I don’t remember moments where friends of mine crossed the line and literally bragged about sexual assault. I don’t remember guys I grew up with dehumanizing women to the point of reducing them to their genitals, which they assumed could be forcefully taken.
What I do remember is being on a bus after a high school golf match when a teammate received a topless selfie from a girl at our school. She was regularly referred to as one of “the slutty girls” among my friends, including me — our vulgar shorthand for indicating that she was known to be easy.
We passed around his Motorola Razr, taking a glimpse at the picture, laughing and patting my teammate on the back — boys being boys, ogling a picture that had been sent in confidence.
There are many conversations like this throughout my life that are embarrassing to look back on. Times when I was playing a part to seem cooler to friends, or when I would make the mistake of thinking sexual promiscuity translated to elevated social status.
So when I listened to Donald Trump brag to Billy Bush about his attempts to sleep with a married woman in 2005, and his declaration that as a celebrity he can take women by force, I recognized his words as repugnant and what he described as criminal. I agree with the many men who have reassured women that these comments were way beyond what’s considered normal “locker-room talk.”
I don’t think many men like me were surprised at hearing the tape. I think it reminded us of moments we’re not proud of, and we felt an urge to separate ourselves from the violence of Trump’s remarks. But there’s an issue with drawing a line in the sand and leaving the conversation there: It allows us to avoid any role in addressing systemic sexism and rape culture.
One response in particular seemed to illustrate this.
Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, unleashed a series of tweets directed at women, aiming to clarify just how extreme Trump’s comments actually were.
“I imagine some of you hear this and think or fear that this is how men actually talk when women aren’t around,” he wrote in separate tweets. “I am 47 yrs old and I’ve never heard a man say anything like this.”
I understand — and even commend — what I see as Marshall’s motivation to state this. Marshall and the men who tweeted similar thoughts were attempting to be allies to women, oppose the violence in Trump’s words, and highlight the extreme nature of his persona. These men wanted to indicate just how severe the comments were, and to clarify that most men do not cross the same lines.
Like these men, I also found Trump’s words alarming. Like these men, I have never been in a situation in which my peers have used such violent phrases. But I also wasn’t all that surprised by his words, and I don’t think many men across the United States are surprised, either. I think that tape reminded many of us of moments we’re not proud of.
So for the past week, men have repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from the fallout of Trump’s words. Republicans called for him to drop out of the race, only to quietly re-endorse him this week; Hillary Clinton retweeted Jeb Bush’s condemnation of Trump — that no apology could excuse what he said.
Though undoubtedly well-intentioned, these were not effective acts of allyship. These men failed to look at the issue beyond their immediate experience. Their urge was to differentiate between “us,” the guys who never say anything too misogynistic and only do so in good fun, and “them,” the predators who cross the line.
In order to create a meaningful dialogue about rape culture, however, men must look at these issues as systemic rather than attempt to superficially determine a standard about what kinds of objectification are and aren’t harmless.
American men are socialized to behave a certain way, and Trump’s comments fall squarely in line with that take-what-you-want version of masculinity. American men are obsessed with sex and success and Trump is nothing if not an extreme version of American masculinity and capitalism. He’s proven just that through the overtly sexist, racist, and ableist comments he’s been making for 15 months straight. The reality is that there is a very direct connection between noncriminal banter and Trump’s brags about sexual assault. It doesn’t really matter whether you had a high school friend who took it as far as Trump did — if you’ve participated in a conversation that objectified women, you’re closer to (and likely more complicit in) this issue than you likely want to admit.
We won’t be able to have an effective conversation about sexual assault until men are honest about that connection.
Back in August, a friend of mine posed a question on Facebook: Why is it just women posting about Brock Turner, and why won’t my male friends talk about rape? Turner, a young man who raped a woman at Stanford, was released from jail after only three months. No men responded substantively to his question, including me. I didn’t know what to say. Of course incidents like the Turner case are awful, and of course plenty of men want to condemn them. The hard part is being honest about what we’re condemning; we want to define ourselves as different or better than men like Trump or Turner, and we want to avoid connecting ourselves to them.
But it’s not enough just to disapprove of Trump’s comments and say, “Most men don’t say this.” Men need to understand how our culture created Trump’s attitude toward women, and engage in challenging discussions about how we got there. We have to be honest about how our own actions might not have been as harmless as we hope. We have to teach our sons to know better at an earlier age.
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