What Happened to Men? A Reflection Inspired by the “#MeToo” Movement
by John Bell, November 2017
I want to personally apologize to all women for the sexual misconduct, harassment, violence, and abuse that my brothers all over the world have subjected you to since forever. Such behavior has caused so much suffering–immeasurable, unbearable, and mostly unvoiced.
The massive outpouring saying “#MeToo” is both heartbreaking in its sheer size and scope and encouraging in the bravery and solidarity it shows—11 million “me too’s” in the first 24 hours, and still pouring in. Commentators are rightly saying that we need to change the culture of male power, have more women bosses, enforce sexual harassment laws, elect more women to office. These and more are critically important.
I want to ask a different question. What happened to boys that they grew up to feel they need sex so badly that this behavior is pervasive? What happened to men that they support a $97 billion dollar porn industry that produces 13,000 porn films a year (compared to Hollywood’s 600 films), has 420 million porn webpages, and 68 million search engine requests for porn every day? (Pornland. G.Dines)
My brothers are hurting. I don’t say this to excuse male behavior, or to not hold them accountable, but to try to get at something underneath it, to address root causes which could prevent it. No one is born a rapist, a sexual abuser, or a porn addict; even the creepiest, sleaziest, and most dangerous of these men began as sweet little boys. Something had to happen to turn them into abusers.
Every person, from birth, has natural human needs for tenderness, respect, love, physical intimacy, safety, bonding, gentle touch, and belonging. In more than 50 years as a teacher, therapist, spiritual guide, and parent, I have rarely met a person who received enough of this natural caring. This is not to blame parents. No home is perfectly loving, calm, and secure. Our society does not yet provide the kind of support that many parents need to do the complex and challenging work of parenting well. So, depending on the home, children experience anything from occasional inattention to severe brutalization. According to trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, childhood trauma is the number one public health issue, thoroughly shaping future outcomes in school, physical and mental health, relationships, work, and life fulfillment. And it is mostly unhealed, treating the behaviors, which are given labels like “attention deficit disorder” or “oppositional defiance disorder” or “suicidal” or “clinically depressed”, instead of treating the underlying root cause—trauma. (The Body Keeps the Score. van der Kolk)
So for many men, the huge beckoning archway of healthy human need for closeness and love gradually gets bricked up, brick by hurtful brick, until the only opening available for all those real needs has been narrowed to a small keyhole called sex. Add extra testosterone, unrelenting sexual advertising and media images, and boyhood training to be aggressive to get what you want, and we can start to understand how sex for many men can become so fraught, so distorted, so unhealthy, so compulsive, so desperate.
My brothers are hurting. The strutting of male power, the images of violent masculinity, the glorification of the warrior starts in childhood training, and in parenting. In general, boys are taught not to cry, to never show fear, to shake it off, to keep a stiff upper lip, to suck it up. They are commonly shamed for being soft, or compassionate, or kindhearted. Furthermore, homophobia plays a huge role in male conditioning. When I was growing up as a boy in the 1950s, I got the message that the best thing for a young man to be was a U.S. Marine, and the worst thing you could be was a “homo.” Very few of us can be tough enough to be a Marine. And most of us, seeing what happened to gay men, never wanted to be targeted as gay, even if we were gay. (To be transparent, I am a heterosexual, white male in my 70s, currently middle class from a working poor background.)
Men are the products of patriarchy, of systematic training to be in charge, to hold all reins of power, to feel superior to women, to expect women to serve men in exchange for protection and security. The conditioning includes learning to not show feelings other than anger or toughness, to act fearlessly, and to be aggressive and even violent to get what you want. In relation to sex, men are often taught that “catcalls” are compliments, or that when a woman says “no,” it means she wants to be pursued.
As boys, we fought against this conditioning as best we could, but we were vulnerable as children. Eventually we surrendered. How many of us parents have watched our sweet toddler boys slowly lose their capacity to cry, or hide their tenderness to fit into the harsh teenage boy culture? On playgrounds, boys are typically competing in sports, showing off, fighting, or isolating themselves on the edges. Violent video games, heavily marketed to boys, have further contributed to boys learning to distance themselves from the impact of their actions.
So as men, most of us grow up being cut off from our feelings, from our true loving nature, from our natural compassion, from easy relationships with most other men. We feel isolated, competitive, insecure, lonely, and fake—though we can rarely admit it, and usually only in the safe embrace of a lover, if we’re lucky. And for many a man, showing their feelings to their woman partner is a “lose-lose” situation: if they don’t cry, they feel lonely and shut down; if they do cry, their woman partner may feel less secure because she’s been trained to feel she needs a “strong man.”
The reality is that men have a huge, lifelong reservoir of tears and fears to shed about all this trauma, but they suffer disapproval or shaming if they try to shed it, especially if they cry in public. There are some exceptions, of course, like winning a championship or seeing your house burn down or losing a loved one. But in general, if a man shows he is scared or publicly cries, he is considered unstable, unfit to be in charge, weak, and probably should be relieved from his position.
Enter sex. I have had men tell me in private that the only time they can feel their feelings and completely relax is after an orgasm with someone they trust and who welcomes them. And this usually lasts for only a few minutes. Furthermore, one-night stands and the “hookup culture” cannot relieve the feelings of loneliness but can create more suffering and isolation. True love by its nature, is relational, mutual, respectful, caring, holding the needs of one’s partner as equal as one’s own. Sex without love proves to be at best a few moments of sensual pleasure, but tends to reinforce the need for real connection that sex is a substitute for. Sexual harassment, sexual abuse, use of pornography are all false pathways that lead to more suffering and dissatisfaction.
Denied relational fulfillment of those natural human needs for love and affection and tenderness, men are easily manipulated by the sexualized culture to seek closeness through sex. For a certain percentage of men, it can become a compulsive acting out in the form of sexual harassment, violence, or abuse. Down through time, this has been extremely hurtful to women, and when the abuse has been made public, it has sometimes ruined the careers of many high profile powerful men across all sectors. But let us also be clear, although the recent revelations are about men in power, men of all socio-economic and racial backgrounds have perpetrated sexual harassment and abuse. It’s systemic.
My brothers are hurting. And hurt people hurt people. In addition to being cut off from our true nature, and distanced from our natural compassion and cooperativeness, it is also true that many men were abused as boys, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes sexually. When we have no opportunity to heal from abuse, we internalize it. It is a clinical truism that abusers were abused. Little boys, abused as boys, often grow up to take out those feelings on the women and children in their lives because they have the power. In this way, abuse can continue down the generations. (See “The Mask You Live In”, a powerful video documenting the ways boys are socialized to be men.)
To be fair, only a small percentage of men are sexual predators or abusers. Not all men who have been hurt hurt others. However, patriarchy is real and it exists despite the best efforts of individual men. It profoundly shapes the general gender role conditioning that affects us all.
In our commitment to address sexual abuse, hold perpetrators accountable, and clean up the misuse of male power, we should not turn our backs on men and leave their own trauma in place. Ending sexual harassment and abuse of women requires healing and preventing the hurts of men, as part of ending patriarchy. In a real way, men are also oppressed, not by women, but by the cultural and economic systems based on greed and individualism which teach men to be tough, competitive, aggressive, and capable of being cruel and even willing to kill fellow human beings, as in war. This is a distortion of men’s humanity. Sexual abuse is one result of this damage, and it is just the tip of the iceberg that includes sexualized advertising, pornography, promiscuity, unhealthy sex, and more.
May we unite in a very broad long term commitment to transform our society to one that embraces the full humanity of both men and women, and those who define their gender otherwise, and that eventually makes our current sexual suffering a distant historical memory.
John Bell is an ordained Buddhist teacher, former Vice President of YouthBuild USA, author, lifelong social justice activist, father of two grown children, a grandfather, and happily partnered with the same woman for 47 years. firstname.lastname@example.org