguls are. Breaking silence is a good thing. Dialogue is good. If a girl can prove she lost a job because she wouldn't put-out, she should win a swift and hefty cash award, paid out as a penalty by the offending mogul. No need to drum the creep out of his business -- public humiliation will erode his power sufficiently over time.

Over the years I, and almost every woman I know, have survived unwanted attention and clumsy date-rapes. Gay people survive the same. I remember it wasn't fun, but I survived, learned, and moved on. No warrior learns how to defend him or herself without taking some painful falls and injuries. Self-defense is a skill all must learn, because reality can be a dangerous place. Sexual relations are complicated. Socioeconomic relations are complicated. It is often a disaster when these two spheres of activity collide. Perhaps what humans should work towards is a world in which sex and an individual's socioeconomic welfare don't overlap. (Yet this would, of course, implicate marriage and procreation too . . . )

Nevertheless, it is important, I think, that women don't lose sight of our personal agency and self-respect in all this blaming and shaming of the Big Bad Wolf. Where is the middle ground between protecting ourselves and begging society to protect us? Thus far I don't think we have completely thought through every possible result of too proudly shouldering the mantle of victimhood.

Published in: First of the Month, January 21, 2018