I was a shy teenager. I still had a full dose of male hormones, though. By the time I got to high school, I found the “opposite sex” painfully attractive. In 1966 at West High School in Salt Lake City–a more virginal time and place–I knew all the tricks for looking up skirts and down blouses and “copping a feel.”
Mind you, I wasn’t a bad kid. I was just dumb. If you want a Buddhist take, I was heedless. I had only a foggy notion of where my adolescent lust should leave off and another (female) human being’s dignity began.
Society didn’t give me much help figuring that out. Take Gone with the Wind as just one example. It was re-released my senior year in high school. Seven years dead, Clark Gable was still the manliest man around. Rhett Butler sleeps around, kisses Scarlett O’Hara against her will in one scene, and out-and-out rapes her in another. The message to me was clear: a real man takes what he wants because he knows that deep inside, she wants it, too. And she likes it.
My Mother and I had a cordial relationship. That made a difference. She would talk about being a single woman before and during World War II: the “octopus-armed” men on dates and the men who would “maul” her when she was waiting tables in a San Francisco restaurant. The implication was that I didn’t want to be like them. Clark Gable was still gorgeous, though. The whole male-female thing was, to say the least, complex.
I got married. I cared about my wife. My daughters made an even bigger difference. They also came into a world where women were beginning to speak their minds and assert their right to personal dignity. My daughters damned well had a right to their dignity, I decided.
I’m no better than any other man. I’ve learned, but it’s been slow going. I still make mistakes. I’m still learning. I find that it helps to listen to everyone–women included.
I’ve learned that complexities aside, women do have a right to their personal space and their personal dignity. Women, too, have a right to be assertive. Women have a right to be sex subjects, not just sex objects.
But society still packs a lot of baggage from the “real men take what they want–because they know that deep inside, she wants it, too” days.
That statement sums up the 1945 V-J Day photo of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square. In the romantic eye, he’s a “real man”–the victorious warrior, back from the conflict–taking what he wants. But you know what? That whole war started out with “real men” (in the eyes of their public): Hitler, Mussolini, the Japanese military; taking what they wanted. Where did it get us?
It’s all a myth. For all we know, that sailor spent the war shoveling shit at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. If body language means anything, we can see that a.) she doesn’t want it, too–and that b.) he knows she doesn’t want it.
But the myth is stronger than what our eyes tell us.
I’ve seen “rape culture” defined as “media images, social practices, and societal institutions [that] support and condone sexual abuse by normalizing, trivializing, and eroticizing male violence against women and blaming victims for their own abuse.” Sort of like Rhett Butler forcing Scarlett O’Hara to have sex–and she likes it? Sort of like the sailor in Times Square?
“Real men take what they want–because they know that, deep inside, she wants it too.” Things have changed–a little. We’re more aware–a little.
We need a different paradigm–or at least a different myth. Speaking as a 65-year-old man, I don’t think that will happen without acknowledging the myth we’re trying to replace–and acknowledging that it does need to be replaced.