Men Will Be Men
One day in middle school, I was in detention. The room was surrounded by rows of isolated cubicles circling the room, with a large gap towards the center. I was seated at the last cube near the center. Even though we were nominally being punished for various transgressions, we still mostly sat and amused ourselves while the gym coach pretended to keep an eye on us.
Just to my right, in the open space, a girl was pacing back and forth. She was looking out the window, bored out of her mind. The boy to my left and I were laughing, making crude jokes, and generally not at all acting punished. He peeked his head over and dared me to try to touch her ass the next time she turned around.
It would be a hilarious joke. We giggled about it like a pair of, well, twelve-year-olds. I stretched my hand out, reaching, reaching —
Before I made any contact, she realized what I was up to, turned around and slapped my hand away. She told the coach that we were bothering her.
“Boys,” he said, not even bothering to lift his eyes up from his magazine, “don’t touch her.”
One day in high school, a regular member of my lunch table came in several minutes later than normal. He strode in confidently through the main doors, his face bright.
“What did you have for lunch?,” someone asked.
“Pussy,” he declared with a grin. The table erupted with laughter and congratulations. Several of us turned to look over behind him. His girlfriend was sneaking through a side door, hiding her face, deeply embarrassed.
My math teacher in my sophomore year of high school had a habit of making very close friends with girls in the class. He’d dote on them, offer them extra credit, and encourage them to sit up front. In every class he designated a personal “secretary”, usually a skinny blonde cheerleader, to pass out his papers, take attendance, and spend time with him after class helping grade papers.
So when he abruptly disappeared halfway through the school year, with no explanation given, everyone already knew: he must have gotten caught groping one of the students. Now he works as a girls’ tennis coach at the local Catholic high school.
When I was in college, my roommate pretty shortly had a girlfriend. They often spent time together in the cramped shared bedroom, so I often spent time in the lobby just to give them privacy.
“I dunno man,” he said to me one evening, after she’d left. “Do you think she’s hot enough for me? You think I could do better?”
Not even two weeks later, I was in the car with someone giving me a ride to band practice. He was on the phone with his girlfriend, so I sat and zoned out. But once the conversation ended he breathed a sigh of relief.
“That was close. I almost called her the name of my other girlfriend,” he said.
“You’re cheating on her?,” I asked, trying not to sound too judgmental. He was one of the very few people I knew with a car, I couldn’t afford to get on his bad side.
“She’s like three hours away, it doesn’t count. Different area codes,” as if it were the song. “Oh, but this conversation never leaves this car.”
I have known Brett Kavanaugh. The specifics are negotiable, but the pattern is always the same: young white men, convinced of their Greatness, their infallibility, their entitlement to the world, with their parents’ wealth acting as the ultimate golden pillow.
But it doesn’t even have to be the Bretts of the world. Some of the men in those anecdotes above were not white, were not young, were not wealthy. They were not necessarily acting entitled to the whole world; simply entitled to half its population in various ways.
Some were indeed predators, abusing women with any opportunity they could. But some merely looked the other way and allowed it to flourish without a care. Some boasted to the world of their conquests as if women were there for their own amusement and pleasure. Some simply viewed them as an accessory, a status symbol, something to manipulate and dispose of once its use is finished, and any harm that would cause just “wouldn’t count”.
I include my own 12-year-old self in this description, too. I can make no excuses for those actions or beliefs I had as an immature child. Even if I thought it was just a joke at the time. I can only view myself in the harsh light of hindsight and force myself to be better.
I have no doubt that Kavanaugh does not remember his interaction with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. His pleading fury is not cynically designed to make him look sympathetic, or to cover up transgressions. It’s the frustration of someone who truly, earnestly believes he has done nothing wrong, and feels the world crashing around him. Because for the first time, he is being held to account for his actions.
For Dr. Ford, the event in question as a searing memory, one that forever altered her life and would have consequences for decades. But for Brett Kavanaugh, it was just one night, among many, in the history of his life in which he drank too much, and thought it would be a really funny idea to try to hurt a woman. That’s all it was, he could insist. It was just a joke, no idea why she had to take it so seriously.
Indelible in the hippocampus is laughter. It was just a joke!
Humor can be a brilliant tool to inject humanity and levity into a cruel world. Laughter is the shared experience that can bring the world together. But it can be used as a weapon, too.
Those accustomed to weaponizing their privilege have a habit of making “jokes” like these. With the general fervor of popular culture in late 2018, I don’t even need to list an example; it’s already on the tip of your tongue. And you can see it every time there’s chafe about “political correctness” or about how people are just “too sensitive” these days, or that they can’t take a joke anymore.
Because these are not jokes. These are targeted missiles designed to dehumanize and brutalize others. To call it a “joke” was just their cover, the excuse to say or do something horrific and try to escape accountability for it.
Here’s another joke, pulled straight from Brett Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook: Renate Alumnus! Haha, how funny, to denigrate a woman by name. It’s just a joke! He didn’t mean any harm by it!
Brett Kavanaugh’s fraternity at Yale, Delta Kappa Epsilon, had an unofficial slogan for decades: “No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal!”
How many times, if anyone were to ever raise objections to this slogan, did Brett and his buddies fall back on the same old excuse? It’s just a joke!
Even if Brett Kavanaugh himself never actually raped anyone, how many times did he and his friends grin wildly, sharing their secret that No Means Yes and that Yes Means Anal? How many times did they gleefully recite it to each other? How many incoming pledges did they teach it to? How many times did they lay the groundwork to encourage each other that rape was okay?
How many of his friends, his classmates, his buddies were rapists? How many of them thought it would be funny to treat women the way they did — sneaking into their homes and stealing their underwear, or getting them drunk to take advantage of them? And how many times did Brett fervently cover for them, look the other way, and make excuses for them?
How often did he share in their stories, listen wide-eyed to their boasting and bragging, laughing heartily at the expense of the women in these stories? How many times did he drunkenly stumble into his frat house to find his friends and frat brothers taking advantage of women and then merely ignore it?
How many jokes did they make, or exaggerations, or outright lies, about any women they met, meant to both elevate their own status and insult the women? I can almost hear the laughter full force, reverberating through time, nearly 30 years later. It’s just a joke! Just locker room talk!
How many times did Brett Kavanaugh get drunk and use a woman’s body as his own personal punchline? And, in turn, how many of his friends, frat brothers, or colleagues made excuses for his behavior?
Kavanaugh went to an extraordinarily prestigious prep school and was well-connected into the stratosphere of privilege. His particular Yale chapter has, among its alumni, multiple former Presidents, politicians, and many vastly influential business and public figures. His current position on the 10th Circuit is already one of the highest, most elite professions possible in an elite field. This is supposed to be the best of them.
How many of them, too, believed that No Means Yes? Even if it was a “joke”?
Powerful men — just like predatory ones — or ones who simply only want to look the other way — or ones who boast about their own conquests while also shaming their partners — or ones who treat women as interchangeable, manipulable, or disposable — seek power over women as a way to affirm their manhood, to solidify their male bonding. This is what it means to them to be a man. That’s why they close ranks so easily when one of them is accused.
Brett Kavnaugh may not technically be a rapist. But the distinction almost doesn’t even matter: he participated in, and benefited from, rape culture. He aided and abetted in horrific acts. He knowingly palled around with abusers, harassers, and rapists. And instead of holding them to account, he gleefully joined in their laughter.
To confirm him to the Supreme Court would be a travesty for this reason, but also for any other reason. Caught up in all this we have forgotten his mysterious financial troubles, his corruption, his horrific and nakedly partisan views on civil rights of all kinds, and more. He would be unqualified for the Court even without these allegations.
Let me back up a bit. Yes, I am speaking in generalities, and throwing out cynical accusations with no evidence to prove it. But I have known Brett Kavanaugh. I have seen it with my own eyes. I have seen this behavior in purportedly chaste, respectful upper-middle-class church groups. I have seen this behavior in high school dropouts smoking weed behind schools, throwing out casually misogynistic insults to try to prove their worth. I have seen this behavior in communities who pride themselves on their education and intellect, yet after discussing Deleuze or Hegel they still take time to indulge in misogyny. I have seen this behavior, heard these “jokes”, from sports fans, and music fans, and comic book fans, and video game fans, and in groups of any men doing anything.
Anywhere men gather without accountability, this is how we act. It is not endemic to us, but it is something expected of us, by each other and by society. This is how we are, with or without alcohol, with or without wealth.
We have taught boys that, given enough wealth and entitlement, they are untouchable. That if they model these behaviors they will be rewarded. It is, of course, completely anathema to the other Ideals Of Morality And Masculinity we also simultaneously spout. But then, like so many other kinds of double standards about gender roles, it really was always designed to let men get away with whatever we want.
Deprogramming this toxic version of masculinity from ourselves may be the hardest, most difficult challenge facing men in the future. That includes war, that includes climate change, that includes looming futures we can’t yet even comprehend. Because until we are able to improve collectively, we will continue sabotaging and destroying everything else, even ourselves, even the Earth, to maintain our privileged social order.
And sure, of course, it is not all men. There are important nuances to be considered. The system does not elevate all men as a monolith. It focuses its efforts on wealthy white Christian straight men who are well-connected enough to attend prestigious universities and join social groups to collectively denigrate women with future world leaders.
There are many good men out there who feel unfairly judged, put under a microscope by the demands of the new era. There are many men who harbor guilt and fear, and hope merely to avoid any of their past skeletons coming out. And there are many men, who may be innocent, who worry that they may soon be targeted without any way to clear their names.
But this line of argument almost misses the point. It’s almost not even about bringing down individual abusers, but about dismantling the systemic structure that allows abusers to thrive. The argument against rape culture is that it can’t exist, because we have harsh legal punitive measures against rape, and everyone knows it’s wrong. But none of those matter when the system itself refuses to actually do anything, and when half the population just lets it slide.
While male entitlement and misogyny may be at its worst in these hyper-privileged men at the top of the social strata, this filters down to every single one of us. That’s what “privilege” means: not that we suddenly have had this perfect and carefree life, but that we benefit from advantages that others suffer from, merely from accidents of birth. And to confront and deconstruct that privilege is a base responsibility that every one of us has on the path to becoming a good person.
In this lens, none of us are truly innocent. Because how many of us have looked the other way? How many of us have refused to call out our friends when they do or say things we all know to be wrong?
The saying goes “boys will be boys”, to infantilize and make light of foul behavior. This phrase has been roundly criticized for justifying and excusing horrific acts under the umbrella of “playing” and “joking”. But there is truth to it: men will indeed be men, and they will keep being men until other men stop them from doing it.
The world is changing, and men need to catch up. It’s not just about left or right-wing policy, either. When Al Franken, stalwart Democratic hero, was revealed to have committed sexual assault under the pretense of “joking”, his career burned to the ground, as it should have. There is no excuse and never has been.
Because this isn’t confusing. The rules haven’t changed. It’s not even, really, a new era. There is no shifting of moral standards. We have always known this behavior is wrong, we just were enabled and allowed to continue with no accountability.
My advice: men, let’s get our shit together. Stop abusing women. Stop making excuses for those who do. Stop looking the other way and letting people get hurt. Let’s call out our friends, even if it’s hard, even if you know that it will make you unpopular.
It really doesn’t have to be much. Say it to their face: “Hey, don’t make jokes like that.” — “That’s inappropriate.” — “Leave her alone.”
Even the tiniest bit of resistance can leave men flustered, embarrassed, and upset — as they should be if they are harming someone. That’s why Brett threw such a fit at his hearing on Thursday. Because it is only when they are not being held accountable do they feel emboldened enough to commit these actions that they already feel guilty about. And if we don’t hold them accountable, we are complicit, too.
So if it won’t come from anywhere else, take accountability for your own self. Take accountability for your sphere of influence. Make your friends be better people, and expect your friends to make you a better person. You know, express the kind of moral fortitude that society pretends like it actually does teach men. It is literally the least we can do.